Land of the Fail: Action necessary as United States out of World Cup

On Tuesday night, a mostly empty stadium in the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago played host to the United States national team. A straightforward win – or even a draw – against a lowly T&T side would see the Americans through the hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying. Unfortunately, for the millions of soccer fans around the country, US Soccer is anything but straightforward.

After the United States failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since the 1980’s, pandemonium set in across the American footballing cosmos. A team consisting of Christian Pulisic, Tim Howard, and a plethora of European stars lost 2-1 in Trinidad and Tobago – an island nation off the coast of Venezuela with roughly 1.3 million citizens.

In the minds of the casual American fan, that night will go down in history as the moment the United States failed to qualify for an indescribably important competition in Russia. It was failure not only for the millions across the country who traditionally pack into living rooms and bars to cheer on the red, white, and blue, but also for the development of the game as a whole. However, those horrific 90 minutes were simply the tip of an iceberg – an iceberg consisting of years of misunderstanding, mismanagement, and structural failure.

The Dutch aren’t very individualistic. That’s why the rise of Johan Cruijff’s stardom was quite abnormal to many who were fortunate enough to live during his impressive reign as a player and coach (I was not). That individualism has dug itself deeper and deeper into the nation’s core football values in recent generations, though, and has culminated in the Netherlands missing out on the 2018 World Cup.

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How did a country that had made the final in 2010 and the semi-finals in 2014 collapse so quickly and utterly? Youth development is still emphasized in the Eredivisie, more so than almost any other nation in the world. There are plenty of Dutch players in the world’s top leagues, so talent and financial reasons aren’t going to cut it in terms of excuses.

There are simply too many factors that culminate in these outcomes to attempt to conjure into words without doing years of studies and research. What’s certain is that both the Dutch and Americans know that they should be in a better position than they are currently. Culture, league structure, coaching, youth development, and parental involvement are just a few things that makes a country like Germany able to go undefeated in qualifying while Holland and America fail. Understand that these are not excuses; the United States failed.

When Germany failed to advance past the group stage of the 2000 European Championships, the country fell into a similar depression (in a footballing sense) that the United States is experiencing now. The hierarchy made drastic changes from the grassroots level upwards, touching on youth development, homegrown talent, and the overall perception of the Bundesliga. What would those changes look like for the United States?

The classic “promotion/relegation” argument has popped up all over the internet in the hours following the defeat in Trinidad and Tobago. Many dismiss it simply because of its cliché aura, but I think it’s a necessary change that the MLS and US Soccer needs to make. What would promotion and relegation actually mean for the US national team though?

First things first, simply instituting a system where there are two or three professional levels (divisions) of US league soccer won’t do much by itself. With that, there needs to be drastic changes to homegrown talent rules. While a majority of MLS players  hail from the United States, they are rarely key players to the squads they play for (think NYCFC: Pirlo [Italy], Villa [Spain], and Harrison [England] are the driving forces). The perception of the MLS across the world is almost that of a “retirement” league – it’s a false perception for the most part, but it stems from an undeniable truth that older European stars are given precedent over potential future US Soccer stars.

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Teams in lower divisions of the US Soccer structure would be forced to grow from within, through the nurturing of their own youth players and cheaper (hopefully American) signings. Not only would this draw interest from markets stretching across the country, but also the league would simply be more competitive. For an example in the über-successful German structure, let’s look at Freiburg.

A team that has bounced up and down between the Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga for years, Freiburg is known as one of the top youth-driven sides in the country. They produce, sell, produce, sell, and keep repeating. Players now competing at the top of the Bundesliga with Dortmund, Hoffenheim, and Leverkusen (to name a couple) developed their talents with Freiburg. Why does Freiburg do this if chances are they’ll simply maintain their status as a “bubble” team between first and second division? Because their entire club’s life depends on the finances earned from the sales. Why should NYCFC, LA Galaxy, or Toronto FC develop young players when they can be funding moves for international superstars and competing for titles every year? It just simply wouldn’t make financial nor footballing sense.

How do we even begin developing Americans good enough to compete as star players in these teams? The first step is to end the “pay to play” nonsense. The fact is that kids from less fortunate neighborhoods and households that can’t afford to sign up for $300 clinics don’t stand a chance when it comes to honing their skills in a structured setting. Soccer isn’t a homogenous passion in the US, it’s a for-weekends-only pastime activity – one more chore for a parent worried about other things.

No, we can’t rely on every soccer parent in the country to develop their children with the same focus and knowledge that Mark Pulisic developed his son, Christian, with. A lot of the responsibility lands on the shoulders of youth coaches starting from ages 6 and up. However, according to renowned youth coach Tom Byer, the crucial stage for a child’s development of technical skills lies between the moment a boy or girl is able to walk and the age of six. During that window, a child who is given a small ball to play with every day of the week for hours on end will (hopefully) develop the technical skills good enough to compete with those kids in Brazil and Germany who do this just as much. That’s what Pulisic did, and that must be the standard for a majority of soccer-loving parents that hope to raise future US Soccer stars.

Let’s say all of these institutions are put in place today. We still don’t have the culture that feeds a successful soccer institution. Soccer is strides behind American football and basketball at the moment in terms of popularity. This means a majority of physically gifted and intelligent athletes will probably choose one of those sports instead of the beautiful game from a young age. If LeBron James had, however hypothetical, chosen soccer when he was a child, I’d bet that his physical strength and in-game intelligence would have developed just as well for soccer as it has for basketball. It’s an issue that has plagued countries like the Finland and Canada (ice hockey) and India (cricket) for generations; we’re losing potential soccer stars for other sports.

If by 2025, the United States puts in place a promotion/relegation system for league soccer, instills the concept of “Soccer Starts at Home” with parents across the country, and the sports culture begins to shift towards a soccer-dominated society, we may stand a chance within our lifetimes of lifting a World Cup. That’s not even mentioning that a seven or eight year timeline is very ambitious, to say the least.

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To close, I should say that we can’t completely chalk this failure up to a structural problem. As I’ve laid out, I am of the opinion that we need to begin discussing change and acting upon it, but the 11 players deployed in a US kit last night weren’t necessarily bad. We have the talent and the ambition – Pulisic, DeAndre Yedlin, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Bobby Wood represent a new generation of talent ready to take on more responsibility.

Let us not underestimate what this loss means for US Soccer. The potential for a “lost generation” is very scary, as the national pride evoked from watching the US during the World Cup won’t be attained until 2022 at the earliest. It’s a catastrophic failure, and only discussion and action will lift us out of this pit of doom.

Featured Image provided by Sports Illustrated.

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