The United States men’s national team (USMNT) has a big problem–a problem that has continuously plagued the team for as long as I can remember watching them play.
That problem has to do with stagnation, and a refusal to address that stagnation. The previous manager of the USMNT, Jurgen Klinsmann, was fired from his position in November of 2016. Since then, the United States has shown some life, winning the Gold Cup this past summer. Klinsmann’s replacement, Bruce Arena, steadied the ship during the Gold Cup victory, but has unfortunately made the USMNT regress more than progress since. Currently the team sits on the perilous edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
If you were to look at the roster for the USMNT in their previous qualifying match-ups and compare it to the roster from the Gold Cup, you will notice that after the group stage was completed, many of the players who were rostered for the World Cup qualifier were integrated into the squad at the Gold Cup. You might ask, why is this a problem? What is wrong with bringing in some experienced players to help the U.S. to its eventual victory in the final?
By bringing in core players like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and co., Arena stubbornly contributed to the stagnation of the national team. The initial roster for the United States at the Gold Cup generally consisted of many younger, more inexperienced players who were eager to perform for their country and impress Arena. Their reward? Being sent home, so that the senior players could come in and seize the glory of winning what in actuality is a meaningless tournament.
This sets the USMNT back in so many ways. First of all, it sends a message to the younger players that Arena appreciates their hard work, but won’t give them any of the credit. If the young U.S. roster had failed to make it out of the group stage, their inexperience would be blamed. The U.S. could maintain a semblance of respectability by saying, “Well, if our veterans had played this would not have happened.” Instead, the U.S. made it out of the group stages, and the veteran players joined the roster and helped the U.S. to win the championship. This is hardly the greatest motivation for young players to continue pushing themselves to improve, knowing that no matter how successful they may be, they won’t see the rewards of their work.
Secondly, not allowing the young players to gain more experience, and not giving them the opportunity to fail does absolutely nothing for U.S. soccer development. Some day, those players that Arena sent home will become the veterans that he relied on this past summer. However, they may not reach the same heights as some of the main leaders on the current national team because they were not given international experience early on in their career. These players will not learn the mindset necessary to compete in the grueling World Cup qualifying schedule. They will not gain experience playing in hostile environments such as Honduras or Mexico.
This is not to say that these U.S. players will never have these learning experiences. Time will inevitably place them at the top of Arena’s list. But once they reach that point, the USMNT may be faced with a large struggle to perform.
Throughout this column, I have been ignoring the elephant in the room, Christian Pulisic. The 19-year-old who has already earned himself a starting spot among the veterans and still has seemingly endless potential will likely be the bedrock for American soccer for the foreseeable future. Arena has given Pulisic all the experience and playing time he can handle, and he will likely develop into a leading player for the U.S. But this may be at the expense of the rest of Pulisic’s generation. Pulisic is well integrated with the U.S. veterans, but these veterans will soon be gone. Pulisic is a fantastic player, but he alone will not be able to carry the U.S. to meet our current and future expectations.
Arena and the USMNT are stagnating. Younger talent is not being fostered at the expense of Arena’s loyalty to the older generation of American talent. The U.S. is struggling now to qualify for the next World Cup. But perhaps even further in the future, the challenge of qualification may be even greater, as USMNT’s once relied-on talent begins to age out.