How Team USA Tapped into the Underdog Role

UPDATED: June 17, 2014
PUBLISHED: June 17, 2014

No one expected the United States to make an impact in the 2014 FIFA World Cup—the world’s biggest sporting competition—but Monday our national team shocked the world. Team USA overcame expectations and defeated Ghana 2-1 in a thrilling match, and now soccer fever is (finally) taking our nation by storm.

The World Cup features 32 of the best soccer teams from across the globe, and Team USA will again be regarded as underdogs throughout the tournament. When it comes to international sports, I always have faith in the dominance of the U.S. national teams in practically any sport—any sport except men’s soccer.

Before you protest and stop reading, hear me out, soccer fans. The New York Times recently published results from an Upshot/YouGov study that said most of the world’s soccer fans, when asked what team they were rooting against, named Argentina. In most other sports, when asked that same question, worldwide fans name the United States. But because soccer fans in the poll give Team USA no chance of winning, they won’t even waste their time cheering against our stars and stripes.

As a country, the United States is used to being the best (or, at least, believing that to be true) at pretty much everything. But here you have the world’s sport… and it’s not ours. Though Team USA is not projected to progress far in the tournament, being considered and treated as an underdog could be its greatest strength.

Yes, there is an advantage in being the underdog.

In sports, players and teams often happily adopt the underdog role because they thrive and perform better against others’ expectations. This kind of focus and positive reinforcement can be an essential ingredient in overcoming the competition.

Truthfully, the United States is not the best in international soccer—but we don’t have to be beaten by self-defeating thoughts. What makes the great ones really successful is an understanding that channeling adversity can function as fuel. In my more than 20 years as a sportswriter, almost every great winner I have interviewed has found a way to tap into the underdog role at some point in their career. It can be an important ingredient in the mix that leads to victory—and occasionally leads to a memorable upset.

Tips from the Great Ones

Why do we love underdogs so much? Social scientists may have found the answer.

In a 2010 article, Slate published the collective findings of the research behind sports upsets—and how 81 percent of the time, people root for the underdogs. The article also goes into detail on how, when labeled an underdog, people tend to work harder to defy expectations. Additionally, the general public also perceives underdogs as more likable and down to earth, with more hustle and heart.

Thus, it is no surprise that most championship-level teams—and many great businesspeople—are busy telling themselves that they are trying to do something that only they see as possible. Telling yourself that you’re an underdog when you’re really not—while having confidence—can give you a unique edge over the competition.  

And it is a great strategy. We like to root for people who are trying as hard as they can, against all odds, to do something most don’t believe is doable. Heck, I think it starts when our parents hand us a copy of The Little Engine That Could as children!

The great ones know that the victory cannot always be gained by being stronger, faster or better. Fully embracing the underdog mindset is a hidden strength. When adversity comes your way, look at it for the opportunity it may be providing you—to challenge yourself and to overcome expectations. And if you fail, then the lessons that you will learn while facing the best will help you evaluate how to improve.

Being an underdog doesn’t mean that you lack faith or that you don’t feel worthy to compete at the highest level. It’s something you can take pride in by knowing that others underestimate you and—if channeled correctly—it can motivate you to outperform your competition. 

Have you ever played the underdog card? Is there a time in your life where you defied the odds and won a challenging victory? I’d like to hear from you, so leave me a note!

This post originally appeared at


This post was edited to reflect an error in the number of nations participating in the FIFA World Cup.