In truth, the US Men’s National Team missing out on the 2018 World Cup in Russia is probably for the best (writes Dylan Baker).
Since Tuesday’s debacle against last-place Trinidad & Tobago, in which the US went 2-0 down early on and couldn’t scrape together more than a single goal in the second half, there has been an outpouring of criticism from most available avenues towards US Soccer. American fans, who were split pretty evenly in public opinion of US Soccer as an institution, are temporarily banding together as they mourn the chance to see their USMNT in next summer’s global spectacle.
A fan’s stance on US Soccer, though, is admittedly a fickle stance – one that, recently, has swayed hard and often. The Hex stage of CONCACAF qualification saw quite a bit of turmoil this year, even outside the “shock” of the United States not qualifying.
After a poor start in the opening two fixtures, then-manager Jürgen Klinsmann was shown the door. The reasons why, spanning farther back than the 2-1 loss to Mexico and 4-0 battering in Costa Rica, have been debated sufficiently. A large enough contingent of fans had their fill with Klinsmann, and in the year prior so too had the USSF administration.
Bruce Arena’s appointment showcased not only a shift away from Klinsmann’s focus on attacking prolificacy and fluidity, but a not-marginal switch in personnel as well. The ‘old guard’ mentality of Arena’s cycle selections was a microcosm of his task at hand upon being hired: no matter the cost, get to Russia in 2018.
As is known now, he did not complete that task. A surprise, perhaps, considering his first World Cup Qualifying fixture in charge resulted in a 6-0 dismantling of Honduras. Later efforts in subsequent qualifying cycles, however, showcased Arena’s USMNT reverting back to their mean – lacking comparable technical ability to other countries, creativity, a means of effective transition play, and, in general, a quality attacking formula.
What looked to be a resurgent US squad squandered their way into those final moments at Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva, Trinidad & Tobago.
Outlaw or otherwise, most fans with varying opinions on US Soccer drummed the same beat on Tuesday night.
Discussing the various failures in the last calendar year, Brian Strauss revealed in Sports Illustrated American soccer’s hubris – its arrogance. “One thing Arena seems to have in common with Klinsmann is arrogance – a belief in his own infallibility and the notion that if something occurs to him and seems like a good idea, it therefore must be one.”
There have been others, and probably better-viewed as well. Alexi Lalas’s rant on entitlement and underperformance over a month ago is well remembered, if not a little cringy, and is currently receiving YouTube viewership at nearly the same level as when it originally aired. He has since appeared on The Herd with Colin Cowherd to spend more time on the subject in the aftermath of America’s World Cup exit.
Taylor Twellman joined in the discussion Tuesday night, going even farther by calling out the USSF, MLS, and the focus on business over performance. With a spit-spewing, “fire and brimstone” style, the former USMNT forward went so far as to state he was never happy with the setup in place for curating and culturing American soccer players, even during his playing days.
Klinsmann was always a divisive character, so he received plenty of criticism during his time at the helm. Arena has as well, usually with oddly reminiscent tones harking back to Klinsmann’s era of attacking soccer. Michael Bradley gets waylaid weekly on some channel or another, it seems, as well as Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and so on. Even young Christian Pulisic, deemed saint and savior by most Americans invoking his name, has come under fire at times.
The only time in memory that the US Soccer Federation has had any amount of true criticism levied at it from major media outlets was during the summer of 2016, in the dying throes of Klinsmann’s tenure. Lalas and Twellman, among others, finally called for the German’s head after sub-par friendly performances in the wake of the Hexagonal Qualifying rounds.
To say whether the change of tone since Tuesday will have any effect in the coming days is speculative for now, but the calls for change are ringing louder than ever.
So, no World Cup for America next year.
As Trinidad & Tobago put eleven men behind the ball and Bradley passed between center-backs rather than forward in the embers of Tuesday’s match, most fans found themselves caught between an abyss of utter despair and a broiling fire of rage and angst.
For a large number of American soccer fans, either too young or too new to the sport to remember, this is the first time they’ve experienced the United States not making the cut. So few in comparison are those longtime followers of the game that remember the 1982 World Cup, in which Italy became champions and no CONCACAF team won a single match.
