“Why isn’t America in the World Cup?” How much time ya got, dear reader?
On Oct. 10, 2017, the United States men’s national team did the unthinkable, losing to Trinidad and Tobago and failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in over 30 years. That’s the easy and obvious answer.
There is plenty of blame to go around after such a huge failure, but when it comes down to why the Yanks will sit at home all June, there are other forces at play.
If you asked coaches and administrators from U.S. Soccer, the U.S. didn’t qualify because of a few unlucky bounces that night. If you asked alarmist critics, however, the match was the result of years of ineptitude, inaction, and mismanagement.
They’re all right. The U.S. missed out on the World Cup not only because of one bad night of soccer and a few missed chances, but also because of years of lingering problems that came together at the worst possible moment.
Let’s start with Jurgen Klinsmann
Klinsmann served as both technical director and head coach of the USMNT from 2011-2013. It was an experiment that didn’t go well, although Klinsmann did prove to have a defter hand as director than he did as coach.
As coach, he faced criticism after years of fiddling with lineups and tactics, and there was a perception among the team, according to a report from The Ringer, that Klinsmann was completely out of his element when it came to organizing for match days.
His brash style also alienated many players. By 2013, he had already reportedly lost at least part of the locker room, by benching several veteran players, including team leader and former captain Carlos Bocanegra. According to numerous reports, MLS players also felt that Klinsmann’s demands for USMNT players to challenge themselves abroad was evidence that he didn’t value players who played in the domestic league.
Still, results were uneven. A fine performance at the 2014 World Cup bought Klinsmann some time and seemed to reenergize them team, but by 2016, things had deteriorated.
The straw that broke the camel’s back were back-to-back losses to start World Cup qualifying — the first time the U.S. has had that happen since the current system was instituted in 1998. Klinsmann was let go, and the U.S. turned to a former head coach, Bruce Arena, to bail them out and get them qualified.
Arena had time, but couldn’t get it done
Arena took over for his second stint as U.S. coach on November 22, 2016. He was thrust into the role after Klinsmann was fired, but still had months to get the team turned around and qualified.
Arena rebuilt the team, leaning on established veterans and MLS stars, and prioritizing a new, no-bullshit approach to managing.
Still, results were just fine. USA had a 6-0 win over Honduras to kick off Arena’s second qualifying tenure, but ties to Mexico and Panama, then a baffling 2-0 loss to Costa Rica at home and a 1-1 tie to Honduras away, put the USMNT in an even more difficult place when it came to qualification.
On the fly, Arena made the smart move to build the team around 18-year-old Christian Pulisic, who was having a stellar campaign for Borussia Dortmund, and the U.S. got a big result, beating Panama 4-0 and guaranteeing that, with at least a win against Trinidad and Tobago, they would be going to the World Cup.
The U.S. lost a game to T&T it really should have won
Against Trinidad and Tobago, everything went wrong.
Arena wasn’t very enterprising in his tactical choices, running out the same attack-heavy formation from the team’s big win against Panama four days prior.
Then the game got off to a horrifying start for the U.S., when Omar Gonzalez scored one of the unluckiest own goals you will ever see.
Gonzalez was gassed, and he’d commit an error that will “haunt [him] forever.”
“The cross came in, I tried to anticipate it and just deflected off my ankle or shin, and as soon as it hit off me I looked behind me and it’s just looping over Tim Howard and at that moment i couldn’t believe it was happening,” Gonzalez said in an interview with SB Nation. “To be honest, after not qualifying I went back to my club team. We had a game the next couple days. Similar situation happened and I cleared it away. These things just happen. It was flukey. In my career I don’t think I’ve ever scored another own goal like that.”
Then T&T scored again, a wonder strike from Alvin Jones that shocked the USMNT.
Up front, Christian Pulisic was trying to make things happen, and he would eventually score the team’s lone goal on the night, but the USMNT, so powerful just a few days earlier, looked out of sorts.
Later on, despite a shot from Clint Dempsey that hit the post, the USMNT would not be able to equalize, and thanks to results elsewhere, they were out of the World Cup.
Afterward, Geoff Cameron said that Arena’s decisions with the lineup cost the team the game.
