For Pete's Sake

Disaster

Damn it.

For the first time in over three decades, the United States will not participate in the men’s World Cup.

Needing just one point against Trinidad and Tobago, the national team produced one of the most abject performances you’ll ever see.

Thus ended a qualification cycle that misfired from the start.

The road to Russia, it turns out, led right off a cliff.

Now, the federation and its fans will spend months — years, even — figuring out who survived the crash, and who will be entrusted to put the car back together.

Anatomy of a failure

Where, even, to start with this team?

After Brazil, where an outmanned U.S. team fought through some curious roster decisions and ill-timed injuries with some lovably gritty performances to get to the knockout stages, Jurgen Klinsmann stayed on as the manager.

The player pool was in clear need of turnover. Finding a stable pair of centerbacks, young midfielders to supplant Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley, and attacking reinforcements were the order of the day.

Instead, we got a lot more of the same. Klinsmann attempted to repurpose Jones as a central defender. Inconsistency ruled the day from lineup to lineup, and the team looked frustratingly flat. It took two full years to get Darlington Nagbe into the squad with regularity. Tim Howard and Brad Guzan kept playing every match. Fourth place in the 2013 Gold Cup. The only real highlight — a deep run in the Copa America Centenario — papered over the rot at the team’s core.

By the time the Hex began, it was already too late. The Americans were humiliated in their first two matches, necessitating Klinsmann’s firing. Though Bruce Arena started with a bang, humiliating Honduras 6-0, can it really be said his results were any better? The team looked poor en route to a Gold Cup triumph, while turning in a real stinker in the crucial home qualifier against Costa Rica.

In the final humiliation, Arena chose a completely unchanged lineup four days after a draining Orlando qualifier, then watched his lifeless charges get flattened by the last-place team in the Hex.

This team didn’t deserve to go to Russia. For three years, they’ve been lackadaisical, inconsistent, and prone to moments of self destruction. The player pool has stagnated, and the coaching has been disastrous. Not even the arrival of a potential global superstar could stop this.

Perhaps it was fitting that, in this final game, the only goalscorer — that superstar, Christian Pulisic — was too young to drive at the time of the 2014 World Cup.

And the player who earned the nickname “the Secretary of Defense” for a heroic performance against Belgium in that tournament — now age 38 and a shadow of his former self — allowed the fateful goal that sealed the Americans’ fate.

The fan’s pain

Missing the World Cup doesn’t just hurt on a big-picture level. Of course, many fans care a lot about the long-term direction of the team and about the growth of the sport in our still soccer-reluctant country.

But more painful tonight is the knowledge that the world’s biggest party will be happening next summer, and we’re not invited. For a month, our fractured globe will stop and turn its eyes to humanity’s greatest team sport, and the hundreds of athletes who go out and represent their country. Americans will be but observers.

The World Cup only comes around every four years. Because of that long gap, each experience brings something different for each of us as fans. I know how much the past two World Cups meant to me.

The 2010 World Cup came right before I left for college, and truly ignited my long-simmering interest in the beautiful game. I remember jumping up and down in a nearly deserted campaign office on the Wilmington Riverfront as Landon Donovan slotted the most crucial goal in American history past the feet of Rais Mbolhi.

The 2014 World Cup came right after I graduated from college — the U.S.’s first game was, in fact, my first day of work at my first full time job. I remember the hordes of people spilling onto Manhattan streets, singing the Star-Spangled Banner, and thinking that even at a time of great change in my life I would still have a community.

Next summer, I’m set to take the California Bar Exam. (I’ve heard that it’s not terribly easy.) I’ll be graduating once again, getting set for another move across half the country. Honestly, I was counting on the World Cup being there, keeping me entertained — or, at the very least, distracted.

That’s not going to happen now. Memories I won’t make, gone with one year of indifferent play by our dilapidated national team and one phantom goal by Panama.

Gone, just like that, drifting away in a Caribbean breeze.

