COUVA, Trinidad and Tobago – There are many places to start looking for why the United States finds itself uninvited to soccer’s global party but a phantom goal in Panama is not among them.
Wednesday morning saw the start of a long hangover for the men’s national team, with the repercussions of the previous night’s depressing elimination from the World Cup set to hurt for years.
It is easy in such times to get distracted. Panama, which along with Honduras leapfrogged over the Americans over the course of a wild night of action, did not deserve one of its goals as it beat Costa Rica. Gabriel Torres’ equalizing strike in the 52nd minute did not cross the line and should not have been given.
However, suggestions in the hours after the game that the U.S. should seek a back-door entry into the tournament by launching a protest are ludicrous and unhelpful. That’s soccer. Bad decisions happen. Video technology is needed and it is coming. Tough luck.
What is needed is a deeper look at the U.S. program and how to address the shortcomings.
Bruce Arena, for how much longer who knows, insisted “nothing has to change”, that there needs to be no wholesale overhaul of the system. Wrong. Absolutely wrong. How could it not be wrong? The U.S. has failed to qualify for the tournament from the easiest and most forgiving confederation of all, CONCACAF.
Yes, CONCACAF has improved, but the fact that it affords three automatic spots and one playoff place means there is a ton of wiggle room. In Europe, Switzerland won its first nine games in qualifying, lost its 10th, and might now miss out on the World Cup. For a while on Tuesday, the U.S. was primed to get an automatic spot based on three wins in 10 matches.
To get to the root of the problem there first needs to be some general consensus that there is one.
US Soccer president Sunil Gulati made a point on Tuesday that if Clint Dempsey’s late effort had gone in instead of hitting the post, the U.S. would have qualified and there would be no great inquest.
He’s not entirely wrong, but he’s entirely missing the point. Or points.
One is that the U.S. should never have been in position where it was susceptible to such small margins. Another is that while the overall state of the game in America is far more buoyant than at any other time, the national team has somehow snapped its own streak of seven straight World Cup appearances. And finally, that even if the team had somehow crawled over the line, it clearly had fundamental flaws.
Gulati was the man who set his stock in Jurgen Klinsmann, whose reign ended a year ago with many of the players having given up on him. It seemed like the right move at the time, but would a Klinsmann team, even with several of the group disliking him intensely, have also missed out?
Gulati then went for the safest option in Arena, which also seemed like a solid choice, especially when Arena’s first game in charge resulted in a 6-0 thrashing of Honduras.
Yet the wheels fell off when opponents worked out that the tactical system being employed was utterly ineffective at breaking teams down. Arena had a remarkable legacy in American soccer, thanks to his efforts in taking the team to its World Cup quarterfinal finish in 2002 and spearheading the Los Angeles Galaxy dynasty in Major League Soccer. That legacy has taken a hit, a significant one.
Arena got caught between two generations. The only time there was any consistent attacking during the campaign, Christian Pulisic was usually at the core of it. At 19, he was asked to shoulder most of the creative responsibility on a team with some colleagues nearly twice his age.
Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey have been incredible servants to the national team, but are almost unrecognizable now from their former best. It was often a mix of young and old, and it never really worked with any kind of consistency.
The players can insist all they like that there was no complacency after the Panama victory on Friday and heading to Trinidad and Tobago. That’s either untruthful, or at best, naive.
Take a look at a replay of the game, especially the first half. The performance was too casual and didn’t have the kind of urgency you need from a team fighting for its life.
Maybe they can be forgiven for thinking it would be easy to avoid defeat, which was all that was needed. All the fans and most of the news media thought that same thing. But professionalism demands that the players get their heads in the game when the opening whistle sounds, not when an underdog opponent has already established a two-goal lead.
Which leaves the final potential culprit to be discussed. Fans.
Did supporters expect too much? Did they not expect enough? Was there insufficient criticism after the awful defeat in Guatemala in the previous stage of qualifying, back when the Klinsmann regime was already beginning to crumble? Or are people unrealistic in thinking that the U.S. has a right to qualify for each World Cup when soccer remains, despite its progress and growth, outside the top three sports in America?
Maybe it is the latter, but consider this: Iceland is a nation of 334,000 people. That is about as many people attend Major League Soccer matches every week. And it qualified for the World Cup, doing so by getting through European qualifying no less.
The U.S., filled with riches and resources and one thousand times as many people, couldn’t scramble together 11 players capable of outdoing Panama and Honduras over the course of a long and forgiving campaign.
It is time for fresh ideas. It is time to try some things. Youngsters are playing the game in America, more of them and for longer and at a higher level than ever before. Yet it is not filtering through.
A couple of years ago the discussion was all about when America would produce a superstar like Lionel Messi. Over the next four years, it will be about whether the system can produce to a team that can reach, let alone belong at, world level.