U.S. Soccer is headed in the right direction
By: Kevin McCauley
American soccer suffered a devastating blow in October when the United States men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. A stunning loss to Trinidad and Tobago meant the Americans will miss out on the biggest sporting event in the world for the first time since 1986.
It was an embarrassing moment, and it has brought about widespread demands for change.
In light of this failure, federation president Sunil Gulati has declared that he will not run for re-election. And while the loss to T&T might have been an eye-opener for many fans, there’s much more to U.S. Soccer’s problems than just some bad performances from the senior men’s squad.
The first few years of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, created in 2007 as an elite youth league, somehow coincided with a talent void rather than surplus. Meanwhile the women’s national team turned in its worst-ever Olympics performance in 2016, then lost a once unfathomable three home games in 2017.
In February, U.S. Soccer will elect a new president. The candidates all have difficult questions to answer: Is U.S. Soccer still headed in the right direction? What needs to change? And what should be American soccer’s measuring stick for success?
Despite recent failures, the federation could have as much as $140 million in its coffers. U.S. Soccer has the resources to make its way back onto the world stage, but how those resources should be put to use is very much up for debate.
There are some stellar young players on the men’s and women’s sides, but the results have yet to come. All of the candidates for U.S. Soccer president have different ideas about how to proceed. But at the moment, it’s impossible to say whether any of them will have American soccer heading in a positive direction going into the next World Cup cycles.
Maybe you’re wondering what happened. Two months later, it’s still hard to believe.
On Oct. 10, the USMNT entered its match away to Trinidad and Tobago needing only a draw to secure its place in the World Cup. That T&T squad featured players who most of the American team had regularly outplayed at the club level and was missing its two best North American-based players, Joevin Jones and Kevin Molino.
The USMNT looked slow and tired as it was outplayed by the young, experimental Soca Warriors. The Americans conceded twice in the first half and couldn’t complete a comeback, losing 2-1. Head coach Bruce Arena was fired.
It was one of the greatest single failures in the history of the program, but the failure to qualify started well before that. Consecutive losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in the first two qualifying matches cost Jürgen Klinsmann his job as head coach. Arena, his replacement, appeared to have things under control until September when his aggressive and naive attacking tactics helped Costa Rica score two goals on the counter and beat the USMNT, 2-0, in New Jersey. That led into the T&T disaster.
And yet, failure to qualify for the World Cup perhaps wasn’t quite as surprising as it seemed. Though the USMNT could comfortably feel like it had more talent than T&T, the gap between the two is smaller than it was four years ago. The gap in talent from the USMNT to rivals Mexico is probably larger, as well. And that’s partially down to a lost generation — most of the youth national team players born between 1990 and 1996 just haven’t made it.
Only three members of the United States team that played at the 2009 U-20 World Cup went on to make impacts at the senior level. One of them, Mix Diskerud, was one of two non-goalkeepers on the USMNT roster for the 2014 World Cup to not appear in the tournament, and he no longer receives call-ups.
The same can be said for Brek Shea, who has not appeared since 2015 and has largely struggled at the club level since 2011. The third player, Jorge Villafaña — who was part of that team but born in 1989 — did not receive his first senior cap until he was 27.
This group actually fared better than the age group below it, which failed to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup. Players from both of these age groups joined forces on the team that attempted and failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, which is restricted to players 23 or under. Villafaña is by far the most successful USMNT player from that group. Things didn’t go much better for the 2016 Olympic qualifying squad, whose only significant contributor to the World Cup qualification campaign was Jordan Morris.
The good news for the USMNT is that there are players from these age groups who weren’t part of those squads. Kellyn Acosta wasn’t identified as a future star midfielder until later in his career. DeAndre Yedlin would have been a success story from those squads, but he was unavailable for selection on a couple of occasions. And John Brooks stayed out of competitive youth games to keep his options open before eventually committing to the USMNT in 2013.
All three of them are between 22 and 24 years old and bear very little blame for the team’s recent failure. They will be expected to lead their younger teammates in the next World Cup qualifying cycle.
Then there is Christian Pulisic, already arguably the most accomplished American male player ever at club level. He has 20 caps and nine goals at age 19 and is a key player for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga. His ceiling is yet to be determined, but even if he doesn’t improve significantly, he’s already one of the most talented players to ever come out of the United States.
