For those who watched the World Cup qualifiers, the American players often looked tentative, with long stretches of idleness and indecision. Maybe the idea of pulling on the USMNT jersey was too much for some.
That the USMNT lost a critical game to Trinidad & Tobago, a country the size of Dallas, exposed the enormous cracks in the United States soccer foundation.
The USMNT’s feeble second-to-last finish in the final round of WCQ points to systemic problems throughout the entire U.S. soccer system. It’s not an issue of money or poor training facilities or a lack of technology. It’s about coaching, scouting and politics.
But perhaps the biggest issue is player selection. Why are the best American players, those who are playing in the best leagues in the world, not on the USMNT?
For the entirety of WCQ, the USMNT roster consisted primarily of MLS players.
The USMNT favored a 4-2-3-1 throughout WCQ with a starting lineup featuring GK Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), RB Graham Zusi (Sporting KC), CB Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca/Liga MX), CB Matt Besler (Sporting KC), LB DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), CDM Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), CDM Darlington Nagbe (Atlanta United), RM Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), CAM Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund/Bundesliga), LM Paul Arriola (DC United), and ST Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC).
Players like Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union) and Jorge Villafana (Santos Laguna/Liga MX) would normally come off the bench.
Nine of the 11 starters were in MLS.
And therein lies the problem: Major League Soccer is simply not a top league compared to leagues in Europe. For the top players in Europe, MLS is a place to end their careers while living in cities like New York, LA or (soon) Miami. No top European players are going to MLS to improve. They’re going to relax.
Of course, USMNT coaches prefer a roster stocked with MLS players. It’s nice to showcase American players who are playing professionally in America’s top league. Why bring in American players who have built their soccer careers in England or Germany under a European coaching staff?
But the reality is that US soccer lags behind the top soccer nations. What’s wrong Americans honing their skills overseas, competing against top competition, then returning home to play for their country?
Fielding essentially an MLS all-star team for the USMNT isn’t working. We can do better.
There are currently 22 players on the USMNT roster playing in top leagues in Europe, including 14 in England or Germany (6 in the Premier League; 8 in the Bundesliga). Of those 14, less than half (6) are regulars with the USMNT: Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin.
During WCQ, players on the USMNT roster playing in Europe rarely made it into the first team:
Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest/Championship) – 2 games
Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham/Premier League) – 1 game
Matt Miazga (Chelsea/Premier League) – 1 game
Lynden Gooch (Sunderland/Championship) – 1 game
Timmy Chandler (Eintracht/Bundesliga) – 1 game
Aron Johannsson (Werder Bremen/Bundesliga) – 1 game
Four others – Emerson Hyndman (Bournemouth/Premier League), Danny Williams (Huddersfield/Premier League), Terrence Boyd (Darmstadt/Bundesliga), and Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt/Bundesliga) – did not feature for the USMNT in WCQ.
And those are just the players who are on the roster. There are a number of other American players playing in Europe who were overlooked. For example, 20-year-old Weston McKennie of Schalke in the Bundesliga wasn’t even on the roster.
Why weren’t these Americans getting more time during WCQ? These are proven players who are used to competing against the world’s top players in high pressure games. In fact, the USMNT could field an entirely Europe-based squad that’s arguably more talented than the team that lost to Trinidad last October.
Here’s the good news: Immediately following WCQ, the USMNT began to experiment with its players playing in Europe. On November 14, the USMNT played Portugal in a friendly with a squad consisting of 11 players playing in Europe, including two players who weren’t featured in WCQ (Danny Williams and Weston McKennie).
Although it ended in a 1-1 draw, the U.S. side looked much more free-flowing and were fun to watch. By the way, the Americans’ lone goal came from McKennie, who surely could have helped during WCQ.
It’s time United States stopped building its national team around its MLS players and starts building it around its best players.