Neil W. Blackmon
The United States Men’s National Team is out of the 2018 World Cup, eliminated before the draw and it never had to come to this.
A cycle packed with more warning flags than a beach awaiting a hurricane riptide didn’t need to end this way, all scramble and hustle and panic and crushing sadness on a patch of soggy grass in the west Caribbean. It never should have come to this. There were plenty of nights and afternoons and even Sunday mornings where federation choices could have been more urgent, roster selections less forced, lineups and tactics more cohesive. There were plenty of “days between” to turn things right. Plenty of days and decisions and moments to make sure the US continued its streak of seven consecutive World Cups, dating back to 1990.
Instead, what was the most vital week-plus in US Soccer in two decades ended Tuesday night in surreal, astonishing, abject failure, with the US losing to an experimental, young but hungry Trinidad and Tobago team 2-1 on a muddy-sidelined, tall-grass but playable pitch at Trinidad’s Ato Bolden Stadium.
The first red flags and hints this cycle might be different- more harried, tense, complicated- came at the 2015 Gold Cup, where the US were continuously outclassed on home soil by inferior opponents. The US were pressed and outplayed by Haiti in the group stages, eking out a victory very much against the run of play. Then, in front of 60,000 loud, mostly red, white and blue clad fans in Atlanta (a full house in Atlanta just another preview of what was to come in this country during the cycle, as it turned out), the Americans were stunned in the semifinals by Jamaica, a country that had never won a competitive match on US soil.
There were many more failures to come, all met with narratives about progress and tales of growth and a federation moving in the right direction.
On Tuesday night, the foundations of those narratives caved in.
The sum of three years of soccer ended in collective failure and perhaps that’s why, in the underbelly of a muggy, stale-aired press room, it seemed strikingly disingenuous that US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati would go back to the his well of cautious statements, and offer the following:
“You don’t make wholesale changes on a ball being two inches wide or two inches in,” he said.
If that sounds familiar, it should, because that’s the well Gulati went to after the US lost the CONCACAF playoff in 2015 and missed out on the Confederations Cup, which, according to then technical director and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, was “priority number one” for US Soccer. Priority number two, according to the Klinsmann power point, was to “qualify for the Olympics, and make sure our young players have the experience of playing in a great competition.” Hours before the CONCACAF Cup loss, the US Olympic team failed too.
The CONCACAF Cup and Olympic failures occurred two years ago this night, on October 10, 2015, at the Rose Bowl, and Gulati’s statements came in an equally sweltering but far more crowded Rose Bowl press room.
Perhaps October 10th is a cursed date for US Soccer. More likely, Gulati needs a better answer.
Setting aside the obvious fact qualification wasn’t lost in one night, but over ten nights and one year, Gulati’s continued caution started this mess, of course. Any polemic to be written- and they will be written- begins with the economics professor.
Gulati’s urgency to hire “his guy” sent him big-contract in hand to Jurgen Klinsmann after striking out on him in 2010, even after Bob Bradley won a World Cup group and played a stylish Gold Cup final against a full-strength Mexico. And Gulati’s decision to double down on that big contract and extend Klinsmann after a 2014 World Cup where the US weathered a difficult group but performed poorly metrically seemed to defy an economist’s usual affection for weighing opportunity costs. It was a calculated gamble, I suppose, but one defied by soccer’s lengthy empirical calculations that second cycles fail- a phenomenon a younger Sunil had witnessed first-hand with Bruce Arena.
Klinsmann’s big ideas are useful as a CEO but put the US in a deep hole in the Hex. Klinsmann’s team was outcoached and outplayed by Mexico in Columbus, losing their aura of invincibility and three vital points in the process, and when, days later, they were humiliated in Costa Rica, Gulati finally had to make a change.
Had Gulati heeded history and acted sooner, he might have been able to bring in a different kind of manager, a visionary with a clean slate of ten games and friendlies and a Gold Cup to figure out the player pool and impose a style and attitude on a group of players craving discipline and leadership. Instead, he waited until the US were in a hole and then did the cautious thing, hiring a proven pragmatist. Asked why he waited, Gulati’s answer was largely the same as he offered Tuesday. “You can’t rush into these decisions,” he demurred.