“Bruce Arena made decisions that cost us going to the World Cup,” Cameron said in an interview with The New York Times. “And I don’t have a problem saying it, because we had the right group of guys.”
Cameron was told by Arena, even before the national team convened in October for the two games, that he would not be starting against Panama or Trinidad and Tobago because of concerns about his fitness. But Cameron said he couldn’t understand that reasoning, especially after he logged a full 90 minutes in Stoke’s victory over Southampton on Sept. 30 before reporting to the United States camp.
Needing only a draw in Trinidad to secure a spot in Russia, Arena opted for the same attack-heavy formation that had delivered a 4-0 home win over Panama days earlier and kept Cameron, his most experienced and athletic central defender, on the bench against the speedy hosts.
U.S. Soccer has had bigger issues with talent discovery for years
The USMNT’s failure to make the World Cup has led to much bigger discussions in the soccer community in this country about what needs to be fixed.
Some point to the organizational arrogance of U.S. Soccer, which people have argued has seen numerous promising players with U.S. eligibility choosing to play for other countries. Most notably, the recent decision by Jonathan Gonzalez to play for Mexico after playing for multiple U.S. youth national teams, which my colleague Kim McCauley argued was a symptom of years of U.S. soccer ignoring Latino players.
Beyond the players, coaching certification is also cost-prohibitive and an otherwise damaged system that is predominantly white and male. The results will continue to damn both the men’s and women’s national teams at the senior level if they aren’t fixed.
“If you’re picking the best coaches from an area with a ton of hispanics, shouldn’t there be some hispanic coaches, right?” ESPN’s Sebastian Salazar said in an interview with SB Nation. “Those hispanic coaches are going to connect more with your Hispanic kids, and make the parents feel more comfortable and make them feel more bought in. Hey, the US crest doesn’t stand for caucasian. It doesn’t stand for Anglo. It stands for everybody”
Others will point to a missed generation
Clint Dempsey nearly equalized in that game against Trinidad and Tobago, and he didn’t start, but why did the United States of America need a 34-year-old in the twilight of his international career to save them off the bench anyway? Why were he and the teenage Pulisic the best attacking players on the field that night, and only ones that gave the U.S. attack any teeth?
It seemed to lend credence to an argument that U.S. Soccer missed out on an entire generation of talent.
A look at the 2012 Olympic team shows the names of players who, one would think, should have been filling the national team roster in crucial games by 2017. They were all under the age of 23 at the time of that tournament, so would be entering what is usually a soccer player’s prime now. Names like Mix Diskerud, Freddy Adu, Brek Shea, Terrance Boyd, Sheanon Williams, and Michael Stephens. Each were promising as young players and had bright futures. None sustained the development curves their federation needed.
From American Soccer Now:
The 1990 birth year initiated the most significant gap in modern American soccer in terms of national team production. This poor run of players ends 1994, which is probably the worst-ever birth year for modern American soccer. After a rebound in 1995, 1996 proved to be another bad year.
And without hungry and good young players consistently feeding into the senior team to continually push for spots, the squad atrophied into the finger-pointing bunch with an average age of about 29 during the Trinidad game. If the team had made the World Cup, it would have been comfortably one of the top-five oldest by average age.
As for the future, and the players who will surround Pulisic in the next World Cup campaign: The U-23 team failed to make the two most recent Olympics, but the U-20 and U-17 teams have had impressive showings in the most recent World Cup competitions for their age groups.
Despite all the issues with the team on this night, the coaching and federation at large, the USMNT would be in the World Cup if not for one inexplicable night.
Despite everything listed above, the U.S. still might have qualified ... if it weren’t for things outside its control.
With the U.S. down 2-1, many fans kept a watchful eye on the Panama-Costa Rica game. If Panama drew Costa Rica, the U.S. would make it in no matter what happened to them in Trinidad. Then this happened in the 88th minute.
The goal by Panama should have been disallowed, but sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way. And on the final night of CONCACAF qualification, pretty much everything that could go wrong for the U.S. did, right down to Panama scoring that goal to put the final nail in the U.S. coffin.
So there will be no World Cup for the U.S. this year. Mostly, it’s a culmination of self-inflicted wounds but it’s not just one thing above all else.
For a failure this comprehensive, things have to work together to weave an intricate tapestry of suck.