The United States men’s national team did not miss the World Cup due to a lack of talent. It was not held back by pay-to-play youth soccer, a closed club pyramid without promotion and relegation, or its top players choosing to make millions in MLS rather than fighting for their places in European teams. The USMNT has missed the 2018 World Cup because of bad coaching decisions and players performing below their talent level. That’s it.
This is not to dismiss any of American soccer’s very real problems. All of the above-listed issues are hurdles to building a men’s national team that can realistically compete to win a World Cup, but making the World Cup and winning the World Cup are two completely different things. The USMNT is already good enough that it should do the former every four years; it is miles away from the latter.
There is no position in which the United States did not have a more talented player than Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday night. T&T’s lineup is made up of mostly fringe MLS players or players who are below MLS standard. Star players on the Panamanian, Honduran and Costa Rican national teams play in MLS as well, where they are regularly outplayed by their American counterparts. And Tuesday, a set of American players more talented and accomplished at club level than their predecessors failed to do what previous editions of the USMNT have done on six consecutive occasions — finish top three in the Hex.
It felt strange to witness a massive failure by a team that had been consistently trending upwards for 20 years. The USMNT has its ups and downs, but even in the worst moments it felt like better times were coming. Finishing fifth in the Hex is a new low in the professional era of the USMNT, though. It is an undeniable failure, one that has inspired cathartic rants and sparked calls for a complete overhaul by smart voices.
But if there’s one big thing that U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati failed at, it was spending too much time thinking about the big ideas and not putting enough thought on how to improve immediately. Long-term planning is great, but it will get you nowhere if short-term planning is neglected completely. The appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann in the hopes that he could encourage a comprehensive change in America’s soccer culture, alongside Gulati’s pursuit of another World Cup hosted on American soil, left the senior national team’s strategy immediately neglected.
Overhauling development for the future and putting the senior national team in the best position to succeed immediately is not an either-or, and a change in philosophy at the senior level does not fix other problems, as Klinsmann’s reign showed. U.S. Soccer needs to see these as two separate issues. It can change the organizational structure of American soccer radically while trying to do the best it can possibly do with the senior men’s national team at the same time.
A “Das Reboot” mentality at senior level and playing kids will not make the USMNT into a powerhouse. Top Under-20 talent Weston McKennie, for example, will not do much developing on the USMNT. He will need playing time and good coaches at the club level to progress his career, and there’s not much U.S. Soccer can do about that. The best thing U.S. Soccer can do for him and other young talents on the verge of breaking into the senior squad is giving them a qualified manager who puts them in the best possible positions to succeed game-to-game. The USMNT is an end product, not a development platform, and cannot solve any of U.S. Soccer’s larger problems.
There’s a lot that Klinsmann and Arena could have done to make that end product better with the talent they were given, through player selection and tactics. But they were stubborn, naive, and apparently out of their depth even at CONCACAF qualifying level.
Klinsmann was a comically bad tactician who regularly displayed terrible judgment and lost the locker room on multiple occasions. His replacement, Bruce Arena, made massive tactical errors in September and again Tuesday night. It’s difficult for even world class talent to overcome being asked to play in a back three for the first time without being adequately trained in the system, as Klinsmann had the USMNT do against Mexico. And there’s no central midfielder in the world who could have adequately performed the job Arena placed on Michael Bradley’s shoulders by fielding one-central midfielder systems, repeatedly.
Arena and Klinsmann both failed miserably at their jobs. Their tactical mistakes were glaring and amateurish. That is how the United States missed out on qualifying for the World Cup. And while there are bigger systemic problems that need to be addressed for the USMNT to reach the standard of the world’s best teams, hiring a good tactician would go a long way towards getting the USMNT to qualify for the World Cup comfortably and avoid embarrassing itself when it gets there.
Unlike the bigger problems that plague American soccer, the one that cost the United States Tuesday night can be fixed immediately.