US Soccer’s summer of expectations

While the anticipation surrounding the US Men’s National Team’s 2011 Gold Cup is far from the level of hype the team saw ahead of the 2010 World Cup, 2011 could collectively be the most important year thus far for the men’s and women’s senior US teams.

Immediately following the US men’s mission to reclaim the Gold Cup for the first time since 2007 will be the most anticipated Women’s World Cup to date. Though ranked No. 1 in the world, the US Women’s National Team has not won the World Cup since 1999, when the Golden Girls of American soccer brought the team legendary glory on home soil. Amidst the drought, the US women are facing serious pressure from fans and media, even though the team is perceived to have lost a step.

On the men’s side, the US enters its first major competition since a quarterfinal exit to Ghana in last year’s World Cup. Also on the minds of Bob Bradley and his players will be avenging an embarrassing 5-0 loss to Mexico in the 2009 Gold Cup final (albeit in a battle of B-teams).

So with the men looking to reestablish continental dominance and the women attempting to win the World Cup for the first time in 12 years, it begs the question: Is this the most important year in US Soccer history?

In historical context, 2011 will never match the nostalgia of the US men’s historic 1950 victory over England or the chaotic fandom of the 1994 World Cup. This edition of the Women’s World Cup can never produce the same feeling that 1999 brought – the drama, the emotion and the championship on home soil.

Sure, all of those years were memorable for either the men’s or women’s teams, and I know what you are thinking: ‘This is not a men’s World Cup year, so how could it be the biggest year in U.S. soccer history?’ But the U.S. is yet to have a year where both teams faced such important tournaments so close together. The closest contender might be 1996, when the women took gold in the debut of women’s soccer at the Olympics while the men took third place in the Gold Cup. The same year, Major League Soccer debuted.

But 1996 was a time when the pressure on both teams to obtain results was far less than it is now.

Some may dismiss the importance of the Gold Cup, but for a US team that has long been on the cusp but not quite good enough on the world stage, CONCACAF’s championship is a chance to develop the next generation of US internationals. It’s a generation that is still waiting for the likes of Jozy Altidore to grow into a go-to striker; a generation with wide open eyes when it looks at Juan Agudelo; a generation with a touch of hope that Freddy Adu can turn into a complete player.

This is a team that will (as usual) be able to turn to Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, but it’s also one that needs to incorporate the likes of Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones and Tim Ream. More than anything, the US is a team that has to live up to expectations. That means winning this competition.

As lofty as those expectations sound, the bar is set even higher for the U.S. women, who every four years face the realization that it is first or failure. Both 2003 and 2007 brought bitter disappointment when the US twice finished in third place. Arch-rival Germany winning both tournaments – and in the US in 2003, no less – only added salt to the United States’ wounds.

For Pia Sundhage’s squad, the next six weeks are also a coming of age, though with more on the line, and more skepticism from critics. This summer, the US could combat the worldwide perception of its decline – a peculiar and sometimes unfair position for a team still ranked No. 1 in the world – by winning a world championship, though the team also faces the realization that anything short of gold means extending its World Cup drought to at least 16 years. For a program that wrote the book on women’s soccer success, that is viewed as unacceptable.

Whether the US women succeed in Germany will hinge on which team shows up: The lethargic squad that lost to Mexico in the semifinals of CONCACAF Women’s World Cup Qualifying or the fast paced, dangerous team that just beat Japan twice in May.

If the refreshed and lethal U.S. team that turned up against Japan shows up in Germany, the glory days could return to the US women. The American men will also look to draw upon a 2009 Confederations Cup success that almost brought them a major title. That quest starts against Canada on Tuesday and, with any luck, ends in the Gold Cup final on June 25. Either way, it stands to be both a busy and critical summer for U.S. Soccer.

Jeff Kassouf is a freelance writer and proprietor of Equalizer Soccer who will be contributing to FOX Soccer’s coverage of the Gold and Women’s World Cups.