A failure on all levels

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Santa Clara, CA — USA vs. Colombia; COPA America

Last night was a disaster for everyone who is invested in the sport of soccer in this country. All the U.S. Men’s National Team had to do is defeat Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night. Even a draw would likely be enough because of Panama and Honduras would have to make up improbable goal differences. Instead, the USA lost 2-1 to Trinidad and both Panama and Honduras won their matches against already qualified teams. The USA does not qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Again, all they had to do was defeat T&T who was well eliminated. Even a draw would have been enough given the goal difference at the time. There was no plan for if T&T went ahead. Panama and Honduras were playing teams already qualified for the World Cup and were playing for their lives and got the results they needed. We didn’t. Panama’s first goal should not have counted (the ball never went completely over the line), but we shouldn’t have placed ourselves in the position we put ourselves in in the first place.

No team has a divine right to reach the World Cup. Chile was in third in CONMEBOL heading into the night and finished sixth and eliminated after losing to Brazil and results (like Argentina’s) going against them. Argentina went from sixth to third and got there thanks to Lionel Messi. Australia is in a playoff against Honduras thanks to Tim Cahill. Argentina and Australia got to where they are thanks to their best player and the team rallying behind him. Christian Pulisic was our best player the last two games and in T&T, his teammates let him down. It would be unfair at this stage to bank all future hopes of U.S. Soccer success on him at this point.

This is a failure on all levels of American Soccer and in all areas, there needs to be change.

Since 2011, the USA have missed an U-17 World Cup, an U-20 World Cup, TWO Olympics, and now a main World Cup. The women almost missed the Women’s World Cup in 2011 before righting the ship in a playoff against Italy. A lot of this falls on Sunil Gulati. He appointed Jurgen Klinsmann to take the US to the proverbial next level. He couldn’t do more with less and enter Bruce Arena as a PANIC appointment (Past Associations Needed in Crisis). He could not get the job done and neither could the players on the pitch. Add on top of that the poor treatment of the Women’s team in terms of pay and playing on pitches that are comparable to those the men play on for friendlies, then Gulati should not be re-elected as President of US Soccer.

As for the league structure, below MLS, the lower leagues are a total mess. The North American Soccer League (NASL) came in with the notion to challenge MLS for Division I status by having no salary cap, no limit on foreigners, and the New York Cosmos (in name only). That league is near collapsing. USL was granted Second Division status this year and ten of its thirty teams(!) are MLS reserve squads and some teams like Cincinnati (who average 21,199 per match and were drawing in excess of 35,000 for Open Cup matches), San Antonio, and Sacramento have eyes being in MLS one day. I have previous stated that I am in favor of pro/rel, but also not naïve enough to believe it will happen overnight. There simply needs be more stability in the lower leagues before we can even think of that.

As for MLS itself, it has a noble goal of trying to be an elite league, but it can’t do that unless steps are taken so that its clubs are better prepared to compete in and win the CONCACAF Champions League. That’s on top of not making up the rules on player transactions as they go along and placing different standards for different clubs such as letting Atlanta playing at Mercedes-Benz Stadium while insisting Minnesota build a new stadium.

There are calls for promotion and relegation among fans in US Soccer, but that’s always going to be a non-starter unless there is a more stable pyramid beneath MLS and standards for Divisions II and III and so fourth are laid out and met and the consortiums owning these clubs are more stable. It’s more like every one for themselves like in indoor soccer. Speaking of indoor soccer, I cannot wait for the new Professional Futsal League. Indoor soccer as many of us grew up with has been stuck in the 80s longer than Pac-Man.

In an irony not lost on fans here, MLS has been very good to the likes of Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras. The match winner for Panama, Roman Torres, was scored by a player who makes his living in Seattle. Costa Rica has Brian Ruiz and Keylor Navas. The player who scored the goal on Saturday (because the match was delayed a day for a tropical storm) to send Costa Rica into the World Cup was Kendall Waston—defender for Vancouver Whitecaps.

MLS has also seen the likes Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore return from Europe in recent times. They have been good for their club teams, but not all the time for the USA. So should there be steps taken where MLS clubs and other pro league should be mandated to do more to develop American talent? I’m not going to say there shouldn’t be.

Then there’s Youth Soccer. Pay to play is a complete joke—especially at the costs being bandied about. Absent making it free, players who want to kick a ball around should be given more places to play outside the current structure and should at very least be more affordable to people who otherwise cannot afford pay-to-play organizations.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but as someone who has followed this sport in excess of 30 years, I can at least suggest what needs to happen. What needs to happen now is for all the stakeholders in US Soccer to wipe the slate clean and give the whole Federation a direction that I feel is sorely lacking. We also need to set our own identity instead of trying to copy others wholesale such as Germany. Iceland and its population of 330,000 are heading to Russia and all thanks to setting a plan which included getting coaches certified and giving players facilities where they could play year-round give Iceland’s climate. Everyone knows about how Germany rebuilt after Euro 2000, chief among its ideas was making it compulsory for each club in its first two divisions to have a youth setup.

We in the US keeping telling ourselves that we are the “Greatest Nation in the World”, but  in recent times it feels as if we have taken that title for granted. A huge portion of the population, and the same holds true in portions of the American soccer scene, appear entrenched in their own bubbles, refuse to acknowledge others, and have no plan for when their bubbles burst. For US Soccer, they do need a new president and the stakeholders from the federation, MLS, lower leagues, youth soccer, and so forth need to come together, get on the same page, and give this program and the sport leadership and direction and stick to it. Belgium established a plan after a series of failures which included a style of play and look where they are now.

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