In some ways, it felt like a formality. The United States men’s national soccer team had struggled throughout the Hex, the six-team round of games that determined which North and Central American countries would qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but they only needed a draw against Trinidad and Tobago and their place in Russia would be guaranteed. It felt like fate—a win against Trinidad and Tobago had sealed the USMNT’s spot in their first World Cup since 1950, Italy 1990, and they had qualified for every World Cup since. Plus, they had beaten the team in a record 6-0 win in their first encounter this qualification round.
Then, disaster struck. American fans around the country and abroad watched in horror as Trinidad and Tobago went up 1-0 off the back of an unfortunate Omar Gonzalez own goal, and 20 minutes later doubled the scoreline. Wunderkind Christian Pulisic pulled one back for the USMNT in the second half, but it wasn’t enough for them to be in charge of their own fate; when Panama sealed a win against Costa Rica a few minutes after the United States-Trinidad and Tobago game finished 2-1, they were off to their first World Cup and the United States were officially out of the tournament.
Although FIFA estimates that over 24 million people in the U.S. play soccer, the FIFA Women’s World Cup final set a new television ratings record with 25.4 million viewers, and the MLS is tallying ever-growing attendance numbers thanks to new teams with dedicated fanbases like Atlanta United and Minnesota United, there is no question that the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the World Cup is a blow to the popularity of the sport in the United States. In the days following the United States’ elimination, many speculated about how the exclusion would hinder the growth of soccer fandom in the States.
The good news? As the stats above indicate, soccer fandom in the U.S. today is much different than it was 30 years ago, and many soccer fans will still be eagerly tuning in to what may be their first World Cup experience that doesn’t feature the United States. With a number of other regulars like Italy and the Netherlands also out of contention, it’s a great year to watch the World Cup as a neutral, and an even better year to pick a plucky underdog and become their biggest fan for the duration of the tournament. Here are five teams for consideration:
Iceland were the darlings of Euro 2016; nearly 10% of the country’s population traveled to support their team in France where they won over fans around the world with their enthusiasm and their famous Viking war chant clap. Last year, they became the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup, and they’ll look to replicate their previous success, although a group including tournament favorites Argentina and highly-ranked Croatia won’t make it easy. Still, if they can notch results against Nigeria and pull off a shock victory or two like they did against England in the Euros, we may see them in the Round of 16 or beyond.
Known for their defensive prowess, Morocco have a solid history at the World Cup. They were the first African team to make it to the Round of 16, even winning their group in the 1986 tournament. However, this year’s event is the first time they have qualified since 1998. They are also bidding to host the 2026 World Cup (going up against a joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico), so they will want to impress on the world stage. Neutral supporters may be interested in the Atlas Lions due to their group, which includes former World Cup winners Spain and current Euro champions Portugal, setting the stage for the potential of some exciting upsets should they manage to go through.
It might be hard for American fans to fathom supporting Panama, the team that ostensibly took the USWNT’s spot in the tournament. But their road to the World Cup makes them an underdog story for the ages. Going into the final match day, they had never even been in one of the qualifying positions, and when Costa Rica went ahead, it looked like their World Cup dreams would once again end as expected. But and an equalizer and a late goal gave them their first World Cup qualification ever, and it’ll be interesting to see how they go. Plus, for USWNT fans looking to support a CONCACAF team, they have the added benefit of not being El Tri (Mexico).
The Socceroos (yes, really) were in the so-called “group of death” in the 2014 World Cup, facing up against three of the tournaments biggest heavyweights in Spain, Chile, and the Netherlands, and losing all three of their games. This time around, they are grouped with France, Peru, and Denmark. While they still don’t have an easy road to the Round of 16, this draw could mean some intense matches with attacking football on both sides. Like the USMNT, the Socceroos sometimes rely too much on aging legends rather than young talent, but with some fresh faces and a new manager, their potential success could inspire American fans.
For those who are thoroughly sick of the Messi vs. Ronaldo debate, there’s no shortage of other soccer superstars to watch this tournament, and none have burst onto the scene as dramatically as Egypt’s Mohamed Salah. From his 43-goal (and counting) season with Liverpool in the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League, to his decisive World Cup qualification goals that near-singlehandedly sent Egypt through, it’s no wonder why over a million Egyptians wrote in his name during Egypt’s recent presidential election. Salah and his team may not go far, but they are sure to be an exciting feature in the tournament.