Despite playing for MLS side LA Galaxy, Landon Donovan remains our nation's best player, a testament to the league. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
At this point in this series you've probably gathered that I've been building up to our own national team and how they are meshed into the league and the Timbers as a club. Make no mistake, MLS plays a vital role in developing and nurturing some of our finest national players today. As the Timbers head into MLS, they'll be at the forefront of developing the next wave of Nats (national team members).
So with that said, I'd like to start off with a bit of history. I'm not going to go too far back as prior to 1990 the history no longer really applies to who we are as a club today.
The History of the Nats
I said I wasn't going to go too far back from 1990, but it's still important tin merely establishing a base so you can understand just how far we've come in the last 20 years. Just for reference prior to 1990, our national team was abysmal as far back as 1930.
If you were at all watching the World Cup this past summer you no doubt heard, time and time and time again that the US Men's National Team (USMNT) created a startling upset against England in the 1950 World Cup. It was a great victory over a world soccer power, but it was also a huge fluke. After that "victory" our national team wouldn't see another World Cup until 1990.
You also might be wondering why the now defunct NASL didn't foster any quality players during the 70s and 80s to help with our national team during those periods, much in the same way that the MLS fosters our current players today. Well, the short story is that the NASL teams were basically off-season English players. Few American players were ever even on the roster of most NASL teams and even fewer ever got any time on the field.
1990 - present
1990 is what many consider to be the rebirth of American soccer. 1990 was the first time in over 40 years that our national team had made the World Cup. Additionally, just a year prior in 1989, FIFA had granted the US the rights to host the 1994 World Cup, essentially giving us two World Cups with which to test our mettle.
While our first World Cup in 1990 went on to be a pretty miserable experience, having lost all three initial rounds of the World Cup group stage, the 1994 World Cup painted a much different picture, one where we'd win two of our group stage games and continue on to the knock-out rounds where Brazil would narrowly beat us 1 - 0.
Overwhelmingly, the 1994 World Cup is the stand out achievement in United States soccer history and is largely the reason why we have such a seemingly solid foundation today. Our impressive wins at the World Cup show the world that we weren't completely incapable anymore. At the same time, the record attendances for games showed that there was definitely a viable interest in the sport here (it's still the highest attended World Cup). Finally, the 1994 World Cup paved the way for the birth of MLS, as it was a stipulation for acquiring the World Cup in the first place.
From 1994, the US would head to a dismal 1998 World Cup followed by an impressive 2002 World Cup where we reached the quarter finals with a surprising win over Portugal 3-2. 2006 would be another World Cup where our national team would fail to live up to expectations, unfortunately.
Finally, 2009 is when I believe that our national team became a real power in the soccer world. During the 2009 Confederations Cup our team secured the first qualification for the 2010 World Cup in our conference, we beat Spain (the 2010 World Cup winners) in the Confederation Cup semi-finals 2 - 0 and went on to give Brazil a black eye in the first half of the Confederation Cup finals before finally falling 2 - 3. Above all else, I feel like 2009 truly showed the world that even though Spain and Brazil might have better teams than us, that doesn't mean we can be an easy team to beat. We gave both world soccer powerhouses a tremendous show of effort that really left a mark on each team and the world.
Finally, we come to 2010, the year of the most recent World Cup. The 2010 World Cup was mostly a positive step forward for our organization, despite what some may think and say about it in hindsight. For the first time since 1930 we won our group ahead of group favorites England. We also showed extreme determination against Slovenia when we came back two goals down to tie the game. Our win against Algeria sealed the deal and paved the way fpr us to meet our up and coming national rivals Ghana.
While the round of 16 knock-out stage against Ghana would prove to be our last stop in the 2010 World Cup, our team's ability to keep on fighting to the last second proved that we have the determination to make it even higher in 2014.
The Major Tournaments
When going over the brief history I decided to omit specific tournaments simply because I didn't want to spend too much time going over every tournament win we ever had. However, suffice it to say, the World Cup is not the only tournament we've ever competed in nor is it the only place we've found success as a national team.
CONCACAF Gold Cup
Remember that word from our previous entry into the series? Well it's back, only this time it has nothing to do with our club or league, but rather with the national team. Every other odd year (2009, 2011, 2013, etc.) CONCACAF holds a conference wide tournament for the region. This means that we will play against our own local rivals (Mexico, Canada) instead of against the world as we do in the World Cup.
Since 1991, the USMNT has won the tournament four times and been runner-up three other times. So out of 10 possible conference cups we've been a consistent power in seven of them, which is a better average that our arch rivals Mexico who has won the tournament 5 times but only been runner up once.
It's also through this tournament that our rival with Mexico has really blossomed, so to say.
The 2011 Gold Cup is set to begin this June with the US playing as host to the event, as usual. If you're at all interested in the USMNT this would be your chance to see them in competitive play, although, sadly, PGE is not going to be playing host to any games.
The Summer Olympics
As you might have guessed, the Summer Olympics is the next largest event to showcase our national team. Unfortunately, we've never done well here. In 14 appearances at the Summer Olympics for soccer (more so than any other nation except Italy) we only managed two medals, a bronze and a silver in the 1904 Summer Olympics. It gets worse too, there were only three teams competing that year making us the default bronze and silver winners. And yes, before you ask, we did field two teams... ugh, not a bright spot in USMNT history.
That said, I wouldn't go relying on the Olympics to be a show of how good our national team is. Typically, unless it's for a major tournament or the World Cup, our national team doesn't call up our best players. The 2008 Summer Olympics was no different.
The World Cup
Finally, we have the World Cup, the epitome of soccer as a sport. While some may argue the quality of play isn't as high as say the UEFA Champions League, most do not doubt it as being the premiere event for the sport. Everybody looks forward to the World Cup. Players look forwarding to making their national team. Fans look forward to seeing how their best match up against the world's best. And FIFA looks forward to raking in billions of dollars from ad and marketing deals around the globe. The World Cup is the largest sporting even on our planet, nothing else comes even close, not even the Super Bowl.
I've already gone over much of our own national team's personal history with the event so this entry will mainly be used to describe the event itself.
Basically, the World Cup occurs once every four years in the summer, in a 32-team format that consists of a tournament styled knock-out stages as well as the beginning group stages.
Upon the World Cup's start, 32 teams are divided into 8 groups of four teams. From there each team within the group will play each other team once. The two team's with the highest points in the group stages will move on to the round of 16 knock-out stages whereby each team will be paired with another team and left to duke it out in a bracket styled tournament. Eventually a final is held and a winner declared for the next four years.
Where the Timbers Come In
At this point you're probably wondering how the the Timbers factor in all of this. I briefly explained it above, but naturally I would like to go in a little more detail on why this is important to not only the national soccer team, but also our own club.
The Timbers are ascending to the top tier of the American soccer pyramid beginning this year. As I stated above, MLS is primarily responsible for creating some of our best players today. While Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Stuart Holden, etc might be renowned EPL players today they all got their start in MLS. The same can be said for almost every national team member today. Our best player, Landon Donovan, is in fact an MLS player still, to this date.
While we can't currently count any of our current number as being part of the national team, the ultimate goal for most players is to play for their country. As a top American club, the Timbers will be seen as a valuable outlet for players to make it to that next level.
I hope this article has served as an important guide to getting you into the national soccer scene. There's really a lot of history here, far more than I could ever write in a single article. As such there are some things missing from this piece, be it intentional or accidental. If you feel I missed anything feel free to sound off in the comments.