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The U.S. World Cup Team Is Notably Diverse, but the Pipeline Needs Help

You may well have never heard of him, but Desmond Armstrong is a pioneer. In 1990, he became the first African American to represent the United States in a World Cup game.

Never mind that the United States, then returning to the World Cup after a four-decade hiatus, was humbled by Czechoslovakia in a 5-1 loss. By starting as a defender for the Americans that June day in Italy, Armstrong signaled that his home country could produce elite players who weren’t white.

Sadly, with a few exceptions, his trailblazing role did not get much attention in the press that day. Nor did it in the run-up to the tournament, or when the American team played Italy to a near draw in group stage play days later. Another talented Black player, Jimmy Banks, also broke ground on the 1990 U.S. team, subbing in for his initial action during the game against the Czechs. Banks’s part as a breaker of norms was similarly overlooked.

Color Armstrong unsurprised.

“The disregard was commonplace from the media back then,” Armstrong told me this week when we discussed the omissions. He is 58 now, still fit and trim, and running a grass roots youth soccer club in Nashville.

“It was sort of like, Jimmy and I are on the team, but aside from the team making history since the U.S. hadn’t been in the Cup in 40 years, we are also making history,” he said. “It’s just that what we were doing was something that didn’t go acknowledged by many people.”

“We were recognized as a footnote, if at all.”

Armstrong, right, vying for the ball during the FIFA World Cup match between Italy and the United States in 1990.Credit…Chris Smith/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Armstrong and Banks, who died in 2019 after battling pancreatic cancer, deserve our acknowledgment, respect and appreciation.

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

Thirty-two years ago, they helped pave the way for the current U.S. men’s national team, set to play the Netherlands in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday after surviving the tournament’s group stage by the barest of margins.

The U.S. team looks much different now, owing to several factors. The rise of soccer as a mainstay on the professional sports landscape. The allure of nonwhite stars such as Armstrong, Banks and the smattering of players who followed on successive national teams. The shift by a portion of the African American population to the sports-rich suburbs.

The current 26-man roster has more players of color than any in U.S. World Cup history. It includes several with Latino heritage and nearly a dozen Black players.

Among this group is Tyler Adams, the first African American to be the sole captain of a U.S. men’s team for an entire World Cup. Aside from his staunch play on the field, Adams recently distinguished himself for his grace under pressure during a news conference in Qatar in which an Iranian reporter pressed him about racism in America.

After politely apologizing for pronouncing “Iran” incorrectly, Adams noted that “there’s discrimination everywhere you go.”

“One thing that I’ve learned, especially from living abroad in the past years, and having to fit in in different cultures, is that in the U.S., we’re continuing to make progress every single day.”

Armstrong, took in that reply with deep gratification.

“I’m definitely proud of this team,” he said. “And proud of my part in the change. But beyond that, I’m just so happy for those guys and the spectrum of representation.”

He reminded me of the racist taunts he faced from European fans in games ahead of the 1990 World Cup, and the withering insults from opponents. He spoke of the loneliness he sometimes felt, and the constant pressure to prove he was the equal of the white players.

“This year’s team,” he said, “it’s not just one dude that has to be everybody’s Black man.”

Members of the U.S. men’s national team warmed up on Friday in Qatar. The roster is the most diverse in the team’s history. Credit…Ibraheem Al Omari/Reuters

There’s much to celebrate now. And yet, as Armstrong and anyone else who cares about American soccer and its long-term viability knows, the current team also obscures a bitter truth.

Beyond the elite of the elite, a lot has stayed the same. “Everyone knows access is a problem and soccer is largely viewed as a rich white kid sport,” said no less than the U.S. Soccer president, Cindy Cone, at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit in May. “I am not going to rest until every kid who wants to play our game has not only the access to our game but the opportunity to succeed.”

As with other sports seeking to widen the demographic and talent pool of young players — tennis and baseball, for example — this is an issue that is partly economic and partly about how hard it is to blast away entrenched stereotypes held by people of all races about who can thrive at what sports.

In a country where institutional racism and segregation have made gaining wealth a sometimes-insurmountable hurdle for most Black and brown families, cost is keeping soccer from fulfilling its true promise. The Aspen Institute recently found that the price of a typical youth soccer season hovered around $1,188 — more than the sum required of families by baseball and basketball. Football, less reliant on travel teams, costs about half as much.

No wonder soccer’s participation rate among young people is stuck in a grinding cycle of bumps and dips that keep the game from gaining traction. For children aged 6 to 12, participation in outdoor soccer stood at 10.4 percent in 2009, dipped to 7.4 percent in 2018, rose the following year, and dropped to 6.2 percent during 2020, according to the Aspen Institute.

Ask Armstrong about this, and he is unsparing. He has spent much of the last decade in Nashville, trying to get children there to play a game that has become entrenched in suburbia, and focusing as much attention as he can on steering young people of color to the game and raising them through the ranks.

His HeroesSoccer Club has 550 players and multiple teams, from recreation level to elite. He makes up for what he lacks in dedicated facilities with gumshoe resolve, hopscotching across the city to find available space on public fields and often paying his players’ entry fees and providing clothing. The young players range the spectrum economically. Some are white, others Black and Latino. There are migrants from Africa, Asia, Mexico, and South and Central America.

The U.S., Armstrong said, “is a big country with people from every background imaginable, and soccer isn’t fully taking advantage of that.”Credit…Eric Ryan Anderson for The New York Times

“A lot of the diversity on the U.S. team are players from who grew up with advantages, from the suburbs,” he said, adding how he could relate because he found soccer at age 11, once his family moved to the suburban soccer hotbed of Columbia, Md.

What, he wondered, if we added to that? What if soccer became viable to the whole instead of a slice? “It’s a big country with people from every background imaginable, and soccer isn’t fully taking advantage of that. That’s the missing piece of the puzzle,” he said.

Unless that puzzle gets solved, Armstrong fears, the United States men will be hard-pressed to go from regular World Cup participants to regular World Cup contenders.

“I’ve been hearing about how soccer is growing in America since I played in the World Cup,” he said. “I am sick of saying we made some strides. We need to go out and win this thing. Even though we’re still in this tournament, we’re not there yet. Not even close.”

Thirty-two years, does it seem like all that long ago?

In 1990, much of the news media missed the boat on framing Armstrong’s place in history with the nuance he deserved — perhaps reflective of how race and the issues surrounding it have been ignored and shadowed for centuries in America.

Still, I did find this Armstrong quote from a 323-word article written in 1990. “A lot of kids are interested in soccer, but they’re not exposed to it,” he told Roscoe Nance of USA Today.

Thirty-two years. How much has really changed?

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