Friday, October 13, 2017

Thoughts about the US Men's National Soccer Team Debacle

All they needed was a single point.

A draw.

Against Trinidad & Tobago, the worst team in CONCACAF.  (For the uninitiated, this is the relatively easy group that the US finds itself within FIFA and must come in third in the group to qualify for the World Cup.  The toughest competition -- Mexico).

Okay, on the road.

Okay, on a bumpy field.

Okay, before a stadium that was more empty than full.

And they lost 2-1.

Compounding a terrible display was the fact that in order to remain third in the group behind Mexico and Costa Rica, the US needed Mexico to defeat Honduras and Costa Rica to beat Panama.  Neither came through.  Those results meant that Panama is going to the World Cup and Honduras is in a playoff with Australia to try to get there.  This is the first time the US has not qualified for the World Cup since 1986.

Here are some thoughts:

1.  Christian Pulisic is by far the US's best player, the only world-class player on the roster.  (Tim Howard was, but at 37 he is past his prime).  Likewise, while Clint Dempsey had his moments on the international stage, he, too, is past his prime, as is Michael Bradley.  Neither of them, in their primes, was nearly as good as Pulisic, who is only 19. 

2.  The US needs several dozen more Pulisics -- talented youngsters who are playing for elite teams in Europe -- and, get this, actually playing, as in starting.  Until this happens, the US will not fare better than advancing out of the group stage and perhaps winning a single game in the knockout round.  The talent just is not there.  Sure, you can argue that before 2010 Spain had a ton of talent and never won and that the same holds true for the Belgians, who are loaded with world-class players.  But even if some talent-laden teams falter (France in 2010 in South Africa), other talented teams come to the forefront, not the US. 

3.  The US needs its best players to play in Europe; the competition in the top leagues -- England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy -- is better than it is in MLS.  MLS makes life too comfortable and doesn't offer the intense soccer atmosphere that Europe does.  The cultural mindset has to change.

4.  Imagine how bad the US would have been over the years if the US hadn't had armed forces bases in Germany, soldiers who married German women who gave birth to sons who became good players.  What this says is that the culture for developing soccer players in the US needs an overhaul.

5.  The US needs to recruit better athletes into the soccer developmental system.  It also needs to create an academy environment where the best youth players are not trying to get into college but are vying for placement with teams in the top leagues in Europe, even if it means moving far away from home and then going out on loan.  That's just the way the world works in soccer.  The advent of studies showing the danger or playing American football might steer some talented youths into soccer.  Apparently, Odell Beckham, Jr. was an outstanding soccer player.  Imagine if some talented NFL players were soccer players -- imagine Megatron, Calvin Johnson, as a goalie.  He'd still be playing, and the bet here is that he'd be one of the best in the world.  Darren Sproles?  He's be an outstanding two-way midfielder, no question about it.  How about Zach Ertz as a center back?  Beckham Jr., not to be confused with soccer's main Beckham, would be a striker or central attacking midfielder.  The possibilities are endless.  Just prying 5 of the ESPN top 300 football recruits every year into soccer at age 14 could do wonders for the US's developmental program.

6.  The bureaucracy has gotten stale.  I have nothing against either Sunil Gulati or Bruce Arena, except that we need a full-time head of US Soccer and pay her/him accordingly and that we need a coach who is not recycled.  I have heard great things about Tab Ramos, but I wonder if the US should poll the top managers in Europe and recruit and up-and-comer, say an assistant from Manchester City or Juventus or some squad like that -- and put him in charge.  Otherwise, the risk is to recycle people who have had mixed success.  The US could find a real star, and it needs new ideas.

7.  The roster selections should be devoid of politics, and the lineup likewise.  I recall a discussion years ago about the English National Team.  Sure, it was okay to have both Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard on the roster, because both were stars, but it was far from clear that they should be on the pitch at the same time.  There also were players on the roster who got there because of lifetime achievement awards versus being the best for the team at the time.  A case in point is Pulisic -- it seemed like it took both Juergen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena too long to work him into the starting lineup, even when it was clear that he was the best player on the roster and perhaps, even at 19, in US history.  The latter contention is a reach, but within the next three years, barring injury, the fans will be saying that.

8.  Good organizations are strong from the core on down.  Steve Samson, once the U.S. coach, offered that the US was a nation of midfielders.  The reasoning was that kids are treated almost robotically in youth programs and have little opportunity to play pick-up games and freelance the way they do in other parts of the world.  The NYT magazine several years ago had a great article about the Dutch system; while the Dutch system is off-kilter now (Netherlands missed 2016 Euros and will miss the 2018 World Cup), they had a good idea for developing young players and helping fund the soccer federation. 

The loss to Trinidad and Tobago and the corresponding missing out on the World Cup is a huge blow to U.S. men's soccer.  MLS had started to generate momentum, and the advent of the English Premier League on television in the US started to generate more interest.  What remains now is an interesting dichotomy -- a stronger and growing appreciation for the international game, and a decreasing one for the U.S. game.  The next president of U.S. soccer, and the next coach of the men's national team, will have to deal with that. 

Regardless of the politics, who is the next president of the federation and who is the next head coach of the men's team, one major fact remains -- you cannot sustain winning without top talent.  The debacle within CONCACAF demonstrated this markedly.  You can have the best organization in the world, but you cannot win without talent.  Right now, only Pulisic would have a chance to make the World Cup squad of the major contenders in 2018, and he might not make all of them.  He wouldn't start for any of them -- Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, England, Belgium -- and he probably wouldn't make the German or French teams.  Remember this, Belgium is a country about 1/22 the size of the U.S., too, with about 15 million people.  They have a roster that most would envy.  The U.S., with about 315 million people, cannot find 11 players to contend seriously internationally.

Whoever takes the helm of US Soccer needs to figure out how to chance all of this in a hurry.