Team USA and The Power to Bridge a Divided Nation

The partisan fracturing of American politics is a topic of frequent debate and discussion. Politics is becoming increasingly personal, and antipathy between ideologies is on the rise. As activists and politicos work to solve this crisis in Washington and on Main Street, Americans may find inspiration in the oft maligned little brother of U.S. sports: the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team.

In America, athletic success on the international stage has become a reflection of our status as a global superpower. Our dialogue surrounding international sports tends to focus on winning the medal count at the Olympics.

We do not win everything, but viewed from afar, American dominance is obvious — so obvious that it has become assumed. When was the last time you watched U.S. athletes at the Olympics with that sense of nervousness and excitement that sets you on edge in the same way that watching your team play in the Super Bowl or World Series does?

The U.S. Men's National Soccer Team embodies the American spirit, and can be a great unifier in an otherwise divided nation.
Andy Smith
By comparison to this level of success, the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team is the oft maligned little brother, the black sheep of the American athletic family, its critics arguing, “Why bother even watching? They’re just going to lose.”

This criticism is not without some cause.

Between 1950 and 1990, the U.S. did not qualify for a single World Cup. In 1990, the first time we had qualified in 40 years, we lost all three games in the group stage. In 1994, we made it out of the group, but lost to Brazil immediately after. In 1998, we lost all three matches again. In 2006, we were once again eliminated in group play.

So as we enter the 2014 World Cup in the “Group of Death,” with a maligned legacy and an uber German coach who bluntly states that we will not win the World Cup, it is easy for American athletic purists to ignore the games once again.

But there is greatness in the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team — greatness that goes beyond simply winning. The U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team embodies the American spirit, and can be a great unifier in an otherwise divided nation.

To say we are a divided nation is to put it charitably. For years now, Americans have been at each other’s throats over every national issue we cross. “Partisanship” is as commonly used as “selfie” and “LOL.”

Worse, the divisions have become personal.

A recent Pew study highlighted the increasing antipathy between parties. Thirty-six percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats see the opposing party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.”

Worse still, we are living our lives differently as a result. More and more Americans are choosing to live within communities that share their political views, dividing ourselves geographically as we divide ourselves politically.

Even in all this division, the World Cup can be a unifying force.

In Belgium, where divisions between Flemings and Walloons runs deeper than the political divisions in America, the nation united in celebration after their opening victory over Algiers. Police officers even joined in on the celebration, chanting through their car megaphones.

In Chile, which is moving away from the history of dictator Augusto Pinochet, supporters swarmed the streets of Santiago after upsetting returning champion Spain. In Nigeria, fans still turn out to watch the games despite bombings that killed 14 and injured 26.

In nations with deeper divisions and greater violence, cheering for a World Cup team is a source of national unity that goes beyond the prospects of the nation’s team. None of these nations have ever won a World Cup, or even been runners-up, and none are favored to win this year.

But the spirit of these teams goes beyond winning and losing. They are a source of national pride — to compete on the world stage, when so many other nations fail to make the cut.

The U.S. lacks this sense of national pride in athletics on the international stage. Who doesn’t swell up with pride when the U.S. athletes walk out during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics? But during the competition, this reaction is not felt as strongly.

This competitive pride stems from the hard won fight. Our assumption of victory hamstrings us from the get-go.

We cannot source this same feeling from our national leagues either. Though the passion and competitive pride exists, it exists on a regional, and not national scale. And as we increasingly sort ourselves based on political views, then is it not possible that our regional teams will become reflections of the political ideologies of their fans?

We need a national team that can be a source of pride and unity for our increasingly divided nation. A team that reminds us of our most elemental bond: our national identity.

And it is in our team that our national identity is reflected. In the loud criticism over our German coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, his preference for foreign nationals and dual citizens, it is easily missed that we are a nation of immigrants, and it is not un-American for our national team to reflect that identity.

Though he was born German, raised German, played for Germany, and coached Germany, Klinsmann is thoroughly American. Marrying an Asian-American model, Klinsmann settled in the states after his playing career ended in 1998. As coach of the German national team, Klinsmann could not be convinced to leave the country, telecommuting whenever possible.

Klinsmann’s roster choices also reflect our national diversity. They are the children of a diverse body of immigrants and U.S. servicemen raised everywhere. From rural Nacogdoches, Texas, to urban Attleboro, Massachusetts, this roster represents an America untainted by political division.

Yet it is not just in its diversity that our team represents our national identity. There are certain values that, while not uniquely American, are embraced by all and valued above others.

We love the underdog. We value tenacity and work ethic. We savor situations and we love our heroes. The perfect drive down the field for a touchdown with two minutes left on the clock. The cathartic swish of the net as a three-pointer is drilled right before the buzzer. In Michael Jordan’s flue-ridden NBA finals, or Kurt Schilling and his bloody sock, we find the tenacious desire to win, to overcome all odds. We find our heroes.

In just one game against Ghana, the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team has provided all of this.

An early, aggressive, beautiful goal raises the hopes of millions of Americans. A tenacious, defiant defense by Jermaine Jones against a relentless attack. Clint Dempsey, kicked in the face, breaking his nose, stays in the game despite being unable to breathe and coughing up blood. And a substitute connecting to another substitute no one has ever heard of to win the game with four minutes left.

I do not believe that anyone who watched the game against Ghana could say that this team does not exemplify the values we believe make America great. An appropriately titled article states, America won an ugly game, but we won it the American way. And it was in our national reaction to this victory that we saw exactly what our national team can mean to us as a nation. You only have to watch this video to see.

We live in a divided nation. If “selfie” was the word of the year, then “partisanship” may well be the word of the decade. Sports will not solve this alone. We need reforms to our system, inspired leadership, and a voting populace ready to take action. But it helps to start somewhere, and in the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team, we have our start.

Detractors will say it is pointless. They will point to our past. They will point to the “Group of Death.” They will even use the words of our own head coach against us. But it is exactly because of our flawed soccer history and the challenges we face that our national team can be a source of pride.

When no one expects you to go anywhere, and when every European scoffs at just the thought of U.S. “soccer,” (imagine a disdainful French accent) every victory is savored — a chance to pull off the impossible and put all dissenters in their place.

Now, more than ever, we need a source of national pride, to remind us of our common values, and our common identity. We often find these values in sports, but rarely to we experience them collectively on a national level.

In the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team, we have the opportunity to experience exactly that. Even if we do not survive the Group of Death, international soccer and the World Cup means something to Americans now. That is why record numbers of Americans tuned in to watch U.S. v. Ghana, and that is why U.S. fans bought more tickets to the games than any other nationality outside of Brazil.

The World Cup is giving Americans a unique opportunity. For a brief period, we can set aside our deep political divisions and participate in something that is truly national, savor the inevitable heroics, and experience a unity founded in our national identity, and embodied by our national team.