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USA out of the World Cup: What happened and what next for the Soccer Nation?

Anderson Moura has his say on the USA’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, what caused them to miss out, and what the fallout may be.

The United States of America will not play the 2018 World Cup and there’s nothing any American can do to change this. It is a black smudge, and although the current US Soccer administration have done lots of good things outside the lines, with commercial contracts and business operations, this blot will take a while to vanish.

Some say that true lessons are only learned after heavy defeats. If this adage is true, Americans have at least one reason to be positive. John Heywood famously said that ‘Rome was not built in a day’, the USA empire of seven consecutive participation’s in World Cups did not fall apart so suddenly. It was not because of a suspicious Panama goal. It was not because Clint Dempsey hit the post in the last match. There’s a lot more. Here are the causes and consequences of the USA crashing while on the road to Russia.

The American model vs. the rest of the World

The way Americans see and plan the developing leagues guarantee a solid balance between the stronger and weaker sides. Bringing draft logic to the soccer world, it would really be interesting if Granada or Osasuna had the preference to sign a young player who was a target of Real Madrid. But this is not the real world and unfortunately this is not how things happens outside America. It’s really hard to swim against the tide with a provincial way of thinking.

The MLS Combine, the Generation Adidas program, and the MLS Superdraft have their importance and they are definitely well organized to fulfill the needs of a lot of clubs. Names like Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley came via these avenues, but it doesn’t mean they are perfect. It’s quite possible you have seen a video of a ESPN pundit’s disgust with the USMNT’s elimination, but although the video went viral given Taylor Twellman’s anger and disappointment, the main point should be that this American model ‘rewards mediocrity’.

Everywhere else in the world, teams that finish on the bottom of the table are punished with relegation, but in the USA they don’t. Actually they are rewarded with a player of greater potential via the Superdraft. This is not a problem in another domestic American sports because the USA retains it’s hegemony in these leagues. There is no basketball league able to arm wrestle with the NBA, for example. But in soccer this talent recruitment system has even deeper problems.

The NCAA doesn’t apply all of the FIFA rules during its games, and as a result, you have young players between 17 and 22 years old playing a different kind of soccer, when they are not playing multiple sports for their colleges or universities. When they finally turn into professional players – at a really late age – a lot of adaptations are necessary. One of the greatest examples is the fact that this league has unlimited substitutions in the second half, which has lead coaches to adopt a frantic style of soccer – something like the old English kick and rush – knowing they can rest any players they want if they need. Often times, this forgoes any technical or tactical considerations.

The United States had really decent campaigns in the last two U-20 World Cups, reaching the quarterfinals in both. The U-17’s have also fared well at the World Cup recently, reaching the quarterfinals this fall, losing to England 4-1. However, failure to qualify for the last two Olympic Games puts a damper on the progress shown. What can we ascertain from these past results? Maybe the new generation has some promise, with the likes of Josh Sargent, Brooks Lennon, Erik Palmer Brown, and the even younger Timothy Weah. There is, however, an enormous gap between these boys who are yet to develop fully, and the men close to the end of the line.

Bruce Arena had a large part to play in this failure process, and although you may not agree with his point of view, it is possible to understand why he relied on too many veteran players, with just 5 of the 23 players in the final team being 25 or younger. It’s clear he didn’t believe the new kids on the block were prepared to handle the pressure. And speaking of Bruce…

Wrong choices

We’ll get to him, but before Bruce, there was Jürgen. First of all, it’s important to understand that maybe Jürgen Klinsmann was a victim of the way Americans evaluate the results on soccer: overestimating good things and sweeping the bad things under the rug. But there’s no way the German coach cannot also be held responsible in some fashion.

The country knew that the program needed a revamp after Brazil 2014, but the sentiment that the USA could have beaten Belgium with a little bit of luck gained strength after two wins in friendly matches against Germany and the Netherlands. The problem is that the media, the United States Soccer Federation, and the players had no humility to understand what was wrong in the other games during that same period; losses to Colombia, Chile, Denmark, and Brazil. It’s a good thing people can look at the bright side of their lives mostly, but critics are necessary for those who want to evolve. And no evolution was seen in Klinsmann’s team. Some good victories certainly came, but they were on the back good individual moments and not attributed to a strong collective showing.

