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I Believe That We Will Win: An interview with author Phil West

No day was darker for U.S. soccer than Oct. 10, 2017.

When the final whistle blew in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S. Men’s National Team–and its fans– were left in a state of shock. The team had failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.

Since 1990, the U.S. had been a country on the rise, highlighted by a run to the knockout phase of the World Cup in 2014– advancing through a “group of death” that included Portugal, Ghana and the eventual champions, Germany. One chant, in particular, best captured the hope of a boisterous nation hungry for its first World Cup victory.

“I believe that we will win.”

Today, in light of the recent failure, it might sound silly to still believe in the the sentiment of those words. Yet, it isn’t baseless.

Author Phil West’s upcoming book, I Believe That We Will Win, transcends what some would consider wishful thinking. West richly chronicles the history of U.S. soccer and how a nation which went without a World Cup appearance in 40 years can realistically dream of that ultimate prize. With a varied collection of stories and interviews, West identifies the potential keystones of U.S. success with an analytical eye, and his book is a necessary read for any American soccer fan.

Ahead of the books release on May 8, PSP spoke with the author:

What was the inspiration for writing I Believe That We Will Win?

United States of Soccer came out on The Overlook press and Peter Mayer, who is the person who runs it, basically asked a question to me, “What will it take for the U.S. to win a World Cup, and are you interested in exploring that in a book as a follow up to United States of Soccer. I said yeah, absolutely, that sounds like a lot of fun.

The New York book party that we did for it was actually a viewing party for the U.S.-Costa Rica game, the 4-0 game, so a little bit daunting at that point that here I’m writing a book about the U.S.’s future world cup prospects, and they looked about as bad as they had in a while. That was the last game where Jurgen Klinsmann was managing and Bruce Arena took over and obviously a really tumultuous time to be covering and to be gathering information.

There’s kind of a historical deep dive starting with when U.S. regained qualification in 1990, but then you have a bunch of looks into the future. Even though things changed over the course of the book [the U.S’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup], I still think there’s a l0t of things that were put into place in the last few years that are going to help the team moving forward and that 2026 could be potentially be a year that we see everything come to fruition and we have are best chance since the miracle run in 2002 where we can at least get into the semifinals.”

You used the example of France where they failed to qualify in 1994 before winning  in 1998.

“Yeah, as kind of a beacon of hope. You can, indeed, not qualify one cycle and come back the next and actually win it. Of course France was helped by being at home in 1998 and by having a great generation of players. Everything kind of converged for them. But I feel like were on target to do that in 2026.

Of course if we don’t get to host, that puts another wrench into things. That’s kind of the trick of writing this book and putting it out at this time. There’s just so much that’s in the air right now. We’ll have a much better sense by the end of summer of how optimistic I remain and other American fans remain. I think a loaded American team could still do really well in Morocco in 2026, but the home-field advantage would help considerably.”

Going back to the “loaded” team, you spent some time in the book looking at the U23s, U20s, and even players younger than that. What’s your opinion of those young American players?

“It’s been really strong– definitely a lot of the work [U.S. U20 head coach] Tab Ramos has done, in particular, with developing those teams has helped. We haven’t seen it necessarily come to fruition yet with the U23s, but I take heart with how the U17s and U20s performed at the last world cups at those levels.

Obviously, Christian Pulisic is a generational talent. Everybody understands his importance, but looking at Weston McKennie, looking at Andrew Carleton and the potential Josh Sargent has, I think there’s a really exciting group of players that are getting meaningful experience.”

You spent a chapter detailing the dual-national debate, saying we tend to be “xenophobic” looking at it. What’s you’re opinion on the debate and how it affects the U.S.’s potential success?

“I’m of the mind that talented players, wherever they are, who want to compete and want to commit to the team– we should be looking wherever we can to find that talent just because that’s ultimately what it’s going to take. You can have coaching. You can have philosophies and home-field advantage, but especially on the international level, it really does boil down to individual talent.

That’s certainly been the women’s formula. It ultimately comes down to what Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach, and Mallory Pugh do on the field that dictates a lot of their success.

I think to kind of question a German-American dual national or a Mexican-American dual national just because of this concern that they might not have grown up with “it” as much as someone from Southern California or Kansas City is unfounded.

If those can commit and be a part of the team, that’s going to be pretty helpful. Jared Micklos, from the U.S. Development Academy, talked about the benefits of having those multiple styles and influences– having that diversity not only of ethnicity, but also the different playing styles that you get from those sorts of atmospheres.”

Do you think the U.S. is doing a good enough job of scouting Latin-American players right now?

“That’s the big question. Micklos had something kind of interesting– this idea that we don’t have to find numbers, necessarily, we only have to find the best and let everything else fall where it may. I think we’re definitely doing a better job than we have, but it being a big country, there are questions of if we have enough scouts.

I do think there’s more awareness and more mechanisms with MLS academies and Alianza de Futbol that help create a pipeline, but it’s never going to be as easy in the U.S. as it is in Germany or Spain.”

You mentioned MLS academies. How can they fill that development role for the U.S.?

“They’re really important. They are finding those players with a lot of talent, and they’re providing structure where the club is footing the bill. In terms of finding a core group of players, I think a lot of that can come out of MLS academies. You ostensibly have 22 clubs very motivated to make their individual clubs better where it is important to fill out rosters with young players who are coming up.”

With all the people you spoke with for this book, was there a conversation that stood out that gave you more cause for hope in the future of American soccer?

“Definitely along the way there were combinations of “this gives me hope, this give me pause.” There was a lot of good, incisive criticism and certainly with the U.S. not qualifying that’s a chance to apply some of that criticism.

Oddly enough, it was one of the first calls, Bob Gansler, who was the coach for the team that qualified for the 1990 World Cup. The team didn’t perform well, but set the foundation for kind of what’s happening now and the current era of World Cup qualification. That it started so modest. That you had players who weren’t really reaching the international infrastructure, who were training together, doing exhibitions to get playing time, and not having the development the rest of the world had. Just to see and be reminded of that progression that we so much farther behind in 1990 than we are now.”

“I Believe That We Will Win” is available on Amazon and your local bookstores through The Overlook Press.

4 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    With respect to the author of the book, there is ZERO chance United States of America is cusping, rounding or even remotely sniffing an opportunity to win a World Cup even with home field.
    .
    …. the facts are clear, until the USMNT is a group winner (regularly), and therefore gets the easier knockout round game this is all just Quixote. France had socio political issues underpinning that Cup run with a team of WORLD CLASS players.
    .
    If you tell me in 8 years we are going to field a starting team of 11 World Class players with a bench of also, World Class players, I’ll let you entertain me with the idea.
    .
    I don’t see it. We are decades away, light years even.

  2. IT is simple. Just give Guardiola whatever he wants , and let him go . You dont need 11 world class players to win the world cup, But you do need an organization with a teaching coach and a purpose. Yes, you can teach top players to become better. Sterling is the extreme example. Yes, you can be a team with no world class players fighting against relegation but with a wonderful coach and beat and tie 2 teams loaded with with world cup players. You also need a little luck, but why not start building and dreaming with a plan in hand now? Quarter finals in 4, semifinals in 8. Why not.

    • National team coaches don’t get the time to work with players that club coaches do. Even Pep isn’t going to develop a player in his 20s when seeing him only one out of every 8-10 weeks or less. We need better coaching and a system change for 7-15 year-olds. This is not a revelation.

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