Gulati needed a better answer.
Another person who shares blame with Gulati and certainly needs better answers is Bruce Arena.
Following the loss, the US manager answered multiple thoughtful, fair questions from the US journalism pool about the future of the US program with hardly surprising, but certainly disappointing deflection and defiance.
Hearing Arena Tuesday night, it was hard not to recall Jurgen Klinsmann’s command that American soccer journalists be less conciliatory, less accommodating, less deferential to positions of US soccer authority. Klinsmann understood that many of America’s soccer writers plied their trade from positions of passion, joy and a desire to grow the game at home. He urged them to “become part of the dialogue,” and even as he sometimes bristled at our criticisms of him, it was believable. These types of board-room, broad picture insights- not tactics and position-switches and depth charts, were always what Jurgen had right.
Listening to Arena Tuesday night, there seems to be only one plausible reaction. But you decide for yourself.
“There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing,” Arena said, largely emotionless in his fact-of-the-matter New York drawl. “To make crazy changes would be foolish.”
On the contrary, Bruce, to not make changes would be crazy.
This probably starts with the manager, who clearly took the forgiving CONCACAF process for granted even if he’d vehemently deny it. He admitted it, or at least made statements probative of taking the process for granted Tuesday night.
“This is a roster that needed multiple changes, had we qualified for the World Cup,” Arena said.
That’s odd coming from the manager who selects the players, and it forces one question and one conclusion.
First, if the roster was that flawed- why not fix it during the ten-plus months you held the job? This would seem in Arena’s job description, given that on assuming command Arena was always playing the role of faithful steward, forestalling retirement for a job he didn’t need. Undoubtedly, Arena was brought in as a stopgap, his job to put out Jurgen Klinsmann’s qualifying fire and see the team to Russia.
Second, the conclusion: you only wait to make the changes if you think not qualifying is impossible- or, at a minimum- highly unlikely. Arena’s arrogance was in thinking he would have time to evaluate the necessary changes later– he could get through the qualifying process, he believed, with a flawed roster.
Arena, of course, was the ultimate “cautious hire”, the manager with the World Cup quarterfinal credentials who knew the domestic league and had just enough tactical nous to right a rudderless ship. It’s ironic, then, that he would abandon the caution and methodology that got him- and the US- to Tuesday night, where a simple draw would have sent them to the World Cup next summer.
For seven games Hex games in charge, Arena had made multiple changes and used squad rotation to keep his players fresh, even as his tactics were at times unchanged. For seven games, it worked, and he utilized the same methodology to help the US win the Gold Cup as well this summer.
On Tuesday night, Arena gambled, abandoning the squad rotations and fielding the same eleven that decimated Panama in Orlando last Friday. It was the type of gamble the conservative Arena rarely makes, and it devastated the US, who came out of the gate flat, slow and complacent.
Knowing the US had played and trained for a week in hot weather, under extreme pressure, and after extensive travel and a limited training session thanks to a wet field, Arena abandoned the methods that had guided him through three CONCACAF World Cup cycles. The result was the most devastating defeat in the history of the US Soccer Federation. When you make those sorts of mistakes, you don’t get to lecture credibly on the foolishness of change.
The players failed too, of course, and not just Tuesday night and not just Omar Gonzalez. No, the US was good enough to weather CONCACAF’s forgiving format and simply failed.
A talent pool that was and is the deepest in history was nevertheless hurt by injuries and inconsistency and, to be frank, a lack of high-rent district talent. Christian Pulisic is a marvel but now he’s been deprived of a World Cup, and with it, the stage to showcase his magisterial skills on the largest stage in sport. He also lacked persuasive talent around him, a testament, borne out by results, as to how US development has failed- missing multiple Olympic games as well as a U17 andU20 World Cup this decade.
For all the joy fans have taken in Pulisic, US Soccer has struggled this decade to deliver the goods, its anachronistic, top-down structure and elite kingmakers resistant to the types of structural changes necessary to truly modernize the sport in America.
