Why the U.S. Missed the World Cup and What's Next
October 11, 2017
TODAY is one of the darkest days in the history of American Soccer. There is a lot of anger, confusion, embarrassment, and humiliation among those who support the United State national team after its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
There are certainly going to be a lot of changes in the weeks and months ahead. The men's national team will not play a meaningful game at any point in 2018—the first time that has happened since the Reagan Administration. The team will not play a game that counts until the 2019 Gold Cup.
The pain of what has just happened during this Hexagonal tournament will linger, and it should.
Some are wondering if the failure to qualify for the World Cup will be a massive setback for the sport in this country. It certainly doesn’t help but this is not as bad as missing a World Cup 10-20 years ago when the sport was always teetering here in the U.S. The sport is not going anywhere in the United States but U.S. Soccer, MLS, and everyone else in a position of influence needs to stake proactive steps to ensure something like this never happens again.
I don’t have all the answers but I’ve closely covered the sport for a long time to have some ideas.
The Missing Years
Believe it or not, this problem had been brewing for a long time and it was there for all to see. The day before the U.S. defeated Panama, I wrote a piece called The Missing Years which explored a critical gap in player development among American-born/developed players born between 1990-1994 and 1996.
There are always ebbs and flows of player development but this gap covers six birth years and is huge. In those years, only DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood really emerged consistently with Darlington Nagbe and Jordan Morris having some nice moments (although Nagbe has had a brutal two months during the national team’s collapse).
Without recapping the article entirely, the gist is simple. The players from these birth years are now in their prime and should be the core of the national team. But this age group of American players never stepped up like previous generations did. The Missing Years generation has always been bad and the signs were coming just by looking at the youth national teams. They were bad at the U-17 levels, they were bad at the U-20 levels, and they were bad at the U-23 levels, evidenced by two straight Olympic qualifying failures.
So it should be of no surprise that they were bad at the national team level. It has been a slow-moving problem that has now reached its peak.
That bad generation does not operate by itself. It affects all other generations as well. A generational gap of players during prime years doesn’t push the older generation off the team or force it to be better. It also makes integrating younger players harder since there are such huge age gaps as the talent pools consists of players who are either too young or too old.
I am convinced that this Missing Years gap is the top reason for the United States' failure. It left the U.S. national team bereft of players in their prime and it fostered a complacent older generation faced with little competition.
There is a lot to like with the next generation of players which includes Christian Pulisic, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown, Tyler Adams, Justen Glad, Weston McKennie, Jonathan Gonzalez, and more. But all generations need to produce, not just the youngsters. There needs to be consistency and that gap was a disaster.
The generational gap does not explain it all. Even with that gap, there is talent to qualify out of CONCACAF. But that never materialized. Both Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena failed to lead the team to qualifying success.
Klinsmann’s teams were especially rocky since the 2014 World Cup. Arena came in and used pretty much the same players but he made some very bad decisions—especially the past two months. In 2017, Arena’s teams were actually in very good shape after the June qualifiers and had further momentum after the Gold Cup.
The former LA Galaxy boss planned to bring in younger players if the team qualified but his decision to ride experience through the final four qualifiers killed the team. Also, there were baffling decisions like using the same starting lineup for two straight qualifiers; waiting for too long to find the right role for Christian Pulisic; not giving Michael Bradley a partner in central midfield and thereby creating a huge void; and worst of all starting Omar Gonzalez over Geoff Cameron in central defense (after Gonzalez had a poor game against Honduras).
Above it all, Klinsmann and Arena had their teams playing below the sum of their parts. In an improved CONCACAF (thanks in big part to MLS), that is always dangerous. These games are intense and need to be played with emotion and intensity. The U.S. national team, particularly on the road during this Hexagonal, never played with any kind of killer instinct.
Where do we go from here?
My guess is that there are going to be big changes ahead. But this can be tricky and it needs to be done right. There needs to be a carefully created vision. There can’t be knee-jerk or rash decisions.
Hire a Technical Director
The federation has only had one technical director—ever!—and that was Jurgen Klinsmann, who took on the job while serving as head coach.
