It’s been 15 months since the US lost to Trinidad & Tobago and missed out on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. In that time, the USMNT meandered aimlessly through a string of friendlies in 2018 without a permanent head coach. When a head coach was finally named, it did little to inspire the fans. But for better or worse Gregg Berhalter is now the coach and there’s nothing to do but strap up and move on at this point. With that in mind, it’s time to look forward. What should constitute success for the US in this new World Cup cycle? Obviously getting back to the World Cup is the top priority but just getting back to the World Cup should not be good enough. Some fans are of the opinion that failure should not mean the bar for success gets lowered but instead gets raised.
With that in mind, here’s everything that the USMNT needs to do over the next four years for the cycle to be considered a success.
1. Start performing well in friendlies
Since November of 2017, the US has played a string of friendlies. And while interim manager Dave Sarachan did a good job of bringing in a large number of young and new players into the team, the results were poor. He posted a 3-5-4 record (W-L-D) for a win percentage of 41%. It should be noted that every game except one was against either European or South American opposition, but the goal is to win and that didn’t happen much. Winning has to start somewhere and with the January Camp nearing its end with a pair of friendlies against beatable CONCACAF opponents (Panama and Costa Rica), there’s no time like the present. Winning is contagious and winning both games is a must, especially at home. There is also rumored to be a home friendly in March against Ecuador (as well as the already-announced friendly against Chile on March 26). For the Ecuador game, nothing has been officially announced but if it does wind up on the schedule, those are two more games that the US can win and quite frankly needs to win. There also figures to be at least one warm-up friendly before the Gold Cup and if the US can win five games in a row, they should have some excellent momentum built up heading into that tournament.
2. Win the 2019 Gold Cup
The Gold Cup is the one major international tournament that the US is expected to do well in on a regular basis. However, the US has not done well in several of the last few editions of the tournament. Yes they won it in 2017 and 2013 but those were editions that featured several of the other teams (namely Mexico) bringing their “B” teams. In years where it was all “A” teams, the US has not done so hot. They finished a dismal fourth in 2015 and got run out of the Rose Bowl by Mexico in 2011 final (despite having a 2-0 lead after 25 minutes). It also bears remembering that the 2009 final saw Mexico obliterate the US to the tune of 5-0. The US cannot become a global soccer power until it first becomes a regional power. Obviously for the last 20 years the US has been a team to beat in CONCACAF but never quite the team to beat. Becoming a regional power starts by winning the regional tournament. And this Gold Cup is doubly important for the US as a win this summer, coupled with their win from 2017, would ensure qualification for the 2021 Confederations Cup (an event the US has not participated in since the 2009 edition in South Africa where they made a run all the way to the final). Anything but a Gold Cup win means the US would have to endure another one-game playoff at the CONCACAF Cup to try to get to the Confederations Cup. The draw has not yet been held for the Gold Cup so the US does not know who the opponents in the group stage are, but the locations have been announced and the US plays its group stage games in St. Paul, Cleveland, and Kansas City.
3. Win the 2020 CONCACAF Nations League
For teams such as the US and Mexico who have automatic bids to the Gold Cup and join World Cup Qualifying in the semifinal round, the CONCACAF Nations League feels like a set of glorified friendlies and not a real tournament. However, they are officially competitive games, and since winning is contagious, the US needs to win it. Winning the Nations League after winning the Gold Cup would go a long way towards establishing regional supremacy and getting the fans fully back on board with the team. Nations League play for the US beings in September.
4. Advance to the knockout rounds of the 2021 Confederations Cup
If the US takes care of business and does what they need to at the Gold Cup, then this can happen. Even if they have to go to the playoff at the CONCACAF Cup, getting to this tournament is still possible. The Confederations Cup is an excellent opportunity for a team to test themselves against high quality opposition and it’s a great idea because it rewards teams who win. In 2009, the US had to play Italy, Brazil (twice) and Spain on their way to a second place finish. The experience in South Africa was invaluable the next year at the World Cup as they were already familiar with the climate, travel, venues, and tournament environment. While it would be fantastic if the US were to replicate that success in 2021, reality suggests that it isn’t likely. A trip to the knockout rounds ensures a total of five games instead of just three in the group stage. Finishing runner-up in the group and then getting third place is not an impossible task. While the 2021 edition of the tournament was originally slated to be played in Qatar as part of the rights to hosting the 2022 World Cup, FIFA decided in 2015 to move it to another Asian country due to extreme temperatures in Qatar in June (who would have though it could get so hot in a desert in the middle of the summer?). As of right now the only team to have qualified is France as the winners of the 2018 World Cup.
5. Win the 2021 Gold Cup
Pretty much everything about needing to win the 2019 Gold Cup holds true for winning the 2021 Gold Cup. It will more than likely be on home soil and would further cement the US’ place as the dominant power in CONCACAF.
6. Finish top of the Hex
Again, establishing regional dominance is of the utmost importance for this cycle. A pair of Gold Cup wins and a Nations League win would put the US close to earning the dominant moniker but finishing top of the Hex would seal the deal. There’s not a trophy involved but it’s still a big deal to finish at the top of the World Cup Qualifying table. The US has done it several times before: in 2013, 2009, and 2005. It would also be a very cathartic moment to finish at the top of the table after placing fifth out of six teams in 2017. Yes, it’s a little bit different than a regular tournament as it takes just about a year to get through the process, but there’s no reason the US shouldn’t be able to get it done.
7. Advance to the quarterfinals of the 2022 World Cup
This is where winning at a high level for the whole cycle is so important. If the US just muddles through the next few years and gets to the World Cup by the skin of their teeth, they are not likely to be drawn into a favorable group in Qatar. However, the more games they win, the higher the ranking, and the higher the likelihood of a friendly draw. And if the draw is good enough, then a deep run in the tournament is a realistic possibility.
This is another thing the US has done before, making a run to the quarterfinals in South Korea in 2002 (before losing 1-0 to Germany on a missed penalty when Torsten Frings handled the ball on the goal line). It’s vitally important for the US to make a deep run at the World Cup this time around because from 2007-2014 the team was basically treading water as a decent team with a pair of exits in the Round of 16. For the US to truly take that next step on the game’s biggest stage, they need to do better than they’ve done at almost every edition of the World Cup. A tall task to be sure, but if they win at a high level for the next few years, there’s no reason it can’t be done.
Failure does not mean the bar needs to be lowered. If the bar is lowered after a cataclysmic failure like not qualifying for the World Cup, it sends a message that failure isn’t really failure at all. It’s okay. Missing the World Cup isn’t a big deal. At the very least, the bar needs to stay where it has been. None of the goals set out in here are unrealistic because they are all something the US has done before. But if the US really and truly wants to become a global power, then the bar must be raised to expect and demand consistent, sustained success.
Simply getting back to the World Cup is not good enough. Splitting one of the two Gold Cups with Mexico is not good enough. Some might say that it’s not all about wins and losses but about building a style and just getting to the World Cup, which is just insane. If it’s not about winning, then what’s the point of any of this? Not only do all of these things need to happen for the US to have a successful cycle but the U-23 team desperately needs to qualify for the Olympics and have a good showing (their last appearance at the Olympics was in Beijing in 2008 and the last time they got out of the group was in Sydney in 2000).
The U-23 team is a perfect example of how lowering the bar after failure only sets you up for more failure. For the full national team, that cannot afford to happen again.
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