The failure of the United States men's soccer team to quality for the 2018 World Cup barely registered a ripple in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.
After all, the Mother Lode is a microcosm of the national tropes that govern sports culture: more Americans care and pay attention to football, baseball or basketball.
But many members of the local youth soccer community watched the U.S. 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday night, discussed it with their peers and have even attempted to rationalize the elimination.
“We've talked this to death already,” said Bret Harte High School varsity soccer coach Joel Barnett, speaking of some of his friends who share a passion for the game. “We had these great memories of watching the World Cup so I'm super bummed on that level, but this has been coming for a long time.”
The general cultural ignorance of “futbol” is just one national soccer issue unfolding locally, he said.
“The problem with U.S. soccer is how we're training players. The problem is, except for the ex-soccer players that are coaching in small communities, it's good-hearted parents leading the teams.”
Throughout the world, soccer is the singular touchstone of national culture. Soccer is not only a sport, it’s a lifestyle.
During the 2010 World Cup, Barnett and his family were vacationing in Europe, staking out “huge jumbotron flat screens” on a beachfront strand of restaurants in Greece.
The game of the day was England vs. U.S.A, their first world cup match since 1950, and by the start of the match, the entire restaurant was filled with Union Jacks and British tourists. Barnett and his family were the only Americans, seated at the foot of the T.V. in front of the bar.
Soccer icon Clint Dempsey scored the game-tying goal in the 40’ minute, and Barnett hailed to the entire bar that the next round would be on him.
Not a single person took him up on the offer. That, in the world of soccer, would be an abject form of heresy.
Despite over a 1,000 youth players and over 100 teams registered in the Tuolumne County Youth Soccer organization, said TCYS Operations Director Josh Bailey, many players don’t seem to realize that an elimination in the World Cup qualifiers, before the start of the tournament, is a damning condemnation of the U.S. Soccer Federation as a whole.
“Honestly I don't think our youth are aware of how big the U.S. men's team is or how that event is, the World Cup. Maybe that is a contributing factor as to why we don't have that level of players out there,” he said.
Sonora resident James Evans, a TCYS coach and owner of Soccer Shots, a Bay Area based introductory soccer program, said the elimination was “devastating as the big picture” of national soccer.
He was going to attend the World Cup again this year with his son, he added, but now, “that’s off the table.”
“I think it's still sinking in that it only happens every four years,” he said. “My U-10 players knew and they said ‘we can make it next time.’ I said, next time you're going to be 13 at the earliest. You're going to be in high school.”
Evans, like Barnett, both attested to localized soccer education as a prescription for the woes of the U.S. men’s soccer team. Mother Lode players, they added, need access to the simple things that bring the game to life: a ball, gear, and importantly, fields.
Motivate your players to digest soccer in all capacities, they said, to watch games all the way through, and take what you learn and reproduce it on the field.
The “net spiritual effect on the local youth population, it doesn't even register,” Barnett said.
But as he’s always done with the Bret Harte High School varsity soccer team, Barnett said he will continue to watch and educate his players through professional games and their tactics and strategy.
“I ask them, ‘do you want to try real stuff?’” he said. “And now they can see it on any pro game they turn on.”
As long as those players who play keep their feet on the ball, Barnett added, men’s soccer might have some hope after all.