CHICAGO — This is where the sorry state of American soccer has led us, to a West Loop bar last week where our country's most popular player taped a Modelo beer commercial encouraging fans to support Mexico in the World Cup because the United States failed to qualify.
"Sad is the word," said Landon Donovan, the U.S. men's national team's career leader in goals, assists and games started. "For all of us who have dedicated our lives to this, it's hard to watch. We have been through the grieving now for months (since Trinidad and Tobago stunned the U.S. team last October during qualifying). It won't be the same but I'm still excited for the World Cup."
Wednesday's major news that a combined bid from the United States, Mexico and Canada secured host rights for the 2026 World Cup spread enthusiasm across America's soccer community. Nationally, a cynic might say we can stop worrying about qualifying in eight years because host countries receive an automatic bid. Locally, we can wonder why a cosmopolitan Chicago consciously passed on a fun opportunity to have games while smaller U.S. cities such as Cincinnati and Kansas City welcomed the chance — but that's a discussion for another day.
Today, the story unfortunately involves the World Cup starting without the USMNT for the first time since 1986, forcing Americans still interested in the globe's greatest sporting event to adopt a favorite.
"What most people tend to do is find a team to root for," Donovan said. "And for people in Chicago, the easy answer is Mexico."
Ah, Mexico, the team that has advanced into the Round of 16 at six straight World Cups since 1994 but has fallen short of the fifth match every single time. It gets no easier this year for Mexico, drawn into perhaps the most challenging Group F with Germany, Sweden and South Korea. Donovan considers Germany, Spain and Brazil the favorites with France and Belgium sleepers. If Mexico somehow manages to win four games again, expect to hear plenty about the curse of "Quinto Partido" — the fifth game.
Donovan, whose goal in the 2002 World Cup Round of 16 helped eliminate Mexico, surprised the soccer world last January when he came out of retirement to join Club Leon in the Mexican League. The country that used to boo Donovan mercilessly embraced the 36-year-old, who appeared in an ad with four other players whose goals helped prevent Mexico from moving onto the cursed fifth game that looms over Mexican soccer similar to how 1908 once haunted Cubs fans.
Then representatives from Modelo, a Mexican brewery since 1925 that's part of Constellation Brands, which has a corporate office in Chicago, called Donovan with an idea: What about asking U.S. fans to support Mexico through an ad campaign built around the curse of the fifth game?
The plan included pairing Donovan with another athlete with experience ending a curse and Modelo chose retired Cubs catcher David Ross — who else? The two met for the first time shooting the commercial.
"I always heard great things about David but you see a guy with a .230 batting average and think, 'How in the hell did he stay in the league so long?' " Donovan said. "Meeting him, I'm like, 'Now I get it.' "
Ross opens the spot telling Donovan: "I was part of curse-breaking in Chicago and you kept a curse going ..."
It ends after about a minute of conversation about their respective careers with them clinking their bottles of Modelo together for a toast.
"Here's to breaking a curse," Donovan said.
Here's to the candor Donovan expressed on everything from the USMNT's crisis to Major League Soccer's obligation to help solve it to the Chicago Fire's location problem.
On the USMNT: "As our national team has gotten better and better, we haven't paid attention to what's next. You see this in the women's team too. They were dominant for so long they kind of forgot to keep developing and getting better. Same happened to the men."
On how that happens: "It's addressing youth development the right way. Argentina doesn't worry about this because they produce players every year. Same with Spain and Brazil. There's no excuse. If we focus our efforts on producing good young players capable of playing at the next level, you're always going to find a way to qualify."
On MLS' role in development: "Taking a big-picture look at all this, I want Major League Soccer to be producing American players and giving American players chances. The pendulum has swung too far away from playing American players and we need to find our way back. The MLS mission, in part, should be to help the U.S. national team get better."
On the Fire playing in Bridgeview: "I've been to plenty of cities where the stadium is on the outskirts and plenty where the stadium is in the heart of town, where it's the soul of the city and the heartbeat. There's a massive difference. All the cities that have stadiums in the middle of the city have succeeded and there's no reason why the Fire wouldn't either. Nothing against Bridgeview. It's a beautiful stadium but it's about convenience. And there's energy here. To me, that needs to change for them to be the Fire of old. Chicago can be a great soccer city."
Everybody will drink to that.