On the outside looking in, U.S. soccer fans should nurture hipster status on world stage

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It’s Italy against England in the final of the European Championships on Sunday, and as soccer fans are constantly reminded, this is very important because the Euros is a “major tournament.”

It’s a phrase that’s applied, in men’s soccer, to the World Cup, the European Championship, and, occasionally, to the Copa America. And it’s a phrase that makes American fans wistful, since no one considers our continental championship a major tournament. And there’s just about nothing that CONCACAF can do about that.

Given how Europe-centered soccer is, considering the World Cup and the Euros as two versions of the same thing makes sense. Add Brazil and Argentina, which are playing in the final of the Copa America on Saturday, and you’ll cover most of what soccer considers important. In an immensely popular sport worldwide, the twin behemoths of Europe and South America are gravitational centers of the soccer galaxy.

But this leaves a lot of the soccer world on the outside looking in.

That’s a good place to start when explaining why soccer in the United States was so unpopular for so long: We hate being on the outside looking in. Even now, as the U.S. has developed its own soccer culture, histories and traditions, it’s still highly annoying to be permanently in the non-major category.

There isn’t much the United States can do about its second-class status. Of 41 members of CONCACAF, 38 are tiny, short on funds or both. There is no hope that North America will develop into a third continental heavyweight. The every-other-year Gold Cup — the latest edition begins Saturday — is not going to be considered a major tournament. Half the time, as with this summer, the U.S. and Mexico don’t even send full-strength squads.

About all that the United States can hope for is to get regular invites to the Copa America. Since CONMEBOL, the South American governing body, has only 10 teams to work with, it usually invites a couple of other teams to get a 12-team tournament. From 1993 to 2015, one of them was always Mexico, which would dearly love to get those invites again. The U.S., which got a handful of invites, would probably love it more.

The issue there is the conflict with the Gold Cup. CONCACAF won’t be happy if its two main drawing cards are focused on conquering South America, especially since the Gold Cup is basically a chance for CONCACAF to raise funds from U.S. ticket-buyers and Mexican TV companies.

There’s only one solution for us fans and it’s not exactly satisfying if you’re looking longingly at the fun English and Italian fans are having right now. But the only solution is to try to enjoy the Gold Cup — and CONCACAF’s status as a backwater — for what it is.

Think of us as the hipster region. Any fan can watch England and Italy, or Brazil and Argentina, and feel the historic weight of these titanic matchups. It takes a true devotee to get excited about, or even learn to correctly spell, Curacao and Martinique and Guadeloupe. They’re all in the Gold Cup this summer.

Get ready to burnish your fan credentials and enjoy the combination of wild-eyed gamesmanship and truly eccentric refereeing that defines soccer on our continent. Embrace the oddity and you’ll be ready to lean into the phrase that fans have coined to describe the weirdness here: It’s time to get CONCACAF’ed.

Jon Marthaler writes periodically about soccer for the Star Tribune. E-mail: jmarthaler@gmail.com

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