This position is necessary but it should never be the same person as the head coach. The TD should be the coach’s boss and should govern the national team. Like most federations, the TD should be in charge of organizing camps, hiring coaches, overseeing call-ups, evaluating the player pool, and working with the youth technical director, Tab Ramos. The TD is typically a long-term visionary of the national team program.
In times like these, no one’s job is safe and that should start at the top. U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati can lay claim to many accomplishments, for sure. But he has often run unopposed for the job. Even if Gulati stays, he should be challenged and others should come forward to give their vision for the federation.
If a technical director is brought on board for the national team, that will create a gap between Gulati and the national team but big-picture visions that flow all the way through to the grass roots of the sport in the United States should at least be debated.
Get a New Coach and Staff
Of course, there needs to be a new national team coach and most will agree on that. After the failure of Arena and Klinsmann, a look outside the current American soccer structure is probably the best route.
Klinsmann came from outside MLS but he was a very inexperienced coach who overpromised and undelivered. He was always an unproven commodity.
The U.S. has an impressive young generation of players coming up. The team needs someone who is not so consumed talking big-picture ideas (that is important but should be the responsibility of the technical director). The team needs someone who, while not over-the-hill, is an established coach who can work with a younger generation and give them chances. Someone who can evaluate the pool, put together a system that fits the player’s strengths, and have the players buy into that.
Keep playing games ASAP
U.S. Soccer needs time to sort itself out from the top down, and only after it has done that should it hire a coach.
In the meantime, the team should continue to play, even with an interim coach. The U.S. national team won’t play a meaningful game for a whopping 20 months. It should use this time to keep experimenting with and evaluating players.
There is an opportunity to play two games in November. The U.S. team should use them and bring in younger players or those who have been overlooked. It should then look at the most promising young domestic talent in January.
After the disappointing 2006 World Cup, Gulati pursued Klinsmann for six months and during the entire time the national team did not play a game. In the end, U.S. Soccer dodged a bullet by not hiring Klinsmann and got Bob Bradley instead. But shutting down the national team program from June through January was not helpful.
There is no hurry to hire the new coach, but the team needs to keep playing and stay active. If the Netherlands can keep moving forward after a World Cup disappointment, so can the United States.
If the team keeps playing and keeps introducing new players, the fans will continue to be engaged to see the next generation and it will help build a foundation for the years ahead.
No wrecking ball needed at youth levels
The national team is broke now in large part due to problems from a decade ago. There is plenty of change needed but one area does not need change is at the youth national team level which has been achieving strong results and building up very strong prospects the past four years.
Of course the youth talent pool is developing nicely due to areas outside of U.S. Soccer’s control, such as more interest in the sport among the younger generation and better funding for development. But the overall youth national team program is actually functioning well.
MLS must focus on young Americans
MLS and U.S. Soccer are separate entities but have a similar vision. The success of one helps with the success of another.
MLS teams can do whatever they want but hopefully the league can find ways to give more young Americans opportunities. Tyler Adams has been great for the Red Bulls this year but there needs to be more players from the 18-21 age group earning 2,000+ minutes a year.
Even if you agree, as do I, that the best American players should go to the best leagues, the United States still needs a vibrant and quality domestic league that can attract fans, grow interest in the sport at the local level, and develop players.
A country cannot outsource its own youth development. Some players like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie can make the jump to Europe when they’re teenagers. Not all top young players are going to have that route available to them at these ages.
In the meantime, MLS can do things like end geographic restrictions on homegrown players so that, for example, a teenage player in Oregon can join the Red Bulls academy if he believes that is the best fit for him as opposed to the Timbers setup. It can also explore a minimum minute requirement for homegrown players or reduce the number of international spots available.
The months ahead are going to be very difficult for American soccer fans. U.S. Soccer has not had a setback like this since it finished in last place at the 1998 World Cup.
There will be better days for the national team ahead although it will take a long time. There is very good talent coming up but for now, U.S. Soccer needs to find a way to create a team and organization that gets the most out of this group.
The bottom line is that these next few months will be a critical time with U.S. Soccer with some of the most important decisions the federation has made in decades. It remains a big “if” but if that happens, perhaps the federation and the national team can emerge with a foundation that can help ensure the team’s best days are yet to come.
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