With the 2018 World Cup officially out of reach for the United States, U.S. Soccer now has a chance to build and strengthen for the future so they can re-join the cool kids of the world.
The day after a heartbreak is usually much harder than when the initial heartbreak occurs. It sucks. It doesn’t feel real. But when you wake up the next morning and realize the new reality that has settled in, it intensifies.
The United States’ 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday night in Couva is just as bad, if not worse, of a heartbreak as one can get.
In 2014, American soccer took a gigantic step forward on and off the pitch thanks to the disappointing, yet somewhat inspirational performance of the U.S. Men’s National Team in Brazil that, sadly but not surprisingly ended at the hands of Belgium in extra time, ending their shot at what would’ve been an internationally shocking World Cup run.
Three years later, on a Tuesday night on a soggy patch of grass in the Caribbean, the USMNT’s run of just getting back to the tournament ended, this time against an experimental, young but energetic and hungry Trinidad and Tobago squad that, simply put, wanted it more.
Call it privilege, call it American arrogance, call it taking the greatest tournament in the world for granted. No matter what you want to call it, one word describes this failure by what should be a growing U.S. Soccer program: embarrassing.
It’s embarrassing that a program that has invested millions into developing the sport in this country cannot routinely nail a needed, but more importantly, a manageable win against the last-place team in the table that had nothing to play for and entered the match with a goal differential of -13, worst in the CONCACAF group.
“Although there are scholarship systems in some youth clubs for the financially underprivileged kids, they are inadequate. For example, talented but financially disadvantaged Hispanic inner-city kids do not have the same chance to develop their skills as their white middle-class counterparts.”
It’s embarrassing that a side that featured World Cup veterans like Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and the own-goal-scorer himself, Omar Gonzalez, couldn’t come through in the clutch when the clutch, on paper, should be easily attainable.
It’s embarrassing that in a must-win match against an “easy opponent” that the USMNT came in and played lethargic and disinterested instead of professional and focused, ready to punch their ticket to Russia for next year’s FIFA World Cup tournament.
It’s embarrassing that the U.S. soccer program has missed out on yet another major worldwide tournament: two missed Olympics and now the first missed World Cup since 1986.
Find whatever reason you want, but the men’s side of the U.S. Soccer program is the current embarrassment to American pro sports. It’s the oft-ignored step-child of American pro sports that people want to care about and like, but always finds a way to mess things up.
American soccer grew up the screw-up and Tuesday night’s loss is just the latest chapter.
(Okay, vent over.)
However, despite the disappointment and the embarrassment, there is a bright side. Every moment of embarrassment is usually followed by moments of humility and if there’s any time for that moment for U.S. Soccer, it’s now.
Through the rest of this calendar year and into next year as the United States watches the rest of the world participate in the World Cup, changes will be made, as they should.
Bravo. @TaylorTwellman "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." Exactly.
— MLS Rumors (@mlsrumors) October 11, 2017
In short, it’s time for U.S. Soccer to go through one hell of an overhaul, from the top-down and all the way around – to the windows, to the wall.
The U.S. Soccer Federation should to look at how the German national program got their, now dominant, act together after being embarrassed in the 2000 Euros. Since the turn of the millennium, Germany has been one of the best soccer nations in the world and it wasn’t by accident, it was by design. They’ve placed in the top three in the last four World Cups, winning it all in Brazil in 2014.
Spain, another world soccer power, went through their struggles as they only qualified twice for the World Cup between the 50’s and the 70’s, and they eventually rebuilt and got it together.
To start, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has got to go, along with Bruce Arena (again). The entire U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) needs fresh, new leadership, one of which will not let anything like this happen again. The American Outlaws, U.S. Soccer’s big main supporter’s group, are way ahead of making that happen.
It’s time for the “Baby Yanks” to get senior, major international minutes. It’s time to replace guys like Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley with guys like Evan Horvath and William Yarbrough, Gideon Zelalem, Emerson Hyndman and Eric Parker-Brown. Time to make guys step up and earn their star, like Jordan Morris, Kellyn Acosta and even Dom Dwyer, the newest American.
A Gold Cup was cool. That should be the expectation, just like an appearance in the World Cup every four years.
The “Baby Yanks” are led by American prodigy Christian Pulisic, one of several young Americans playing in some of Europe’s top-flight clubs in top-flight leagues. The 19-year-old Pennsylvania native is just the beginning of what’s to come for the program that seems to have a very bright future ahead. The USMNT could build around their young star for the years to come.
