2018 World Cup: For the U.S., Grab Some Bench

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US logoAmericans never expect bad things to happen, while the rest of the world does, so they are not disappointed.

Anyone who woke up Wednesday morning hoping the United States‘ soccer nightmare was only a dream is … well … dreaming.

I’d like to think it’s a bit of cosmic comeuppance that intersects somewhere among Trumplandia, Czar Vlad, elections, collusion and the 2018 World Cup to be held in a kleptocracy — Russia — next summer. Some of us may be able to see Russia from our backyards, but that’s about a close as we’re going to get next June.

The crushing U.S. loss at Trinidad and Tobago, coupled with the victories of Panama and Honduras that eliminated the American team, unleashed a tsunami of tweets and probably ended the international soccer careers of a handful of players, not to mention Coach Bruce Arena. Defender Omar Gonzalez, who scored an own goal for the Soca Warriors, summed it up: “I think for myself, it’s one that will haunt me forever.”

It’s a team game, but other than Pulisic, the U.S. has not produced a player who can provide an unexpected flash of individual brilliance. Many youth coaches call it being selfish, instead of encouraging industry and creativity. We may be good, simply not good enough.

Nightmare.

Some observations and opinions that are mine and mine alone:

Players Gotta Play: We too often forget that the game is on the field, the players are the game. And Tuesday night, our players failed, utterly failed. They seemed to be playing without passion, without urgency. No reorganization, no promotion/relegation, nothing could rescue us from 90-plus of the most excruciating minutes in U.S. soccer history. Arena went with “his guys,” mostly veterans. They could not get it done. Time for some new guys.

Tear It Down: The players were barely off the field before the flood of comments on social media demanded … the end of the reign of U.S. federation president Sunil Gulati, promotion/relegation (what else?), the end of college soccer … yada yada yada. Add to that toxic mix the North American Soccer League’s pending lawsuit against the federation and a claim against the federation before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland and it leaves me to conclude that not much has changed in the game over the past 50 years. Back-stabbing, second-guessing, charges of “you don’t know the game,” etc. It’s all so depressing.

Jurgen Klinsmann: The former coach said and did things that a lot of people didn’t want to hear, but needed to hear. Still do. His comments critical of MLS and in favor of promotion/relegation made Commissioner Don Garber‘s blood boil. Maybe Klinsmann wasn’t the greatest tactical mind in the game, was a bit of a self-promoter, and maybe his approach raised the hackles of American players. Thing is the guy had been there, done that and won — a lot. Shouldn’t that count for something? Klinsi was excoriated when he scoured the globe for players with U.S. citizenship, when he said that U.S. players needed a mean streak and needed to go to Europe to play (and train) against better players, and that our players simply aren’t good enough. Doesn’t sound too crazy now, does it? We are too comfortable. And let’s be clear: Christian Pulisic did not develop his game in the U.S.

Giants of Soccer Commerce: The U.S. has been called the “Sleeping Giant of World Soccer” … and so we are … mostly still wiping the sleep from our eyes. The 1994 World Cup still holds the record for overall attendance. The 2026 tournament is destined for these shores in a joint bid with Canada and Mexico. Major League Soccer‘s commercial arm, Soccer United Marketing, for all intents and purposes, owns the game in the U.S. by virtue of its deals with the U.S., Mexican federations, and CONCACAF. MLS teams may lose money, but rest assured that SUM is scooping up oodles of cash. American TV networks provide the greenback grease that helps oil the soccer cash grab. But how’s that trickle down been working for you?

That commercial juggernaut, on all levels, is going to take a huge hit because of the U.S. absence. Fox Sports, which will carry the next three tournaments in English, has a lemon on its hands next year. Nearly every business tethered to soccer — bars, restaurants, retail establishments, the media — will lose out on millions of dollars. No watch parties. Nada. And with U.S. players, many of them playing in MLS, staying home, will the league take a break during the World Cup, as it’s done in years past?

Look South: The three (Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama) qualifiers (and one playoff team, Honduras) in the CONCACAF region are all Latin American countries, once again leaving behind the English-speaking participants like the U.S., Canada, and much of the Caribbean. For the past 50 years, American soccer has been obsessed with the game in Europe, particularly England — the undisputed inventor and promulgator of the game. Hey, we speak the same language, they invented the game, so let’s be like them. Wrong. (This also extends to so-called soccer lingo, but that’s a topic for another day.)

We’ve all heard the recent carping over how MLS has helped other CONCACAF nations more than it’s helped the U.S. Red herring. England may have suffered because the best players in the Premier League are from outside Britain, but do you think the lords of that league care?

Pay to Play: As long as the game in the U.S. is based in the suburbs, where affluent parents pony up so their offspring can play, little will change. There is no primal hunger on those fields, only youngsters with nice uniforms, oranges at halftime, a ride home, a quick shower and then on to social media. What soccer is to the rest of the world, basketball is to the U.S. — a vital and possible way out. The closest thing to the world’s rabid soccer culture here is probably college football and the loyalty through generations it has spawned. The idea that we can’t find 22 world-class players in a country of 350 million just boggles the mind. If Eric Wynalda can find players on the sandlots of California it only shows that they’re out there, if you know where to look — that is if you want to look.

Another Lost Generation: When the original North American Soccer League folded in the mid-1980s and the U.S. failed to qualify for the 1986 World Cup (after trying to gain the right to host after Colombia dropped out), a bigly number of promising American players had to find something else to do. Remember the names? Ricky Davis, Steve Moyers, Jeff Durgan, Erhardt Kapp, Rudy Glenn, Perry van der Beck, Brent Goulet, Charlie Fajkus, et al. They were the first Lost Generation.

Now we have a new one: Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron, et. al. Stop me now. They are unlikely to ever play in another World Cup and will be forever collectively tarred by this failure.

Player Development: The great boggin of American soccer. Years ago, when I was helping to coach my daughter’s youth team, we practiced twice a week, had a trainer once a week and a game on the weekend. One parent said we didn’t practice enough. I asked if her daughter ever kicked a ball against a wall. Crickets.

Still, one of the girl’s dads came to me and said, “How can Carol [not her real name] get better?” I asked him what his sport was growing up, basketball was the reply. I asked how he tried to improve. His response: “I shot baskets by myself outside until it was dark.” Well, I told him, it’s the same (or should be) for soccer. It’s one of the sports you can practice on your own. That is where great skill is developed. And it is honed, perfected and enjoyed in unsupervised games, pickup. It’s not rocket science. These important skills cannot be taught. They can be refined and augmented.

The Silver Lining: People care, they really care. But we’re all hurting. Bad.

For some of a soccer generation that believes the U.S. began playing the game in 1994, the World Cup seems like a divine right. Wrong. England has missed out. Argentina, too. Did someone whisper Scotland? Now the Netherlands. Many people knew this day could come. Now we’re just like the rest of the soccer world. Licking our wounds.

In Trinidad and Tobago in 1989, Paul Caliguiri unleashed the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” In 2017, the U.S. simply shot itself in the foot.