26 Comments

  1. There is still going to be a World Cup next summer, albeit without the US. That doesn’t make it any less entertaining. After all, one of the greatest individual performances ever (OK, an individual teamed with God’s hand) took place the last time the US failed to qualify.
    .
    You will even have the luxury of watching the World Cup coverage in English. The first time I watched it (1978-no US), the Spanish channel was the only one covering Copa Mundial…And I had half a year of junior high school Spanish to help me figure out what was going on.

    • Yup, us old-timers remember those days all too well.

      Spain ’82 is still probably my favorite World Cup. New format, big upsets in group play, the Austria-West Germany collusion to eliminate Algeria, classic matches (Brazil-Italy, France-West Germany, etc.) plus the spector of the Falklands War with Argentina and the UK nations.

      It had it everything and I watched it all in Spanish on a tiny TV.

      • That’s probably the one I watched the least of (I couldn’t even remember whether it was covered in English or not). I do remember watching the final in the staff lounge at Boy Scout camp when we were supposed to be welcoming the campers who were arriving that day.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Oh, Andy! Too bad. The France-West Germany game, Platini v Rumenigge, 30 Minutes of regular OT, then 30minutes of sudden death OT, then PKs and I think Platini missed his – but I’m not sure of the last point. Saw it on the PBS version with most of regular time edited out.

  2. Fire Gulati and Arena. To my relatively unsophisticated soccer knowledge, JK’s roster choices were often strange and his tactical acumen was minimal. He wasn’t a great coach for the US, but I can’t help but believe that just his cheerleading/enthusiasm would have produced a better result than Arena did. Was his firing a panic move?

    • Nah, he should have been canned earlier. He helped put the US in a huge hole.

      .

      However, JK was right about one thing – US talent needs to challenge themselves in Europe rather than come home to MLS. Beyond that, he was a shitty coach.

      • Agree with that. MLS is fine, but it doesn’t at all offer the challenge USMNT players need to compete.

        Though what is interesting is that MLS seems to have helped provide competitive opportunities to other CONCACAF countries.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        MLS has provided lovely parity across CONCACAF.

    • Klinsmann was hired for the wrong job in US Soccer. He should have had Gulati’s job, not the coaching job. He had the vision and a plan for development, but he was not an effective manager.

  3. Count me among the group that thinks, while this was painful and embarrassing, it was also necessary. Twellman’s rant was right on point. There is no excuse for the entire performance of the Men’s National Program. None.
    .
    350 million people, and we can’t find 18 guy between the ages of 18 an 35 who can be world-class?
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    How can countries who exist below the poverty line produce greater teams that a country that charges families $5,000/year for their kids to travel all over the place? (The answer is embedded in the question.)
    .
    We felt excitement when we hired Klinsmann. Finally, a world-class manager (ish). Have we hired anyone since that even remotely fits that description? Or have we just decided to throw out retreads that will produce the same lackluster results, if we are lucky?
    .
    The entire US Soccer system (for the boys and men, anyway) is rotten from the core. If there is no real introspection and a severe revolution in how we identify, develop, and produce talent, then we deserve this result, and more like it.

    • I wouldn’t be jumping off that bridge just yet. The entire program is not broken. The last 8 years the US boys/mens program had a problem – evidenced by the failure to make the last 2 olympics. This can be described as the lack of development of the players born from the 1990-1998 calendar years (+/-). Could be looked to as one of the reasons why the USMNT was a bunch of re-treads thus cycle. Even Klinsmann had trouble finding “kids” for the senior team this cycle.
      Ongoing right now is the U17 World Cup. The US contingent has won their group and is moving on to the knockouts.
      Does the Federation need new leadership – yes, absolutely so due to this latest result and poor decisions over the past cycle +. What needs to happen is the continued development of these U17’s and younger to deliver senior MNT success in the future. Regrettably the US domestic league(s) is(are) not the answer to this. Players need to stop taking the easy way out and continue to challenge themselves to maximize their potential. The Federation needs to make changes in the structure within this country to allow players to maximize their potential, including assisting in maximizing those opportunities to allow players to grow either domestically or abroad.
      The largest hurdle for soccer in the US – the almighty $ and the soccer influencers greed around it.

