It is 10 p.m. in the Eastern time zone of the United States and the U.S. Men’s National Team will not be in next year’s World Cup. This is the first World Cup that the United States has missed since 1986. This situation is truly depressing, disastrous, inexcusable, untimely, and, yet, entirely predictable. Ever since Jurgen Klinsmann was unceremoniously sacked for an exponentially lesser offence than this and Bruce Arena was hired after his success in MLS, the signs were evident. Arena, from his first team sheet, showed a bias against players who took their talents overseas and, by extension, favored players from MLS. (Side Note: it is apparently improper to say “the” MLS because it is Major League Soccer and that would not be grammatically correct. Just forget about the MLB precedent because MLS is always right.) MLS is a second rate league, if we are being generous, and the players in it play against second rate players. That means that players who could be sent overseas to improve upon their skills are squandered by looking good against substandard opponents because the manager of the national team has a bias. The players in Europe, who are automatically inhibited in Arena’s mind, are exposed to the best players in the world and have to fight every day to make their squads. Have you ever heard of the phrase, “iron sharpens iron”? Apparently, some have not or simply think it does not apply to soccer. Klinsmann, on the other hand, encouraged his players to go abroad to get exposed to the sort of talent that does not exist in the U.S. A brief case study:
Jordan Morris was going to be the U.S.’s next great forward. He was a strong player who had a nose for goal, but he followed the American model. He played in college and shined. Then, after winning the NCAA Championship junior year, he decided to turn pro. He went straight to the Seattle Sounders, seemingly without a thought. He had a history with the club and his father worked for them, so it made sense. However, in January 2016, right after he declared that he was going pro, Werder Bremen brought him into their winter camp and reportedly offered him a contract after a few weeks. He turned them down for the Sounders. He has his reasons, I am sure, but where could he be now if he had decided to play in a world class league in the Bundesliga? Maybe Christian Pulisic can shed some light.
Christian Pulisic was going to be the U.S.’s next great playmaker. He was a young kid with a creative mind, and he followed the European model. He signed with Borussia Dortmund at 16 and was promoted through their youth teams quickly, making his debut for the first team in January 2016. In April, he became the youngest foreign born player to score in the Bundesliga. He is now one of the most important players on a team in the UEFA Champions League.
These two players have their personal differences in position, play, and life, but their soccer lives are likely what separate a player who is struggling to stay on the USMNT roster (Morris) and one who is the most important player on the team (Pulisic).
This is not the only problem that brought about the downfall of the USMNT; Bruce has plenty more.
Jurgen Klinsmann is German, which, by stereotype, means he is blunt. This is a value not held in high regard in U.S. soccer culture, setting the larger culture of the U.S. aside, and he was derided for it. He told people what he thought about MLS and the USMNT culture before he got there, and it was not a positive review. This is one of the reasons they found it easy to fire him. Bruce Arena, as stated, values MLS above all others and never gets too biting in his comments. This sort of flimsy leadership is lauded and he has been given a cakewalk in the media leading up to this catastrophe. There was even a segment on ESPN leading up to this final blow in which one of the talking heads said that it would not be terrible if the U.S. did not make it into the World Cup because they are hosting one in a few years and the sponsors are not going anywhere. Who is left out in this equation? The fans. When this came through the screen, the groundwork for Arena’s absolution was plain to see.
Tomorrow, though it would be a tragedy of great proportions, there will probably be articles saying that Arena was given a bad situation and squad, that he did the best he could, that it was not the U.S.’s time, that “at least he won the Gold Cup,” forgetting that he did not have to beat Mexico to do it, that it is not that big of a deal, but this is wrong. He was given a team in last place in the hexagonal that had lost two straight against the best teams in the tournament with a cupcake schedule ahead of him and he finished in 5th, losing the final match against a team that had not won a game in the tournament, and after being in qualifying position at the start of the night. People will point to his unbeaten streak a few months ago, but he played the worst teams at home and won or played them away and drew. His best result before the Gold Cup was a draw at Azteca, which is, admittedly, a good result. After the Gold Cup and his anointing as the greatest manager ever, he went 1-2-1 against with his win coming at home against Panama, who is ranked 60th in the world, in a must win. In the end, all they had to do was draw tonight against a team that had won only a single game in the tournament and that was too much.
As far as a breakdown of the game is concerned, the only player that showed up was Pulisic, in my opinion. Tim Howard was quite bad. Omar Gonzáles put in an own goal. Everyone else can barely even garner a mention because I already forgot who was out there. Arena made some substitutions that did not matter: he put in Dempsey at the half, Acosta at the 72nd, and Arena’s ringer for this infinitely important match, Benny Feilhaber, in the 84th. Dempsey is the only possible difference maker in the bunch and he fulfills that role less and less frequently. Arena’s squad for these last two matches, which are among the most important in USMNT history, was not built to be adjustable. Aside from the starting 11, there was no one that could ratchet up game with any sort of consistency. Think about the players out there who could have made a different: Fabian Johnson, Matt Miazga, Ethan Horvath, Timmy Chandler, Lynden Gooch, Aron Jóhannsson, Julian Green. The only excusable name that was left off is John Brooks due to injury. The similarity between these is that they play in Europe.
The immediate future of the national team is dire. The mismanagement of youth development, the domestic league, and the national team in general is impermissible. As much as the heads of the organization did not like Klinsmann as a manager, he was a great ambassador for the team. He convinced many players with dual nationalities to become American players (Look at where that got Jóhannsson. Iceland is in the World Cup and he would likely be on the squad, but he believed in Klinsmann.) and encouraged our youngsters to challenge themselves in the best leagues in the world. The organization needs to be rethought and Arena should not last the night as the manager. We have the talent to be a ever-present competitor in the World Cup. The team must become youth-focused and the Olympics in 2020 is a must. That is the goalpost for the next manager and the nature of the Olympic tournament, being U-23, is perfect for the rebound of the squad. We are allowed to have 3 players over 23 in the tournament and those players need to be closer to 23 than 30 when the time rolls around. This cataclysm should be the death of the national team as it is and a new face and culture should be revealed. That is the only way that this team can hold on to its fans. There must be drastic changes that are made for the betterment of the squad no matter how much push back there may be.
There is only one thing that could kill the USMNT going forward and that is Bruce Arena; however, not having World Cup qualifiers on widely available television could do it too.