This is not about what happened Saturday.
Up or down, in or out, what happened Saturday isn't important. This is not about winning or losing. America's strange relationship to soccer is never about winning or losing. (At least it won't be until we start winning.)
No. This is about something else.
This is about America's existential soccer crisis.
Or maybe soccer's existential America crisis.
Not entirely sure.
In any case, this isn't another witless prescription written to fix the men's national team ("We need better strikers striking better!"), or another indictment/endorsement of the coach or the formations or the high-altitude laminar knuckling of the Jabulani or reimagining the game to suit the American appetite for spectacle and right-angle order ("We need video replay -- and an alligator moat!"), or even another ruminative thumb-sucker about the future of soccer in America.
No. This is about the one and only question Americans have ever actually asked of the Beautiful Game, even when they think they're asking other questions:
Does soccer matter?
That's it. The question. That's the question that asks every other question. If you ask why American soccer exists in a constant state of "becoming," rather than of "being," what you're really asking is, "Does soccer matter?"
Nothing else is possible until that question is answered. That's soccer's existential American crisis. Or America's existential soccer crisis.
In contrast, what they're having in England today is not an "existential crisis." What they're having in England today -- where soccer clearly matters -- is a fiery nationwide scourging, a scorched-earth truth and reconciliation inquest, a public harrowing and mortification accompanied by a one-time-only revival of tabloid newspaper sales. That's what they're having today in England.
And they're having it in Italy and France, as well.
Here in America, up to our neck in sudden experts and low expectations, stats and demographics and overnight ratings, the human vuvuzelas of our sporting press find themselves in the unlikely position of stroking America's hair and saying, "There, there."
Sure, they'll rake a few easily roasted foreigners over the coals, such as the refs or FIFA head Sepp Blatter. (Whose interior monologue is always the same: "Boy, that Kevin-Prince Boateng has a great name, doesn't he? What if I changed my name to Prince? Or to Boat? Or Jackson? Or Rex? Mr. Rex Jackson Tugboat Douglas! Sir Rex Arbogast Jacksonville Cruiser Jr.! Or Steven! Prince Steven Sommersby Hovercraft III! Oh, to be a Rex or a Steven or a James or a David! David King Kong Fastback Ransom! James Revolver Can-Can Haymaker! How different my life might be!")
Maybe Blatter's reluctance to explore video replay really is a simple endorsement of noble tradition and the hot touch of humanity. Or a judicious example of technological caution. After all, the first use of a camera to help referee a sporting event, horse racing's photo finish, wasn't in place until perhaps 1888. Who knows if they've got all the kinks ironed out by now?
"What about Samuel Robespierre King Kamehameha Rolex XXIV?"
Certainly don't want to rush into anything.
Truth is, the specifics of our loss to Ghana don't much matter. Consider it just another kind of global trade imbalance.
Ghana's leading exports for summer 2010 have so far been gold, cocoa, goalkeeping, guile, surprise, diamonds, youth, confidence, peanuts, first touches, bauxite, reflex, timber and speed on the wings.
By contrast, over that same period, our most robust U.S. exports have been sideburns, misfires, money, war, dread, weight gain, tar balls, crossbars, lunatics, cliff-hangers, heroes and dead pelicans.
In short, Africa -- which exists in the limited American imagination almost entirely as a wildlife photo layout or murderous charity case -- believes that soccer matters. It shows in how Ghana played that game.
We're still struggling to formulate our answer.
Weirdly, while the rest of us struggle, some of the original American fans, the deep believers and postwar pre-modern footie zealots don't want to let the game go. They want to keep it for themselves, keep it small and cool and solitary. Like when you were a teenager and you discovered a passion of your own and you held it close and tight; and as soon as your parents found out about it, or even your friends, it was ruined. No matter what you say about soccer, it seems to them like the wrong thing to say about soccer. If you don't believe me, read the comments on any American soccer thread on the Internet. There's a core constituency there holding the game in trust only for themselves. Holding it hostage, like a priesthood. These are the same kind of folks who loved jazz to death in this country, and smothered it with the same "You can't understand the beauty of this" condescension and obsession.
Come to think of it, that's another strike against soccer in the American mind, too: It's too much like jazz. Too improvisational, too fluid, too ungoverned. Maybe that's why jazz as a going concern fled this country to Europe all those years ago. We tend to prefer games and melodies that keep us thinking inside the box.
And contrary to conventional wisdom, losing alone is not the problem. That the Raiders or the Pirates lose and lose and lose causes no one to question the fundamental value of football or baseball. The thing itself, the game qua game, is never in question.
But the American question this morning on listservs and message boards everywhere is, "Will you still follow soccer now that we're out?" Which is just another way of asking:
That's soccer in America. One question masquerading as a million other questions -- and never a single answer. The existential crisis. Does soccer matter? Simultaneous states of being and nothingness, in which we all struggle to locate the global game.
Does soccer matter?
It is a mainstay of philosophy that if you're getting bad answers, you need to ask better questions.
"We must improve," cries the critic.
"Why?" asks common sense in return.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.