  4. Maybe this is the kick in the proverbial rear that is needed to push this program forward. I note that the Netherlands is out; I would not have expected that as the tournament started. The roster is too predictable, especially since there is such a gap between the kids and the old heads. (In addition, it has been a long time since a game turned on such bad luck as the own goal by a poorly positioned and half-hearted clearance by Omar Gonzalez made the difference. At some point, the worm would be expected to turn.) Maybe Sunil Gulati needs to leave, maybe not. This is a long view, but the game has been played in the USA since my grandfather played for Lighthouse in the twenties and early thirties; we remembered Archie Stark last year. Yes, this is a bad result, but Argentina barely reached the tournament. I will enjoy the games next year, wistfully, but the time has come to look toward the future, without Clint Dempsey, without Michael Bradley, and we can hope with some of the young blood that is coming through the system. I don’t buy everything that Franklin Foer wrote in How Soccer Explains the World, but his view of the USA as being the future of the game seems right on point. We watched USA Basketball fight through their complacency a few yeas back, and I expect the same of USSoccer.

    • I appreciate your calm approach, but there are some flaws in your arguments:
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      1) The Netherlands missed out while playing much tougher competition. Plus, they have had greater success in the past, and are just in a downswing on their domestic talent right now, comparable to the rest of the continent.
      .
      2) USA Basketball got complacent because it was too easy. They were destroying people. That complacency was paired with an improvement in international players. We stopped sending our best, while the rest of the world got better.
      .
      US Soccer has never even approached the heights of those 2 programs. We were expected to be on the upswing, but instead found out that our foundation was made of theoretical balsa wood.
      .
      A lot of bad luck happened last night in multiple games. But this was not the result of the scores of one night. This was the result of a decade of subtle and consistent failures.
      .
      My great hope is that this next generation is truly better than the current crop. I’ve had those hopes before, just to see them vanish. But Pulisic, CCV, Sargent, Adams, EPB, Acosta, Wood, Nagbe…they all seem like they have the potential to be a step up. I hope that’s true, and that there are others that most of us don’t even know about yet.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    this is the part when I reassert my commentary that Bruce Arena was clearly covering his ass the other day…”euro Hot Shots.”
    .
    He’s likely right, I’m sure France and or Italy would have struggled last night on that surface.
    .
    I took it to other sources and they all thought I was stoned, which to be fair, maybe I was maybe I wasn’t, the point—- was and is —-no less astute and in the absence of any real original genius anymore, feels pretty damn close… eh, el Poacher?
    .
    .
    in other news Brian Hickey roasted that Northeast Philly representative, BB. For those on twitter in a similar circle, you know.
    .
    I’m not for Hammurabi’s Code, at all, but I certainly feel better.

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    If Arena (doubtful) and Gulati (unfortunately probable) still both have jobs this is all for naught. They both need to go. Burn this down and start again.

    • I have no problem with either of them getting jobs at McDonalds (since I don’t eat there).

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I see what you did there… wink wink

      • I betcha that Sunil would always get the customer to supersize their order after he eloquently explained the economic benefit to them.

      • About Sunil up selling those fries…
        Yeah, but the fries at the place next door would be better, simply because they did a better job cultivating the potato fields and caring for the potatoes as they grew. They’d harvest all the potatoes and then mold and prepare each fry perfectly, in way that brought out the best in each one. Customers would love the place next door.
        Sunil’s place would eventually go out of business. Never recognizing that up selling a product shabbily produced isn’t a long term success plan.
        Ironic how that isn’t apparent to an economics guy…

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