What Happened to the USMNT: The Ugly Truth About the Beautiful Game – Book review

The 2022 Men’s World Cup is a fraught time for the United States. We are almost certain to automatically qualify for 2026, but the upcoming tournament is a building block to actually competing in the 2026 edition. With a number of very young stars expected to feature, the U.S. men’s team is under extraordinary pressure not only to qualify, but to compete in CONCACAF qualifying and in Qatar.

In that sense, a new book — What Happened to the USMNT: The Ugly Truth About the Beautiful Game — is well timed. Written by Steven Mandis and Sarah Parsons Wolter, the book aims to outline a successful strategy for the men’s team in international competition. Mandis is the author of The Real Madrid Way and (with Parsons Wolter) What Happened to Serie A. Admittedly, this writer has read neither, so I came to this book without preconceived notions about the authors and what they would say.

The authors examine the (recent) history of the men’s national team and use their results and some statistics to create a general plan for success for the men’s team. That plan focuses on the “why, how, and who” of the men’s national team, and if their goals in those three areas are in alignment, the team will find success. Without ruining too much of the book, the idea essentially is that the U.S. plays best not as supremely skilled technicians but gritty, determined players who thrive on counterattacks and opportunistic soccer. The authors call this the “Spirit of ’76” or the team channeling the underdog mentality that drove the men’s team in the 1990s and has driven the women’s team for decades.

The authors structure the book first by examining each World Cup for the men’s team since 1990. They review the matches and frame each match within their Spirit of 76 argument, that is if the team succeeds how it matches the why, how, and who principles. The book ends with a discussion of the major arguments around the success of the program, like pay-to-play, foreign-born players, and MLS’s role in player development.

That’s the concept, but the execution is poor. The authors spend about 60% of the book reviewing the previous World Cups. Notice I use the word “review” rather than “analyze” because a lot of page space is spent discussing what happened in the World Cup. Much of it is not even germane. For example, the book includes brief histories of Sam’s Army and the American Outlaws. I assume this is to show the U.S. soccer culture, but it is not presented that way. It comes across as filler. In other cases, the text included facts that served no real purpose to the narrative. Summarizing the 2010 World Cup, the authors note the U.S. “settled into their three-star hotel in Pretoria… a one hour drive north of Johannesburg.” The subsequent footnote points out FIFA was monitoring a global swine flu outbreak before the tournament. Completely irrelevant to the point.

It was hard to tell what annoyed me most when reading the book: pointless unrelated factoids, incredibly long footnotes with minimal relevance, or recapping past games in stilted language. There is a lot of filler in this book and content that barely touches on the main point. At times I struggled to make it through, especially as someone who has more experience watching and analyzing the game. The first half is certainly for newer or less experienced soccer fans.

Despite all that, there were genuine gems in this book. The authors do an excellent job at times contrasting the why, how, and who of the U.S. women’s and men’s teams, and show that over the years the USWNT has been successful by evolving, but not totally changing, their why and how. In addition, Mandis and Parsons Wolter do an excellent analysis of the major controversies around building the men’s team, and use understandable numbers to draw common-sense conclusions.

The last few chapters of this book left me feeling more positive towards it but it is hard to overcome the majority of the book being poorly constructed. I wish both authors would have focused more on their own why and how analysis, rather than the what. That would have made this a much better read and one I could have strongly recommended.

 

Editor’s note: What Happened to the USMNT: The Ugly Truth About the Beautiful Game is available from all fine booksellers, including Amazon.

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