A sober, open, transparent discussion about US development must happen now, and probably should have happened regardless of whether the US won or survived with a draw Tuesday night. That discussion must include concerted development academy and scouting reform, just to start. And no Bruce, nothing about that is crazy. Nothing about that is “two inches deep.” Everything about that is necessary.
2018 was always going to be a defining year for US Soccer. Now it becomes even more vital.
Assuming Gulati doesn’t resign as USSF president- and there’s no indication he will- he’ll face opposition in February (with a new term beginning in March). His job is determined by a committee of stakeholders, mostly lawyer and business suit and tie types that will appreciate the constant economic growth under Gulati as well as his astute guidance of the political aspect of the job, which includes his ability to basically get the 2026 World Cup awarded to the USA, Canada and Mexico without much of a fight.
But the contest, which was an afterthought Friday night in the glow of the Orlando rout, has now become interesting. Add not qualifying for the World Cup to Gulati’s resume and the list of failures smells to high heaven. The ardor incudes the failure to qualify for the World Cup, the alienation of a World Championship US Women’s National team and colorable equal pay complaint, the failure to qualify for two Olympics, a costly buyout for a bad tactician, unspent money in the coffers when there’s a pay-for-play pandemic affecting youth development, multiple antitrust lawsuits and a failed World Cup bid lost to Qatari slave labor. Carli Lloyd going off in a World Cup, a win over a historic Spain and Landon Donovan’s group-winner in Pretoria can’t wash away that stench.
Gulati must be held accountable, even if the Sword of Damocles doesn’t fall.
As for the next manager, Arena’s resignation should come quickly and without argument. Last Thursday in Orlando, he reminded the media “he was hired to qualify the team for Russia,” and boasted that the US “had a really great year.” Arena failed to do the job he was hired for and as a result, the US have not had a great year. He must resign.
As for the fans, the youth coaches, the parents, and the players in our country’s various domestic amateur and professional leagues, remember this.
Our sport- growing in America at the fastest, most healthy rate in its history- will be under siege, starting now. There will be all manner of hot takes, from shock-jock rants about the inevitability of continued failure to nativist hits about the sport not being “American” to the tried and true and absurd “best athletes” take to the “you’ll never be as good as South America or Europe I told you so” rants.
These takes will sting but that’s fine. Let them talk and have their time in the sun. They don’t care about what happens to the game in the United States anyway. They’ve either closed their mind or made their mind up and will wither away and quiet down as soon as the talking point loses news value. These people are a distraction.
Remember 70,000 people saw professional soccer in Atlanta last month on a college football Saturday. Remember 30,000+ regularly pack a football stadium in Cincinnati to see second-division soccer. Remember no sport grew more at the gate this decade than soccer in the United States. Take heart in the domestic game, don’t be dismissive of the fans of the global game, and keep forcing the dialogue about the game back home.
Move the dialogue forward.
In Chicago, the federation must move forward too.
The next managerial hire for the United States will be the most important in federation history. Steeled by the crushing failure of Bruce Arena and Jurgen Klinsmann’s 2018 World Cup cycle, this manager- or a collective brain trust functioning as a participatory democracy, must be someone with knowledge and appreciation of the US development apparatus and an understanding of where it internally creaks and fails. This manager must understand tactics or not be afraid to shed ego to someone lingering in the shadows that does. Ideally, this leader will have connections to both the expansive Mexican and Latino communities of American soccer and the important European connections US Soccer has spent years cultivating. These qualifications sound heady and hard because they are. The dialogue about the hire must begin now. The dialogue needs a committee that isn’t steered wholly or largely by Sunil Gulati, who has swung mightily and largely missed on all but one hire. The future of the federation- and a first World Cup for an exciting generation of young US players just bursting onto the scene- depends on it.
A collective exercise in systemic failure has brought the US to this place, somewhere due south of rock bottom.
As the great Sam Cooke sang, “A Change is Gonna’ Come.” Get on board or get out of the way.
Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy founded The Yanks Are Coming in 2009. Collectively, they’ve covered over 50 US matches since, including 20+ World Cup qualifiers. They’ve done so largely at their own expense, out of love and passion for the sport and game in the United States. Follow them on Twitter @nwblackmon and @TYAC_Jon.