The Billion Dollar Goal and Under Pressure recently hit streaming services as two brand new U.S. Soccer-centric docu-series. We take a look into both to compare and contrast their styles, tones, and execution.
U.S. Soccer fans recently received two new docu-series to power through, each one respectively covering the United States men’s and women’s national teams. Under Pressure is a four-part series following the women at the 2023 World Cup, while The Billion Dollar Goal re-tells the story of how the men qualified for the 1990 World Cup.
Excluding quality, these shows are on opposite sides of the documentary spectrum; one is trying to be a personal, in-the-moment documentation of a team while the other is a historical re-telling that relies on interviews and archival footage.
My favorite thing about documentary as a genre is the wide range of films that all qualify under the category’s umbrella: re-creations, animation, interviews, and observational footage all exist under one roof.
The two types of documentary that these shows employ are equally difficult to make as well. With Under Pressure you are filming a journey, but you don’t know when or how it will end — it could be a triumph or disaster (spoiler, it was the latter). How do you film and interview without knowing if you’ll have another opportunity to come back to this person?
Conversely, The Billion Dollar Goal not only knows how its story ends before it even started filming, but there are more than enough people to give input. Who do you choose and why? They also can keep going back or try new people to tell the story. Again, neither is bad or worse, it’s just really cool how different the processes are for the type of documentary you’re making. With that said, let’s break each down a little bit.
Definitely the more hyped of the two shows, as it is not only following arguably the best national team in the world, it’s following it at its lowest point. It would be easy to just focus on the bad and have interviews of people trying to explain what happened or why before cutting to the next game to watch them lose or draw again in slow motion.
What we get instead is much more nuanced. It doesn’t always work, but the filmmakers did not take the easy way out and instead gave these women a spotlight as humans, not just athletes. The behind-the-scenes moments we get work well, particularly in the first episode when we are with the players before the roster is announced and they have to wait to see if head coach Vlatko Andonovski will call them. Throughout the series we’ll spend moments with various players, with Kristie Mewis, Lynn Williams, and Alex Morgan getting the most screen time.
The other detail I appreciated was they did not hide the failure or use it as drama; the opening sequence of the first episode makes it clear that the USWNT not only loses, but it’s a total failure of a tournament. This gives the series the ability to spend time with the players off the field.
The elephant in the room is that Andonovski is pretty MIA in the show. The footage of him is super generic and there is no interview with him. I get why — his tactics are hugely criticized and opening that can of worms would distract the focus of the show because of how polarizing he is. The docu-series isn’t about the former USWNT manager, and avoiding him allows the show to stay rooted in the women of the team.
What didn’t work for me was the pacing. It felt a little slow even during the game sequences. Some high paced, intense sequences would give the behind-the-scenes moments more weight. When it’s pretty slow, the entire series hanging out with players in episode four doesn’t hit the same.
There is also no way Netflix or the creators expected the women’s team to bomb out as quickly as it did. They had to get creative with getting the show to the length they were signed on for. A good portion of the last episode is post-World Cup all together, and we also follow Mewis watching her partner Sam Kerr play for Australia. All in all, this is a worthy watch and one I think would benefit from a nice binge through all four episodes. We get to see the personalities of players and a new view on what is easily called a disaster World Cup campaign.
The Billion Dollar Goal
The history of the United States men’s national team for most people my age starts in 2002, when the team made a fantastic run to the World Cup quarterfinals. Many also date back their fandom to the 1994 team that played host to that year’s World Cup, but anyone who followed the team before that is extremely dedicated.
Since 1994, there have been some highs, but lots of lows for the USMNT, and the squad has frustratingly not been able to recapture the magic of 2002, failing to reach past the round of 16 in each tournament since and even failing to qualify altogether in 2018.
It’s safe to say that the 2002 triumph would not have occurred without the U.S. hosting the 1994 games — but for that to happen, the nation would need to qualify for the 1990 tournament.
The worry from FIFA was how committed the U.S. was. It hadn’t qualified for a World Cup in 40 years, and the global governing body wasn’t about to hand out its most prestigious tournament to a country that didn’t have at least some semblance of a serious soccer program. The answer was to put together a successful qualifying campaign for Italia 1990 to prove that FIFA wouldn’t be wasting its time in bringing the World Cup to the United States.
While many fans know of Paul Caligiuri’s “shot heard around the world” against Trinidad and Tobago that sent the U.S. to the World Cup, The Billion Dollar Goal sets up the moment and its impact within U.S. Soccer really well. There is a treasure trove of details and facts about the team that even the most die-hard of fans may be unaware of, and we also get legendary players brought back to the forefront of our memories.
In addition to Caligiuri, Tony Meola and Tab Ramos give the story character. Insight from the players themselves complement the commentary from the journalists and pundits the series features nicely. Coming in at only three 30-minute episodes, it’s a tight story and the perfect length for a documentary series or feature.
The series is entirely interviews and archival, and we don’t get the players meeting up and hanging out in present day. While seeing them reminisce with one another would be very cool (the Netflix Pele documentary does this perfectly), it isn’t 100% necessary.
My only gripe is more personal than objective, and ultimately has nothing to do with the story. Every single interview except for Meola’s is a little over produced. Everyone is clean cut, wearing a suit or something similar with perfect lighting. It’s not bad, but it loses authenticity for me in one of the few U.S. Soccer stories that doesn’t need to be validated by a squeaky clean image. But this is proof that the show was well-funded, and made by people that know what they’re doing.
The show also features the late Grant Wahl, the best and most important soccer journalist in American history. For those of us that grew up reading him, the tribute to him at the end is reason enough to watch. It’s amazing and I was wiping away tears at the end. It’s perfectly fitting he is at the center of such a good, and important show. The U.S. Soccer men’s program finally gets a series that celebrates its history in a meaningful way.