It would be an understatement for me to say how gutted I am. The U.S. Men’s National Team’s (USMNT) failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup is a miserable pain, one that I will not enjoy next summer during the tournament. There will be outraged pundits, commentators,
There will be outraged pundits, commentators, fans and players in the upcoming weeks. Taylor Twellman had a rant on live television the night of the USA’s loss to Trinidad & Tobago, and his blunt criticism of the team rings true. But for all the outrage and disappointment for USMNT fans, I would argue that those who understand the system of soccer in the United States are not at all surprised by this result.
The turning point was Jurgen Klinsmann’s removal from the position of manager of the USMNT. This was the right decision: Klinsmann was out of his depth in managing the tactics of the team, leading to some poor results for the U.S. early on in qualification proceedings. However, up until that point, Klinsmann had been able to compensate for this with his selection of players. Unlike Arena, who favors players from Major League Soccer (MLS) for the national team, Klinsmann was hugely successful in finding American talent that played overseas in Europe.
Arena’s choice to focus on homegrown talent should have been the warning sign. Any fan of soccer should know the huge gulf in quality between the MLS in the USA and any top-flight European league. Not only are the quality of play and competition significantly better in European leagues, but the development of youth players is vastly ahead of even the best developmental academies in the U.S. For example, Christian Pulisic has been playing for Borussia Dortmund since he was 16.
Michael Bradley is an extraordinary example of a player who has played both in Europe and in the United States. Not too long ago, he was a starter for Roma in the Italian Serie A. Now he starts for Toronto FC, after choosing to return to the MLS instead of staying in Italy. In my opinion, he has been one of the most consistently poor performers for the USMNT. Part of that, I believe, stems from his exit from European competition. Arena also notably left out Fabian Johnson, an American who plays consistently for Borussia Mönchengladbach in the German Bundesliga. The departure from European talents has hurt the quality of the team drastically, and it was clearly apparent throughout the qualification process this past year.
The issue of American talent goes even deeper, appearing throughout the developmental system of U.S. soccer. At the grassroots level, the opportunity for young, talented and passionate players to pursue soccer is quite exclusive. This is due to a pay-to-play model that prices many players out of pursuing the sport seriously. To play for competitive travel soccer and have access to trained coaches and skilled competition, families of players must pay for equipment, travel, and typically upwards of $2,000 for a whole year of participation on a select team.
This expensive prerequisite to play soccer at a young age is certainly an obstacle to American youth development. It is likely that many talented athletes do not develop because of this barrier. This is detrimental to the progress of American soccer, and must change if the USMNT wishes not to repeat this debacle of a qualification run.
The final hint that should have alerted American fans to the potential for failure was the attitude of our players. Too many of them simply assumed that the U.S. would qualify, enough for the team as a whole to lose any sense of urgency. It was evident in the final game with Trinidad & Tobago. The only players who showed any concern, any life about them among a drowsy U.S. team, were Christian Pulisic and Clint Dempsey. The rest of the team looked uninspired, almost uninterested.
How, considering all these factors, could anyone be surprised by this failure?