U.S. Men’s Soccer: What Happened?

I’m sharing the full text of an excellent Oct 11 Wall Street Journal article on the state of U.S. Soccer following elimination from the Word Cup. Here goes:

“A failure of imagination and player development ultimately cost the Americans a spot in next summer’s World Cup.”

And now comes the reckoning for U.S. men’s soccer.

A day after a decade’s worth of mistakes came home to roost, the U.S. federation now needs to clean up a program that for too long clung to aging talent and false hopes.

Or at least that’s what is supposed to happen after the debacle of Tuesday night, when in the space of 90 minutes, on a soggy field in a sleepy stadium in Trinidad, the Americans lost to a last-place team with nothing to play for and were denied a spot in the 2018 World Cup.

Whether the U.S. has the resolve to confront its problems, however, remains unclear. Tuesday’s defeat illuminated all of the deeply entrenched issues that close-watchers of the team have long complained about.

There was the failure of player development that left the team relying on a core of 30-somethings left over from two World Cup cycles ago.

There was the failure of imagination that caused the team to return, in the middle of qualifying, to a manager, Bruce Arena, it had fired a decade before.

And finally, there was the tactical naiveté that caused that manager to misjudge bottom-of-the-group Trinidad and Tobago and send Team USA out with an unsuitable plan and vulnerable in the most obvious places on the field.

“It was all there for us. We have nobody to blame but ourselves,’ said captain Michael Bradley, who, at 30 years old, is unlikely to get another chance in the world’s most popular sporting event.

In any other soccer country, the protocol now would be clear. The first order of business is firing the manager. The president of the federation occasionally resigns too, just as the Italian coach and federation president did in a wild news conference after the Azzurri’s exit from the 2014 World Cup.

Then, the federation orders a review of its development practices from the ground up. England, for instance, likes to call this “root and branch reform.” A parliamentary inquiry might even be in order.

It has yet to work for England, but versions of that thinking have paid off elsewhere. After the twin disasters of the 1998 World Cup (knocked out by Croatia) and Euro 2000 (eliminated in the group stage), Germany redrew its entire youth soccer structure, invested massively in facilities, and realized that a primary failure was in educating youth coaches. This wasn’t a quick fix. But in 2014, with a generation of talent grown in the new model, it won the World Cup.

How U.S. Soccer got here is a long tale of a broken system.

At the grass-roots, good young players are treated vastly differently in this country than virtually anywhere else in the developed world.

Everywhere else, a young player with promise joins a local club and is trained and cultivated throughout childhood by the club itself. In the U.S. a good young player joins a travel team and his parents are told to foot the bill for coaching, travel, uniforms, equipment and any additional training.

“We have to get to point in the U.S. where, when you are a good young player interested in the game, the first thing you get handed isn’t an invoice for several thousand dollars,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said two years ago.

The U.S. Soccer Federation invests millions of dollars each year to increase participation and train coaches, and Major League Soccer’s franchises have in recent years begun to open youth academies. But those efforts are a pittance compared with what happens in so many countries, where local athletic clubs view raising the next generation of players as both a civic responsibility and an investment, because one of them just might turn out to be the next Lionel Messi.

The U.S. has failed to cultivate even a couple of true international stars over the years—something that probably should have happened almost by accident given the size and wealth of the U.S. It’s been 40 years since Pele landed in New York and jump-started the soccer boom.

When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the national team in 2011, his scouts began combing rosters, especially in Europe, for players who might be eligible for an American passport and a spot on the U.S. national team.

Klinsmann’s teams relied heavily on German-Americans, players who were often the children of former American servicemen who had spent time in Germany. One third of his starting lineups were reliably German, with players like Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams and John Brooks, none of whom were in the lineup Tuesday. He left Landon Donovan, arguably the best player the U.S. has ever produced, off the U.S. roster for the 2014 World Cup in favor of the unproven 18-year-old Julian Green.

Klinsmann urged every player to flee the U.S. and try to break into the top or even second-tier leagues in Europe, where the quality of play is far more challenging than in MLS. U.S. players, many of whom had spent their late teens and early 20s playing collegiate soccer, would only improve if they faced better competition, he preached.

Just as Klinsmann was pushing for U.S. players to fight for roster spots in Europe, however, MLS teams generated enough money to sign the top U.S. players to lucrative contracts.

Clint Dempsey returned to play for Seattle. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore returned to play for Toronto. Alejandro Bedoya left France for Philadelphia. Matt Besler eschewed opportunities in Europe for a rich deal in Kansas City. Striker Jordan Morris blew off Germany for Seattle.

Few of these players have improved since 2014. And they don’t face the weekly challenges that 19-year-old Christian Pulisic and striker Bobby Wood face in Germany, and defenders Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin confront in England.

After five years, Klinsmann’s criticism of the U.S. players wore thin, and the bulk of the team began to tune him out, leading to a series of poor results that culminated in several losses to open the final qualifying tournament.

“I had no problem with Jurgen challenging Americans to be better,” said Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. international who is now an analyst for Fox Sports. “But it began to feel more personal. Combine that with his results and that is where the problems came.”

When Arena was brought back in November, he seemed like the perfect antidote—a prideful veteran of U.S. soccer, who believed strongly in the value of MLS, having won its championship five times. But Arena’s conservative approach made the Americans vulnerable, especially on the road when Concacaf opponents felt emboldened to attack.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard, 38, looked every bit his age, getting beat from the flank 40 yards out on Tuesday’s winning goal.

Now, there are no quick fixes, and the U.S. will likely spend the next year and a half completely turning over its roster. They have to hope their next generation that is trying to break through in Europe continues to improve. These are players like 21-year-old Emerson Hyndman of Bournemouth, 22-year-old Matt Miazga of Vitesse in the Netherlands (on loan from Chelsea), and 19-year-old Cameron Carter-Vickers of Sheffield (on loan from Tottenham).

“It’s not going away anytime soon,” Bradley said of the disappointment of this year’s failure. “It’s not something you just forget.”

Thank you Matthew Futterman (matthew.futterman@wsj.com) and Joshua Robinson (joshua.robinson@wsj.com) for the research and writing.

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

One thought on “U.S. Men’s Soccer: What Happened?

  1. Turning over the roster doesn’t address the real issues; we’ll just recreate what we had before. Are we going to build around an AM? Use a 4-3-3? The formation isn’t the problem per se, but if we go with a 4-2-3-1 and the 2 d-mids face our own goal and just end up backpassing all day, nothing will change. If we don’t demand our team get the ball over the halfway line on the ground, if our outside backs can’t take on a player 1v1, we’ll just recreate the broken wheel.

    Like

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