Embarrassment of richest

The U.S. men’s soccer team lost 2-1 last night at the hands of Trinidad and Tobago, missing out on a chance to play at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Seething experts and fans immediately called it the national team’s most humiliating loss ever. I can’t go into the technical aspect of it all, because frankly I don’t know a lot. But let me just try to give you a sense of what I make of this mess.

The program seems adrift at sea with no help in sight. The women’s side – perennial powerhouses with a wealth of young talent constantly bettering the system – delivers on the pitch, so their shuffling of coaches a few years ago was more dismissible, especially since it produced a World Cup win in 2015 under Jill Ellis. Meanwhile, the men have been failing to build sustainable growth, alternating waves of impressive play with wholly pitiful performances.

On the pitch, the Jurgen Klinsmann tenure was riddled with bad losses, including a disastrous appearance at the 2015 Gold Cup and a sloppy showing at the 2014 World Cup that somehow didn’t end in the group stage. To change their luck, they brought in Bruce Arena, who previously held the same position from 1998-2006, a span that saw the USMNT make an unexpected run to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002. Unfortunately, his presence hasn’t fixed the issues that seem to run rampant in the organization. Klinsmann was let go after two brutal losses to open qualifying for the World Cup, but Arena’s return failed to turn the squad around, as he went 3-2-3 in the final eight games of the Hex.

Without bringing politics, government, or foreign affairs into the argument, there’s still plenty to be said about what will be lost now that the U.S. will simply be spectators to the Russian World Cup. From my pal Jake Dehlinger:
“In a country of 300 million people, we were unable to field a team that would take us to the most-watched sporting event in the world. The arrogance of the U.S. Soccer Federation has caused this disaster. This team was not built to compete at the highest level […] For the higher ups in the Federation to believe that they could cruise into the World Cup without having to make some unpopular decisions is mind blowing. Needless to say, this is deserved. The whole program needs to hit the reset button.
Many people who are not fans of the game still tune in during the Cup to see all of the excitement. People get involved and see the passion that people have for the game. It makes it hard to think that we potentially have to wait eight years to experience that again. Moments such as this...

...will have to wait longer than they should.”
Taylor Twellman had an excellent, poignant rant following the game yesterday on ESPN, and one of his points further illustrated the weaknesses of the team:

When Twellman said that the U.S. hasn’t sent its men’s team to either of the previous two Olympics, it was yet another scathing indictment on the state of young players in the system. FIFA rules mandated all but three national players for every country that sent teams to London and Brazil had to be under the age of 24. That meant the Americans simply didn’t have enough young talent to get them to their biggest possible stage. The U.S. managed to finish fourth in Sydney in 2000, but missed 2004 and bowed out in 2008 after finishing third in the group stage. In fact, no American team has ever advanced to the knockout stages of the Olympic tournament since their inception. Prior to that, the U.S. was 1-6 in the single-elimination format between 1924 and 1956, with the only win coming in the first round of the 1924 Paris Games.

It’s not exactly out of the ordinary that a country with such a large population routinely puts together a soccer program that fails to deliver (just look at China, India, and Russia for instance) but we’d like to assume that as our domestic leagues evolve, our national presence will mirror that. Unfortunately it looks like MLS and U.S. Soccer are on completely different wavelengths.

As a country with so much interest in sports, it’s astounding that soccer seems to be the lone one stagnating at a high level. Wealthy investors with business acumen have been able to make Major League Soccer one of the hottest new commodities in that field. From the ground up, the number of high-level amateur teams and mid-level professional clubs continues to grow. There just doesn’t seem to be much interest in getting on the same page. Everyone seems so focused on the bottom line that player development is routinely overlooked.

Inconsistent play has long been a theme for the national team, and it’s going to take a massive overhaul to remedy those issues. By the time 2021 rolls around and the Americans are looking to get back to the World Cup, they will almost assuredly be without then-41-year-old  netminders Tim Howard and Nick Rimando, and may lose defender DaMarcus Beasley, forwards Chris Wondolowski and Clint Dempsey, and their third goalkeeper Brad Guzan to age as well. They will have plenty of veterans in their early 30s, including Jozy Altidore and Darlington Nagbe, and youngbloods like Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin will have had a few more years under their belts, while Christian Pulisic will finally be of drinking age.

There’s a good chance the NASL will no longer exist then, a shame considering its history and the potential it could still have in the future. MLS will most likely have 28 teams by that point, but a cross-continental presence will not be enough to grow the game from the ground up. That’s what leagues like the USL are for, and why clubs like Reno 1868 and Rochester Rhinos are the key to progress. Both are feeders for MLS sides with a presence in a different city from their parent. It’s become normal practice for MLS teams to set up an affiliation, but 13 of the MLS franchises that do have a partner in the USL keep them in the same market. Furthermore, it is imperative that MLS and whatever leagues sit below it find a more amicable way of doing business. Aside from the developmental squads a few rungs down the ladder, there’s a definite lack of cooperation between leagues that makes American soccer feel like it’s headed in a dozen different directions.

The promotion-relegation argument is one for another day, but by not even employing a minor league system like every other major sports league does (the NFL is a succubus upon the NCAA, and the NBA’s real talent definitely does NOT develop in the G League), there’s no blueprint for soccer to become a staple sport. In hockey there’s a clear path to the top, with a few odds and ends tossed in. Play the sport as a youth, follow it to junior and college, and play up through the minors and into the NHL. Sure, there are alternate routes that land in independent leagues or Europe, but it’s a drop in the ocean. There’s no vision that fans, players or owners share for American soccer as a whole, which is why there’s not only no clear path to the top, but no top at all.

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