Every four years, the US media has a conversation about whether the US is ready to embrace soccer. One of the talking points is the supposed obstacle to mass popularity presented by the frequency of tie games. It is generally assumed that US sports fans despise draws, even think they are “un-American.”
In fact, everyone—from Ann Coulter to the guy who has just finished telling you that Americans are too unsophisticated and egotistical to like a truly international game like soccer—seems to agree that US sports fans regard winning as definitively “American,” and all assume, correspondingly, that the US will not be able to embrace a sport that the US isn’t good at winning.
I’m going to throw out a theory: this hypothetical average US sports fan feels uncomfortable with draws not because as a nation “we” worship winners, but because we love underdogs. We love underdogs winning, but we also love underdogs narrowly, heroically losing (Rocky most iconically), or even just triumphing on their own terms (Rudy). US sports fans love underdogs so much that they cavalierly dress up as “Teddy Goalsevelt,” seeing only the inspirational mystique of TR–his overcoming childhood debility, his fearlessness before physical danger. It is oblivious and it is ugly and it is incomprehensible, but it is Teddy the underdog that many US soccer fans see, not Roosevelt the imperialist. (Or just perhaps, it is Roosevelt the underdog imperialist.)
Draws complicate Cinderella sports stories because they defer the underdog’s fate beyond the limits of an individual game: the value of a draw changes based on your subsequent results and the results of your competitors, or it is dependent for its value on prior results—it is never enough to advance your side as a single result. And Cinderella stories are all about the vicissitudes of single games—each game has to be an elimination, winner-take all game, or you have no true Cinderella, no true underdog. If there is some truth to a US aversion to the idea of ties (or to yesterday’s situation, where the US advanced with a close loss), it is for this reason: US sports fans want underdogs, and to get them, games have to be self-contained, “win or go home” situations.
But US sports fans do not, I think, love underdogs because it is “in their character.” Rather, it comes from the way that major sports leagues have tried to chase bigger and bigger television ratings. If you consider the long-term trend in major US sports leagues, the expansion of “win or go home” games is astonishing. Until 1969 in Major League Baseball, the winningest teams in the American and National Leagues advanced directly to the World Series; there were at most seven playoff games, and both teams went home with a pennant (which also seems to have meant more). In 1969, suddenly, there were potentially 17 playoff games and four teams fighting for glory; two would go home with just a measly divisional title. Not coincidentally, the brand new format that year produced the greatest underdog probably in the history of baseball, the “Miracle Mets.” Baseball playoffs have expanded twice since then, including the recent addition of a one-game sudden death playoff between the two wild cards in each league.
Other sports have followed suit, expanding their playoff formats in such a manner that regular season records progressively carry less meaning, give less protection for the “favorites.” But the real result is the multiplication of games that carry the highest stakes—games that, not coincidentally, have the highest television ratings. When sports commissioners talk about increasing “parity,” this is what they are really saying: they are after the underdog bonus, the addition of many more “must-see” games. “Anything can happen” is unbeatable television.
US sports fans would undoubtedly like to see a World Cup (and its qualifying matches) more like the NCAA basketball tournament–every game is sudden death, every loose ball is all-out war. But that is the case not out of amour-propre (the US would be no more likely to win the Cup) but out of a rooting interest in the underdogs that would inevitably emerge from a tournament entirely structured as sudden-death.
If they prefer an NCAA set-up it is because it fits best with the way US television and professional sports leagues have taught us to follow a sport and to watch a tournament, and if that is so, it is not a question of national character or American exceptionalism. The “America” that is invoked as being incompatible with soccer—with draws, with teamwork, with the thoroughly international character of the sport, with the acceptance of not being first in everything—exists as an object of desire for people like Ann Coulter, not as an ingrained reality in the national fabric. We can learn to watch differently, to appreciate draws—even scoreless draws.
 “American” here mostly means “young-ish white male.”
 The Mets did have the best record in the National League that year and would have advanced to the World Series under the old system, yet the fact that they had to win two playoff series only increased the sense that they were overcoming enormous odds—and enormous skepticism—to become World Series champions.
 The World Cup’s initial field has also been expanded, although the round robin nature of the group stage seems to have remained fairly effective at minimizing the number of true underdogs advancing. More common is the collapse of highly touted sides—Italy, Spain, and England this year—but except for Costa Rica, this year’s biggest underdog, the teams which advanced instead—Holland, Uruguay, and Chile—cannot be said to be underdogs.