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Crashing and Burning on the Road to Russia, and How to Rebuild from the Ground Up

USMNT TIFO Hartford by Matt Rasmussen is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Crashing and Burning on the Road to Russia, and How to Rebuild from the Ground Up

Estimated Reading Time: 10 Minutes

The United States Men’s National Team went into their final qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday night with one mission: Don’t lose. The end of the two year qualifying was near. They held a 7 goal advantage over Panama, 12 over Honduras, and were going in to play the only team already eliminated from the Hexagonal group (the final 6 in the CONCACAF region). The top 3 qualify automatically, with the 4th place team slotted for a 2-leg home and away playoff against the Asian Football Confederation playoff team, Australia. I know, Australia isn’t part of Asia, but they play under that region’s football body these days. All they really needed was 1 point. A draw. Against the team that had only managed 3 points in 9 matches. That, at the very least, would get the US to the playoff. But they lost. And it was ugly. That, coupled with Panama and Honduras wins, meant The United States finished 5th in the Hex and will miss their first World Cup since 1986. The tough part is it could 100% have been prevented. The US should never miss out on World Cup qualification. Ever.

Final CONCACAF Hexagonal Standings

Final CONCACAF Hexagonal Standings

This match looked like Mission Impossible from the start. Fresh off a 4-0 thumping of Panama in Orlando last Friday, Bruce Arena, the US coach, decided to switch up his formation and deploy his players in different positions. Let it be known now, I absolutely despise Bruce Arena. His decision making makes absolutely no sense to me. You’ll see excuses about the soggy pitch, the travel to Trinidad, that “they were better than us on this day”. It’s all BS. Sure, those are factors. Balls couldn’t be played long on the ground. Speed was neutralized. The ball skipped and died on passes that otherwise would have smoothly slid across to another US target. We scored an ugly own goal, and just couldn’t capitalize. But this is on you, Bruce. You need to find a way to adapt, and you’re stubborn as a mule. You are, in my eyes, the main reason the United States is missing the World Cup. There’s a lot of blame to go around, but the buck stops at Arena for me. Their previous qualifiers this year were generally underwhelming until they finally found something that worked against Panama.

So why change? Why not stick with what works to all but guarantee a win, and subsequently an automatic bid to Russia 2018? The answer is simply that he’s not the right person for the job. He’s cocky and stuck in his ways and, if he’s not fired this week, I don’t see a way forward anytime soon. The US was flat out lazy. Guys weren’t chasing, were getting caught out and just didn’t look like they were even trying.

I can’t begin to explain how frustrated I am. This crop of young US players is the best I’ve seen across the board and they have been grossly underutilized. Don’t get me wrong, I love guys like Clint Dempsey. He’s the heart and soul of this team, and embodies the grit and determination you want in a player. He’s a true “blue collar” guy, grinding it out, working for everything he achieves. But it’s time to move on. He can barely play a full half anymore. Tim Howard is the best keeper we’ve ever churned out, but he’s slow to react these days. We need to infuse the new blood and not keep with the guys who have been part of this team for the better part of 10 years. We’re still playing guys like Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler and expecting different results. This isn’t to say they aren’t talented, but they’re not able to adapt to today’s game. We need more pace, creativity, and movement off the ball. Today’s game is faster than it was when the tenured guys on this squad started playing. We need change, and we need it now.

Soccer was supposed to be the sport of the future in this country. Remember Freddy Adu? He was a phenom at 14 that got over-hyped because he was the first youth player in ages who wasn’t a keeper who showed promise. Fun fact: He’s only 28 today. Every time we have a promising young player all the attention turns to them and how they will put the US on their shoulders and take us to great heights. That’s some crushing pressure for anyone, let alone someone who hasn’t completed high school. And that’s just scratching the surface of the problems we’re facing with the great game at the moment. Buckle in, this is going to be a frustratingly bumpy ride.

Let’s start at the youth level. We have a pay for play system in the US that makes it genuinely unfair for lower income youth. If you want to get in on club soccer as a kid, the cost can be anywhere between $2500 and $5000 for the year. This is significantly more expensive than in other sports, so it deters families from allowing their kids to play soccer. Let’s be real for a minute, all you need is a ball and some shin guards. That’s it. There’s absolutely no need for the program to be this expensive. We’re then handcuffing people who don’t have the funds, and that defeats the purpose of getting kids into the sport in the first place. If we truly want to groom kids from a young age, and filter them into academies and get them into MLS and the national team, we need to make it easier to do so. Soccer should be inclusive, and we need to fix that.

There are 3 professional leagues in the US/Canada. The top tier is MLS, then we have USL and NASL which are both considered second tier. NASL has since lost its second tier status, and will drop to be a third tier league next season. In every other country with professional soccer leagues, they are tiered and face relegation. If coaches, players, and teams were up against the pressure of relegation, we could create more of a sense of urgency and incentive for teams to invest in themselves. Players play harder, coaches get more tactical, and the franchise can iron out a youth program. If they make this youth program affordable, they can get a wider array of talent to feed into their first team, and start really creating a homegrown culture that doesn’t really exist in US Soccer outside of some of the bigger organizations like the Seattle Sounders. The best way to handle this, though unlikely, is to more evenly spread the teams in NASL and USL. Currently, MLS has 22 teams, USL has 30, and NASL has 8.