Pulisic leads a vanguard of sub-20-year-olds who could be gearing up to resurrect the USMNT. He’ll be joined by central midfielder Weston McKennie, who plays just 30 minutes away for rivals Schalke 04, utility man Tyler Adams, who was a star player in MLS this season at 18, center back Cameron Carter-Vickers, who’s in great form for Sheffield United in the English Championship, and Josh Sargent, a 17-year-old striker who was a prolific scorer at youth level. And those are just the players who have already gotten senior looks — a slew of other players from the Under-20 and Under-17 squads that made World Cup knockout stages could join them soon.
But the final stage of the next World Cup’s qualifying won’t come until 2021. The Gold Cup and a potential 2020 Copa America will be critical in the development of that potential young World Cup team, but those tournaments will be seen more as development opportunities than chances to win trophies for the first time. And even in previous cycles, they have been nowhere near as important as the World Cup. The USMNT’s fate is a long way off from being determined.
The more pressing issue is 2019, when the United States women will be trying to repeat as World Cup champions. Following their poor showing at the 2016 Olympics and an average 2017, they cannot be considered the favorite to do so.
Despite recent missteps, the USWNT is still ranked No. 1 in the world by FIFA. In perhaps the only instance of FIFA treating women’s soccer better than men’s, the women’s rankings are ELO-based and are more predictive than the men’s rankings. There’s no doubt that the Americans are still capable of being the best team in the world.
Though the USWNT started its 2017 campaign with a win over Germany, it fell in consecutive shutout losses to England and France. It was significantly outplayed in a 1-0 loss at home to Australia later in the year and was lucky not to lose by more. The Americans also needed a late comeback to pull off a 4-3 win over an out-of-form Brazil and was outplayed in a 1-1 draw against a young Canada team.
Fans are feeling a bit uneasy about the state of the entire program following a disappointing 2016 Under-20 World Cup, as well as the departure of former Seattle Reign boss Laura Harvey after just one month in an advisory role. “The U.S. Soccer [job] wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” Harvey said of why she accepted the head coach position at Utah Royals FC. Things don’t appear to be going well with the women’s program at its foundational level.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the USWNT was hampered by injuries in 2017. Young stars Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle, and Andi Sullivan were all unavailable for significant chunks of the year. Veteran Tobin Heath was also injured for most of the campaign. And there likely would have been a role for Amy Rodriguez had she not torn her ACL in the first game of the NWSL season. If those players enter 2018 healthy, you might see a much different USWNT.
But head coach Jill Ellis’ seat is lukewarm at the moment, and it might get hot if 2018 gets off to a poor start — or if the new U.S. Soccer president has other ideas for a revamped women’s program.
Whoever wins February’s presidential election will have a mandate to make big changes and the financial resources to execute them. For that reason, this feels like a pivotal moment for the future of American soccer. But there’s only so much the next president can do — very smart and very rich people have been trying and failing to solve American soccer’s development problems for decades.
The candidates are vying for a difficult and likely thankless job. Any reforms they institute are unlikely to pay dividends in the form of World Cup success until long after their first term expires. No coaching hire will be universally popular.
So yes, the person elected to lead U.S. Soccer into the future will decide a ton about its direction, including what to do with a $140 million surplus. The new president will pick the next USMNT manager and determine what Ellis needs to do to remain in charge of the USWNT and will have to figure out the federation’s approach to grassroots soccer, how to run the Development Academy system, its part in Soccer United Marketing’s business operations, and so much more.
But the big question — how does the United States become a world power in men’s soccer and maintain its place at the top of women’s soccer? — has no simple answer. There are numerous candidates for U.S. Soccer president. Some major positions range from Mike Winograd advocating for letting clubs in on solidarity payments, to Eric Wynalda pushing to bring professional leagues in line with Europe’s schedule and structure, to Kathy Carter promising to spare no expense in player development to alleviate pay-to-play problems in youth soccer. All of their ideas have merit, but if any of them were the answer, it would have been done already.
In the short term, a lot of problems can be covered up by good coaching hires and players like McKennie and Lavelle improving over the next two years. The long-term solutions to American soccer’s problems are less simple. Anyone who claims to know the answers is lying. If they were obvious, the presidential candidates wouldn’t have such wildly different platforms, and the USMNT would have never failed to qualify for the World Cup.
All we know is that U.S. Soccer is facing a reckoning. Things are not as bright as they once seemed. What we don't know is the fix, or if it even exists.