But the overhaul doesn’t just start with the senior team, coaching and roster selections for international tournaments. It’s got to dig as deep as American soccer culture which is as niche in America as sports can get.
The next and hardest step is eliminating American soccer’s pay-to-play structure. With the millions of dollars that have been invested in American soccer and the numerous, various initiatives that have been started since 2014 (and some even before) to grow the sport, pay-to-play continues to give opportunities only to those who can afford the thousands of dollars annually for kids to get proper coaching and join proper travel teams, allowing them to compete with other top-ranked clubs and players in their region or the country, some internationally. Pay-to-play’s discrimination prevents some of the best athletes from joining soccer teams and, potentially, making their way to the national side.
Former technical director of the Turkish Soccer Federation (TFF) explained it perfectly in a story in Soccer America in 2016:
“Although there are scholarship systems in some youth clubs for the financially underprivileged kids, they are inadequate. For example, talented but financially disadvantaged Hispanic inner-city kids do not have the same chance to develop their skills as their white middle-class counterparts. Some of the parents of U6-U12 pay-to-play system kids might not care too much for the development of their kids’ individual soccer skills. They pay for them to play, so they want their kids to be happy. They feel and think that their kids will be happy if they win. Most of the time the parents are happier than the kids when they win a game.
Since they pay for their kids to play, they like to hire coaches who train and tune their kids to win; similarly, such clubs are managed by executives who share the same philosophy. Otherwise, why would they be so worried about teams breaking up?
The kids will find new friends very fast with their new age group and enjoy the game. It is the parents, the coaches and the executives who are crying foul, since they realized what the new philosophy will bring: Play to enjoy not play to win. Hopefully, the new initiative in the long term will change the pay-to-play system and play-to-win philosophy for the kids. That day will be the birthday of the new U.S. player development system and the road to the global success for the very talented American soccer players.”
Along with taking out or phasing out the pay-to-play structure, MLS academies have to continue to step up their development efforts and the NCAA needs to change how they operate in order to properly develop young players. One way to do so is for the NCAA to follow the FIFA calendar and allow their soccer teams to play in both the fall and the spring, allowing more time for development while getting results.
The next part, and the one that hangs over everything the most is the stigma of soccer in America. Soccer culture in America is very niche and kind of secluded compared to its American counterparts: American football, basketball, baseball and even hockey. Soccer is, in ways, seen as the oft-ignored, adopted stepchild that only suddenly matters to the country for one summer every four years. Even when it’s not expected to do so much, everyone hopes for some kind of miraculous run in the World Cup. There needs to be more pressure, more attention put on U.S. Soccer going forward, no matter the tournament or the opponent in the friendly.
For the rest of the time, soccer in America is the after-thought, after the royalty that is the NFL and even Major League Baseball, which starts their regular season a month after MLS kicks off.
The change starts with the top-league: Major League Soccer.
While it has made strides forward with a national TV deal since 2015, it still has ways to go. Designated players have come and gone, but most are way past their prime and usually come over for the check. Teams like Atlanta United struck gold with young DPs Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Josef Martinez and New York City FC struck their share of gold with David Villa carrying that club on his back. Sebastian Giovinco has been an MVP candidate of a DP since his arrival in Toronto.
NYCFC also has had their share of DP’s come just for the easy check, like Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. The L.A. Galaxy gave Steven Gerrard the equivalent of a kingdom to chill in Hollywood and Colorado might just be regretting the move for Tim Howard.
MLS and most of its clubs need to do a better job of advertising and growing their respective brands. For example, the San Jose Earthquakes seem to be okay with just being relevant in the San Jose area and not throughout the rest of the Bay Area (the attendance numbers at Avaya don’t tell the whole story. People are really just there for the large outdoor bar). The Quakes are the only MLS team in Northern California and are only relevant for a five-mile radius outside of Avaya Stadium.
In short, soccer has to matter. If nothing changes, whether it’s within the USSF or the USMNT, or more importantly, the stigma of the sport, disappointments like this will only continue.
I’m not saying that soccer has to outdo the NFL, MLB or the NBA. It could get on the same level as hockey, maybe get behind baseball in terms of popularity, but for any kind of improvement or rebuilding to succeed, it has to matter.
A summer without a World Cup appearance is rock-bottom for the United States.
But, as they say, the only way you can go from rock-bottom, is up.