For soccer fans in the United States, June was supposed to feel like a month full of Christmas mornings when we were kids.
The FIFA World Cup is set to open on June 14 in Russia with a feast of games featuring the best players in the world.
There are some intriguing storylines. This will likely be the last World Cup for Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi. The best two players of their generation have one final chance to lead their countries to the sport’s ultimate prize.
This also looks to be one of the most wide open World Cups in years. Yes, longtime powers Brazil and Germany appear to be the favorites, but the way the group stages are set up, we could see some interesting games all the way through the tournament.
However, if the World Cup is Christmas for soccer fans, the emotion I seem to be able to summon most this June is "Bah, Humbug!"
The reason for my grumpiness is pretty simple: The United States blew it.
The United States Men’s National Team had been a fixture at the FIFA World Cup for a generation. By finishing fifth out of six teams in CONCACAF’s final qualifying rounds last October, however, the United States ensured that it will not be at the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Comparing soccer in America in 1986 to where the game is in 2018 is comparing a puddle to Lake Erie.
Until 1990, soccer at the professional level was a joke in this country, with its most popular version played indoors.
Then, a renaissance happened in 1990s. Despite plenty of doubters, soccer slowly crawled out of the dark ages and into the mainstream in this country — no matter how much some "traditional" voices in sports media wanted to pretend it didn’t.
The high point of soccer fandom in this country may have come four years ago in Brazil. Entire cities seemed to be overrun with U.S. soccer fans marching in the streets, behaving pretty much the way the rest of the world does during the World Cup.
This year, however, looking for red, white and blue at the World Cup will mean finding the flags of the host nation Russia or Iceland or even Costa Rica or Panama.
Panama? Yep, the tiny Central American nation finished third in CONCACAF qualifying to earn its first ever World Cup berth — finishing two places ahead of the US.
Despite what some soccer haters think, the men’s national team’s failure won’t kill soccer in this country.
Major League Soccer is alive and expanding. Participation rates in youth soccer remain higher than those of football. It’s not unusual to see kids — and adults — wearing Barcelona or Manchester United gear interspersed within all the Cleveland Cavaliers gear we see in Northeast Ohio.
And, of course, the U.S. women are starting preparations to defend their World Cup title next summer in France.
Somehow though, I can’t shake this nagging fear that missing the World Cup will be a blow to the prestige of the game in this country.
The fact that several other world soccer powers — notably Italy, Netherlands and Chile — also missed out on the World Cup is scant consolation.
American sports fans tend to follow winners, period — especially when they’re playing for the US. The fact the U.S. didn’t even qualify for the tournament means Fox television could be looking at a ratings nightmare.
Oh, for the days when former US coach Jurgen Klinsmann wrote those excuse notes to bosses, asking them to allow their workers to skip work and watch the Cup …
Some will argue Klinsmann is partially to blame for the current mess. His team’s losses in the first two qualifying games set the U.S. back in qualifying and cost him his job.
Alarm bells should have been ringing in the U.S. camp from the moment the Americans lost 2-1 to Mexico in Columbus in November of 2016. When Mexico broke the curse of "Dos A Cero," it was a bad omen for the U.S.
So, the U.S. men have gone to a full youth movement — which it should, considering there won’t be any games of consequence until next summer in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Fox, of course, is trying to to pump up viewership asking fans to root for their ancestral homelands — or Mexico.
From a business standpoint, I understand what Fox is doing: With the U.S. out, it needs to find as big an audience as it can for the World Cup.
As a U.S. fan, however, I want to shout "Dos A Cero!" every time I see commercial pumping up Mexico’s chances.
Does an Ohio State fan root for Michigan in a national championship game? Then don’t expect me to root for Mexico, Fox.
Who am I rooting for in the World Cup? England, Iceland and whoever is playing Mexico. (Deustchland, Deustchland!)
U.S. men’s soccer may be in the wilderness, but I’m still a U.S. soccer fan.
Here’s looking forward to the days when "I believe that we will win!" echos in World Cup stadiums again — even if that’s in Qatar.
Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, email@example.com or @MLeonard_RPC