In the aftermath of the United States’ stunning failure to quality for the World Cup for the first time in more than thirty years, it’s clear that U.S. Soccer has serious structural problems that need fixing.
We need to lower costs and remove barriers to entry for young players across the country – especially in lower-income, urban areas. We need to raise coaching standards.
But those structural problems aren’t new, and they aren’t what prevented the U.S. from getting to Russia next summer. Pay to play is a travesty, but we’ve had a pay to play system in this country for years.
Entering this qualifying cycle, The U.S. had gone to seven straight World Cups and advanced into the knockout stages at three of the last four and four of the last six. What happened? The team lost a core piece of its identity.
The U.S. has had some good teams over the last two decades, but they haven’t had any great ones. The respect national team won had everything to do with its tenacity, its togetherness, and its desire. No matter what, the U.S. were fighters.
That changed under Jurgen Klinsmann, whose penchant for divisiveness and disorganization was his undoing when his team absolutely quit on him in that humiliating 4-0 loss in Costa Rica.
Bruce Arena was brought in to revive those bedrock traits. The fundamentals. It didn’t happen.
The first half on Tuesday night told the story. Arena simply didn’t have his team ready to play. If he were a bad coach who never had his team ready to play, that’d be one thing. That was the frustration with Klinsmann.
But it’s not like Arena was incapable of motivating his players and game-planning during his year on the job.
His preparation for the Mexico game, for example, was impeccable. Arena had his team begin training in the 3-5-2 he was going to roll out in the Azteca on the first day of that June camp.
He made seven changes from that window’s first qualifier – a comfortable home win over Trinidad – each carefully thought out, each communicated with the team well in advance of the trip south.
It was a job very well done. His players were prepared, they knew what they needed to do, and they ground out a result.
That’s what was expected from Arena. He didn’t need to be a visionary. There was more than enough talent on hand to get to Russia. He just needed, with all of his CONCACAF experience, to get his team locked in.
Yes, absolutely, developing better players is the end goal for U.S. Soccer. But a lack of talent isn’t the reason the U.S. isn’t going to Russia.
On its good days, this U.S. team was a force. On paper, it was better than the team that advanced from the group stage of the last World Cup, and better than the team that advanced from the group stage of the World Cup before that.
Perhaps Arena thought the U.S. could waltz into the World Cup. The highs in this campaign, after all, were splendid. The 6-0 mauling of Honduras, the 4-0 shellacking of Panama – both must-win games, both handled with tremendous aplomb.
But of all people, Arena should have known better. CONCACAF qualifying might be forgiving, but it isn’t mundane. It’s a grueling process. The road trips are miserable. The refereeing is terrible. There’s always drama.
Arena seemed to understand this. When he made his comment about wanting to see “hotshot teams from Europe” play in CONCACAF, he was referencing about all of that.
But Arena’s actions told a different story. Whether it was overconfidence or simple miscalculation that led to the manager fielding an unchanged team with one central midfielder for the Trinidad game, we don’t know.
What we do know, however, is that the U.S. didn’t show up for the first half on Tuesday. They didn’t start the game with the requisite fire of a team playing a do-or-die road World Cup qualifier. They started it like a team that was already in.
“It has nothing to do with formations or not making changes,” Arena told The Washington Post on Thursday. “We didn’t get the job done. If we played the first half like we played the second half, there is no question we win that game or at least get a point. There’s no finger-pointing or excuses; it’s all on us.”
Whatever you think about Arena’s long-term prognosis for U.S. Soccer – basically that nothing has to change for the program to move forward – he’s right about that.
Alejandro Bedoya, speaking at Philadelphia Union training on Thursday, was in a similar frame of mind. “For me, sitting on the bench, watching guys not really getting stuck in – I just didn’t feel the proper energy out on the field,” he said. “We were kind of complacent. It was kind of lethargic.
“We should have been through easily,” he continued. “All we needed to do was freaking fight to get a draw in Trinidad, and we didn’t make it happen.”
Amen. The U.S. had better players than every team in the Hex except Mexico. Panama’s forwards couldn’t get on the field in MLS. This is the worst Honduras team in a decade. But those sides played like their lives depended on it. The U.S. did not. Perhaps they didn’t realize they needed to.
Arrogance was a theme throughout the campaign. It started with Klinsmann, who spent his last days on the job belittling the U.S.’s supporters, its soccer media, and blaming his players for the losses to open the Hex – which came just months after the third-round qualifying loss in Guatemala.
Want to talk about arrogance at the federation? Look no further than the scheduling of the return match against Costa Rica for Red Bull Arena.
The split venue wasn’t the reason the U.S. lost to the Ticos that night. But three, two, and even one cycle ago, U.S. Soccer never would have chanced playing a game at a venue where the opponent would get significant support. It wasn’t worth the risk.
Traditionally, the U.S. had taken every advantage it could get. That’s why it’s spent the last fifteen years playing Mexico in Columbus, preferably in the freezing cold. Home field advantage mattered. Making opponents uncomfortable mattered.
Scheduling such an important game just outside of New York City said, in essence, ‘home field advantage? We don’t need it.’
Arena, in hindsight, criticized that decision. He’ll soon be out of the job, with a once-giant legacy in pieces and little time left in his career to pick them up. Arrogance, ironically, has been one of Arena’s celebrated traits over the years. Not anymore.
The U.S. played on Tuesday night like missing the World Cup was an impossibility. They could not have been more wrong.