The USSF has had it’s attention divided for some time now.  Working on the 2026 World Cup host candidature was of vital importance, while the women’s team, source of much more joy to the country and much more important than the men’s program, began to show weaknesses and had a horrible campaign during the Rio 2016 Olympics. When the governing body of American soccer realized things were more serious than they seemed, the denouement was to fire Klinsmann. This move would have made more sense if the decision was made before the final hexagonal had begun, rather than after two defeats, but worse than the timing was the replacement.

Without a good option during a time of need, the federation made a cowardly choice; shielding itself under the image of the respected Bruce Arena. While Bruce has a beautiful history with the program, he is not what he used to be.

One cannot say he did not try something different since the team performed utilizing four different tactical set-ups under his command (4-4-2; 4-1-3-2; 3-4-1-2; 4-3-1-2), but forget about these numbers, because whatever the scheme was, organization and tactical awareness were never on the field. It was quite clear the players were not comfortable and lacked understanding with the instructions. The Trinidad & Tobago night was not the only occasion when the word ‘confusion’ was hovering in the air in capital and bold letters. Confusing as putting Geoff Cameron – arguably the best defender in the squad – on the bench after the 2-0 Costa Rica defeat, and resurrect Omar Gonzalez straight into his initial XI as if this was going to magically fix his defense. Confusing as calling 12 different goalkeepers in ten months.

Burying the new Landon Donovan project

It’s really hard to point to one sole victim that would hypothetically be more impaired than anyone else when you talk about a nation with more than 300 million people and thousands of players. But on a team that was already looking for new leading figures in the coming years, Christian Pulisic suffered the most. DeAndre Yedlin, Matt Miazga, and Julian Green were all looking for self-affirmation in European soccer after a tough beginning. Jordan Morris would show his ripening after being elected the best young player of the last MLS season. But it’s not an overstatement to say that the Borussia Dortmund wonderkid would have been in contention to win the best young player award in Russia 2018.

Though the likes of Gabriel Jesus and Kylian Mbappé are probably on a higher level, they are not the lonely protagonists on their national teams like Pulisic could have been in Russia. Jesus has Neymar above him, Mbappé has to split the spotlight with Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba (among others), but Pulisic could have been ‘the man’ of his team more than anyone else. Furthermore, another reason for mourning is that it would be far easier for him to assume the leader role of the next generation if the environment was not full of sorrow, regrets, and doubts. Assuming that he is the most talented player the USA has, pressure can be too much once all hope is placed on his young shoulders.

Neighbors’s impressions and sins

Being present at all World Cups since 1990, the USA got used to triumph during qualification, creating a dangerous atmosphere of overconfidence with a generous pinch of arrogance, as a place in Russia was seen as a right that didn’t have to be earned. Adding to that was the actual political scenario, where Donald Trump preaches the Yankee superiority on pretty much everything, while intending on isolating the nation thanks to its supposed self-sufficiency, it’s easy to imagine how happy their fellow CONCACAF nations were with the final standings. Well, maybe not everyone.

American players were still warm bodied in Trinidad & Tobago when an interesting discussion began in Canada. As a close partner both politically and in soccer, their northern neighbors started to weigh the pros and cons. Some said the elimination would affect the value of MLS in the sports rights market, increasing the distance that had been decreasing in relation to another sports leagues, like the NBA, MLB and NHL. As a result, Canadian soccer clubs would feel the financial consequences as well.  Ironically, at that exact moment, Toronto FC was sitting in first place in the MLS Eastern Conference, while the Vancouver Whitecaps topped the West. (And Toronto finished the regular season breaking all-time MLS points record: 69).

However, some Canadians and Caribbeans see this as an opportunity to encourage the local players. A sign that American superiority may not be as great as previously thought. Sometimes a team begins a game over defending when featuring against the U.S., and suddenly realizes that so much respect was not necessary. USA elimination could be a trigger for everyone in CONCACAF to start believing that they can stand toe-to-toe with them. As it happens in the movie ‘Predator’, once the soldiers realizes the creature bleeds, they conclude that it can be killed.

This impression can be additionally reinforced because most of CONCACAF’s best players feature prominently in Major League Soccer. Roman Torres, the man who scored Panama’s goal that was the mercy stroke to the United States, is a defending league champion with the Seattle Sounders, for example. It’s clear that foreign players learned a lot about the U.S. while playing in their league. Now, it’s time to see if the homeowners can also learn from their guests if they are to make America great again.

Anderson Moura

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