And yes, it does hurt. Especially after such a long stretch of participation, the Unites States missing out on Russia makes it just a little less desirable of a watch, especially for those whose primary or exclusive soccer consumption comes from home.
Upon reflection, after wading the murky waters of grief during the last few days, there is an unforeseen silver lining that should be brought to the table.
Many have asked the question “What happens now?” since Tuesday, and rightfully so. Parsing through recent history, both American and abroad, there’s a brighter light at the end of this tunnel than usual.
Only when some overarching event unites a larger percentage of the population than the typical 50-50 split is there real change. When some common cause brings left and right-leaners to the figurative drawing board in the center, creating an overwhelming majority of temporarily likeminded individuals, drastic steps can then be effectively taken to evoke a systemic change.
Good or bad, think about public opinion on Vietnam as the war came to its end, or the mid-to-late 1700’s as colonies planned their secession strategy.
If the dots still aren’t connecting, modern German soccer is another oft-quoted, more topical example. After winning the 1996 Euros (their first international win as a unified country), Germany’s performance on the world’s stage dropped sharply.
Die Mannschaft plummeted out of the 1998 World Cup in the quarterfinals after a straight red early on opened up their defense, losing to Czech Republic 3-0. Euro 2000 was even worse, never advancing from the group stages and suffering another 3-0 defeat, this time to Portugal’s squad players since the latter team had secured qualification.
2002 brought a World Cup final, albeit in the form of a 2-0 loss to Brazil, but another group stages exit at the 2004 Euros forced many tough questions to be asked by national team fans and administration alike. The latter date tends to be cited as the beginning of change in Germany.
In Europe, where somewhat similar planes of importance are placed upon the World Cup and the Euros respectively, consistency at an exceptional level is a requirement for success. Listed above is not an example of consistency.
After much ado about Germany’s performances in the decade preceding 2006, changes were finally made. Many avid soccer supporters have either seen in action or heard of the “10-year plan” instigated by Germany and the DFB, Germany’s USSF (though only in title) equivalent – any modern viewer of the German game watches it in full effect every international break.
Infrastructure was revamped to focus on German roots in the game. A new style of play was decided upon by the DFB, then intertwined into development at every level of the game – U8 players are learning to play, at a very rudimentary level, in the fashion of Die Mannschaft.
The total number of scouts increased sevenfold, with about sixty percent focusing more than half their time on German players. No player went unnoticed, because German clubs and national team administrators refused to let anyone of quality slip through the cracks. Registration rules were altered for the Bundesliga to require a more German base to each team.
The list goes on. What matters most is that everything – everything – changed in German soccer because all participants at every level wanted it to.
Catastrophe has a unique way of quickly changing the mindset of an individual. Those against war rationalize it in the wake of an attack on home soil because it’s close to home instead of elsewhere. Religions are added and dropped to the lives of those having lost a loved one. The prideful and egotistical are humbled in the aftermath of embarrassment.
Upon reflection, the USMNT missing out on the 2018 World Cup in Russia is probably for the best because the country is presented with all the correct ingredients for change.
Trinidad & Tobago – two small Caribbean islands whose national team were stubborn as mules in Couva this past Tuesday – could be the catalyst for real change in American soccer because they’ve capped off the catastrophic failure of not only the USMNT – a disaster in the making for some time now – but for Bruce Arena, Jürgen Klinsmann, the United States Soccer Federation, and Major League Soccer.
All things fall apart, but so too do all things have the capability of being put back together with proper foresight, hard work, and above all, rationality. There will be upcoming debates, arguments, and fisticuffs on a widely public platform over a variety of things, including, but not limited to: restructuring a messy, dramatically unorganized youth structure, “pay to play,” licensure expenses for ambitious American coaches, a new focus on technical development, the NCAA and how college soccer can properly coexist with the professional system, MLS academies playing a more hands-on role across the country, and foreign-born Americans and their inclusion among homegrown players.
These will be viewable, both on-air and on the internet. They will resonate with an ever-increasingly frustrated, growing contingent of USMNT supporters who now, more than ever, seek progress in the place of maintaining a status quo that has never been on the same plane as American ambition.
All because the United States won’t be going to Russia next summer.
If that’s what it takes to change the trajectory of American soccer for the better, then good riddance, and see you in 2022.
Featured image by Mobilus In Mobili, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.