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Optimism in the Unthinkable as the U.S. Men Fail to Qualify for World Cup

by on 11 October 2017

Tuesday night, on a bumpy, waterlogged pitch in Couva, Trinidad, the U.S. Men’s National Team lost 1-2 to Trinidad and Tobago. At the exact same time, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras beat the vaunted Mexicans, while a late goal from Panama put them over Costa Rica in Panama City.

That precise combination of three results — all victories by the home side, but all upsets — means the United States will miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986. A USMNT with supposedly more talent and depth than ever before, went down in defeat to the B-team of an also-ran. It is an unthinkable occurrence. A nation of over 300 million with resources at its disposal that are unmatched in this world that has so spectacularly failed to capitalize on its advantages.

The older generation which was due to be replaced has not been replaced…. At long last, they appear to have run out of gas.

There are obvious parallels to other topics, but for now, we’ll focus on the soccer. It was insipid from the first whistle, and even in the game’s dying throes there was a curious lack of a spark, an ill-fitting response to the broadening panic that gripped the viewing public back home. It is easy to make the case that the United States were unlucky on a remarkable scale. Panama’s first goal against Costa Rica never even crossed the goal line. Honduras’ goals against Mexico were absurd to the point of slapstick. Trinidad and Tobago’s goals against the U.S. were a fluke of an own goal and an insane strike from perhaps forty yards out. You could replay these three matches a thousand more times, and you might not see another combination of so many ridiculous events. We have a tendency to see events as they happened to have been inevitable, but that’s the wrong way of thinking. Just because an unlikely event did in fact happen does not mean that its odds were miscalculated or that the result was preordained.

But while you could make a fair case to that effect, it is no surprise that the American fanbase is not looking at things that way. Failure on this scale is greater than a collection of weird bounces. The USMNT had put themselves squarely in a vulnerable position in the first place, with the poor performances in September — a home loss to Costa Rica and a last-gasp away draw in Honduras — looming large. The Yanks also tied Panama away in March, and of course opened the campaign with losses to Mexico and Costa Rica that cost then-head coach Jürgen Klinsmann his job. This qualifying cycle has been a disaster, start to finish.

The malaise can be traced back further still, and gets (I think) to the root of the issue. Even before the loss, fresh attention was being paid to the lost generation of U.S. talent which starts around 1990 and runs to 1994 birthdays. It was striking that only three players on the U.S. squad were in their prime years (Darlington Nagbe, Bobby Wood, and DeAndre Yedlin). These age cohorts failed repeatedly at the youth levels, and have struggled to make any impact whatsoever on the national team. These players came of age at a time when MLS was expanding and growing, but opportunities for youth players were drying up. The generations before could count on getting immediate playing time in MLS because the level was low. The generations after could count on getting seasoning in USL, before making the jump to the pros (Tyler Adams, who looks destined for a big European move, is a great example of this). Even then, the magnitude of this failure is striking. The older generation which was due to be replaced has not been replaced. That older generation was still an incredible one for the USMNT. At long last, they appear to have run out of gas.

For the USMNT going forward, some changes are easy. Bruce Arena will almost certainly not make it to the November friendlies. The U.S. needs a new generation of coaches to take the helm. U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati ought to also consider resigning. He did not kick a ball in this cycle, but he made key coaching decisions that have not panned out, and it is hard to see how he can maintain his job in the face of such a shortfall.

Some changes are much harder, and will require a lot of study. The identification and selection of talent at youth levels has been scrutinized and criticized repeatedly by people smarter than me. Should the U.S. establish a tactical identity or ethos throughout the system? Is the NCAA system hurting development or helping? How can the cost of youth soccer be eliminated for kids and parents? How can the cost of coaching licenses be brought down? These questions and others have been asked for years, but they are belatedly taking on much greater urgency.

This is all well and good.

Yet as violently wrenching as Tuesday night’s debacle was, we must not forget that the longer term future of U.S. Soccer remains bright. Perhaps the medium term, even. The lost generation of talent appears to end in 1995, the birth year of Ethan Horvath, Matt Miazga, Kellyn Acosta, Christian Roldan, and more. Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Justen Glad, Erik Palmer-Brown, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and others are still younger. The defeat of Tuesday night must hasten the arrival of these players, whose collective promise is far greater than anything the U.S. program has ever seen. The 2022 qualification should heavily feature this new class of stars, and the work to bring them up to the international level should begin before the year is out. Meanwhile, in India this month, an exciting U.S. U-17 team is playing well in that age’s youth World Cup, and a few players from that team might also make waves in the upcoming cycle. If you view the USMNT World Cup flameout as mainly a failure of development of a certain cadre of players (as I do), then the good news is that the problem seems to have been partially fixed already.

In a broader sense, soccer — American soccer — is more popular in the U.S. than at any time before. More professional teams have stable ownership, are locally popular, and are investing in their product than at any other point. MLS academies are nurturing producing real talent every year, from twenty one major metro areas and counting. The increased number of youth national teams has been a major step forward to bringing up youth players to the international level.

The quality of play is rising, and ironically, there is no better proof of this than the success of the U.S.’s rivals in CONCACAF, many of whom pull their best players from MLS. The loss of “USA, USA” World Cup attention is gutting for soccer teams at all levels, who rely on it to boost interest. But our country is unique in its diversity and I suspect World Cup fever will come on strong all the same. That our leagues and teams will survive regardless of the blow is a triumph, and it proves one final point about the game and this country. Tell ’em, Turbo.

The response to the USMNT’s defeat will roil U.S. Soccer, and a great deal will happen over our heads. But the strength of the sport is at the grassroots, and there is a central role to play for you and I to play in the United States’ revival. The USMNT is not an island, it is part of a much larger ecosystem of which you and I are a part. No writer or reader of FiftyFive.One will coach the national team, but when we grow the game at any level, we help grow it at all levels.

Here at FiftyFive.One, I am proud of our extensive and smart coverage of Minnesota United FC, which I mostly contribute to. But what makes me prouder is the work done by other people. We give top coverage to the NPSL North, Minnesota’s (and surroundings’) homegrown non-league competition. We are currently in the midst of a thrilling Gophers soccer season, of which we have covered every game and more. We run a weakly report on the play of Minnesota born or raised professional players. We still cover the lower divisions a bit as well, even without a Minnesota connection. These articles are not our most clicked upon content, but they are a central part of the mission of this website.

When I forced myself to think about what makes me most optimistic about the future of U.S. Soccer, I hope you’ll forgive me for thinking first, not of Pulisic or any other phenom talent, but of the writers of this site and our readers. And in the wake of Tuesday’s result, I’d like to suggest we recommit ourselves to building the game at a grassroots level. Support the Gophers. Support the Tommies, the Olies, the Scots, the Knights, the Auggies, and more. Support your local NPSL North team next season. Support the Loons, but also perhaps support the Loons academy. Start or find a game of pick-up. Learn to referee. Help run a local rec league.

There is more to soccer than just the USMNT (There is the defending world champion USWNT for one). Soccer is a language, soccer is a tradition, soccer is something we all own and can be a part of. The defeat in Couva was a national defeat, and our recovery must be national. How to respond to the unthinkable? Help grow the game wherever and however you can.


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