My proposal is to do away with the conferences in MLS, and treat the league as one. At the end of the season, the teams at the bottom 3 positions in the standings would drop down to USL. This is a heavy hit for an organization. They lose market share, media rights plummet, and it becomes more difficult to afford top players. On the flipside, the top 3 teams in USL would then be promoted to MLS. They are then coming into more rich media contracts, money they can spend on players, and other perks. Then we essentially do the same thing with NASL, which I’m sure the leadership wouldn’t be fond of, however they are the natural league to be on the bottom. As I mentioned before, we would need to spread the teams out a bit more evenly. This is a bit rash, but my proposal would be this: Take the bottom 8 from USL and drop them into NASL, and for the first season don’t promote any NASL sides. After that, the bottom 3 from USL and top 3 from NASL switch leagues. This creates a more manageable, albeit not completely even, split. Alternatively you could set a specific number of teams per league, then split them out based on stadium size, funding, ticket sales, etc. Whether these are the right solutions or not, US Soccer needs to compete with the big guns across the world by finding a way to make relegation work. If you pair relegation with the reconstruction of our youth program, suddenly the US is a more appealing place to play, and we would be fostering legitimate competition.

Christian Pulisic

Now let’s get back to the USMNT. We have exciting players who play in the US and abroad, and we need to fuel their fire. The centerpiece of this group is Christian Pulisic. Pulisic grew up in Pennsylvania and has been a stud since putting on his first pair of boots. He’s currently 19 years old and plays for the top team in Germany’s Bundesliga (Borussia Dortmund). He’s earned 20 caps (senior club appearances) for the USMNT, and has scored 9 goals. He’s a firecracker who has the potential to be the first truly world class player the US has ever churned out. To put into perspective how impressive that is, take a look at these stats for Pulisic, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo before they turned 19:

Club games: Pulisic (60), Messi (34), Ronaldo (53)
Club Goals: Pulisic (9), Messi (9), Ronaldo (6)
International games: Pulisic (18), Messi (9), Ronaldo (0)
International goals: Pulisic (7), Messi (2), Ronaldo (0)

I realize it’s wholly unfair to compare him to Messi or Ronaldo, as they are far and away the two best players in the world, but this is the type of player we could have on our hands. At some point or another, I’ll go down the rabbit hole and do a whole post on the wonderkid. Let’s leave that for another day, though.

Keep Michael Bradley as your captain and only deploy Jozy Altidore if you have him up top with someone like Morris or Wood alongside him, and Pulisic playing just behind them. Scrap most guys who aren’t in their 20s, and put together a squad for today AND tomorrow. It’s important to take a look at where they are playing, the competition they’re up against every day, and how many caps they have to this point. This of course isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a solid group of guys who I think can help push the United States forward today.

DeAndre Yedlin (24, D, Newcastle United, English Premier League)
Cameron Carter-Vickers (19, D, Sheffield United, English Championship)
Lynden Gooch (21, M, Sunderland, English Championship)
Darlington Nagbe (27, M, Portland Timbers, MLS)
Paul Arriola (22, M, DC United, MLS)
Kellyn Acosta (22, M, FC Dallas, MLS)
Kelyn Rowe (25, M, New England Revolution, MLS)
Jordan Morris (22, F, Seattle Sounders, MLS)
Matt Hedges (27, D, FC Dallas, MLS)
Dom Dwyer (27, F, Orlando City, MLS)
Jesse Gonzalez (22, GK, FC Dallas, MLS)
Ethan Horvath (22, GK, Club Brugge, Belgian Pro League)
Matt Miazga (22, D, Vitesse, Dutch Eredivisie)
Bobby Wood (24, F, Hamburg, German Bundesliga)
John Brooks (24, D, Wolfsburg, German Bundesliga)
Julian Green (22, M, Greuther Fürth, German Bundesliga 2)

No matter what we do, we can’t stay static. We need to overhaul the system, make it more appealing and accessible for young players, and that will drive the motivation to compete. We need to fire Bruce Arena, and maybe even Sunil Gulati (US Soccer President). There needs to be a President, Director of Football, and coaching staff who are willing to work together and put together a coherent plan to help move things forward. The closest thing to progress we’ve seen in the past 20 years was when Jurgen Klinsmann came on board as Head Coach and stressed the need for players to move abroad, and not just stick to MLS. To beat the best you need to play, and learn from, the best. MLS is certainly not the best, yet Arena has relied heavily on older, MLS based players. This isn’t to say that there isn’t decent competition here and that we shouldn’t pull from MLS at all, but it pales in comparison to some of the top teams in Europe. Arena took a shot at European teams earlier this week, calling them “hotshots” and saying they don’t know what it’s like to play in CONCACAF. And he’s right about that. The difference is they play much more difficult competition in UEFA. Those are some of the most elite squads in the world, so just shut up, Bruce. You don’t have what it takes to hack it, so we need to move on from you. I’d like to see someone like Caleb Porter take the reins. He currently coaches in MLS at the Portland Timbers, and has turned them into a respectable organization, and won the MLS Cup a couple years ago. He even has experience at the International level having coached the US U-23 squad back in 2011/2012.

To continue beating a dead horse, US Soccer needs some big changes and it needs them now. This loss sets this team back years, and improvement needs to be apparent pretty quickly. Just in a time at which we’re putting out players like Pulisic, we’re not qualifying for the World Cup, proving to the rest of the world that we just don’t want it as badly as them. I leave you with this hilariously frustrating, or frustratingly hilarious, rant from Taylor Twellman. I absolutely cannot stand Twellman, but he hits the nail on the head. As a broadcaster, I have almost never agreed with him. But you’ve got it this time, Taylor.

Kevin is an actor, director, playwright, and musician who works in tech. He is die hard New England sports and an avid Tottenham supporter. His qualifications include scoring 1 point in his elementary school basketball career, 4 years of mixed little league results, and breaking his arm with a skip-it days before pre-season workouts started for Freshman football.

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