What began as a day of optimistic assumptions regarding the USMNT‘s World Cup fate ended in the most ignominious way imaginable.
Against Trinidad and Tobago, CONCACAF’s worst remaining team, who had nothing to play for, needing only a draw to wrap up a spot in Russia, the US faltered by a 2-1 scoreline. Combined with Panama and Honduras both getting wins at home against Costa Rica and Mexico respectively, it meant that the worst possible outcome of the day became a reality.
Fool’s Gold Generation: USMNT Lost Decade Culminates in Abject Disaster
The United States’ 2018 FIFA World Cup dream is officially over. When the opening match kicks off on June 14th of next year, it will mark the first time in 32 years that the US will not take part in world football’s quadrennial festival. Instead of representing their country on the game’s biggest stage, players will be sitting at home wondering what could’ve been.
Let’s not sugarcoat it. This is a disgrace and an embarrassment of unprecedented proportions. October 10, 2017 is a date which will live in infamy not just in U.S. soccer history, but in the history of American sport. You have to go back to the collapse of the old NASL in the mid-1980s to find a more massive setback for the game in the States.
On-Field Ineptitude Dooms USMNT Tuesday
Ignoring the financial ramifications of this failure, which are fairly immense in and of themselves, let’s instead focus on what transpired on the field to get the US into this mess. Both Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena deserve their fair share of blame for tactical and personnel blunders over the course of the Hex. But it’s foolhardy to not discuss player shortcomings as well.
Other than perhaps inserting him in the starting XI Tuesday, can you really blame Arena for Omar Gonzalez’s ridiculous gaffe which led to an own goal? And credit Tim Howard for letting in a long-range goal from Alvin Jones that carries with it scarily ironic similarity to Paul Caligiuri’s “shot heard round the world” in Trinidad 28 years ago. The “secretary of defense” from just over three years ago looks more and more like someone who needs to depart the Cabinet.
Yes, Arena overly relied on aging players, much like he did in 2006, the last time the Yanks qualified and didn’t get out of the group stage. Once again, it’s his likely undoing as his second tenure at the helm of the USMNT likely ending similar to his first, with him getting sacked. That said, Arena is working with a player pool that doesn’t get enough scrutiny for underachieving this decade.
Was 2014 Really a Success?
His two predecessors faced the same dilemma. Yes, Klinsmann in 2014 and Bob Bradley and 2010 saw their respective sides qualify for the World Cup knockout stage. But it’s a wishy-washy narrative to construe those tournaments as overwhelming successes for the USMNT. Did they meet expectations? Probably. Did they exceed expectations in either tournament? Very hard to make a successful argument that they even came close to doing that.
Take the 2014 competition. While it’s true they finally beat Ghana after losses in the previous two World Cups, they let three points inexplicably slip away against Portugal. As you can see from the linked video clip, a Michael Bradley turnover in the middle of the park precipitated the buildup to Cristiano Ronaldo’s majestic cross to set up Silvestre Varela for the equalizer. And let’s not forget that the only reason they made it out of the group in the first place was Germany routing Portugal, giving the US favorable goal difference.
And what about that Belgium game in the round of 16? Howard obviously emerged as the star due to his heroics in making a World Cup record 16 saves. But it hints at how comprehensively the Red Devils outplayed the US field players on the day. Without Howard’s exploits, Belgium likely makes 7-1 a punchline (maybe Chris Wondolowski scores the one) two rounds before Germany inevitably did so against Brazil.
What About 2010?
Four years earlier, the US drew its easiest group since returning to the World Cup in 1990. Though they ended up finishing first, they needed Landon Donovan to bail them out multiple times. First came his initial spark early in the second half that helped the US eventually draw Slovenia, a nation with a population on par with New Mexico. And of course against Algeria, he scored arguably the most famous goal in US World Cup history in staving off a group stage exit.
A berth in the knockout stage followed. And make no mistake about it. The US couldn’t bribe their way to a more easier route to the quarterfinals, maybe even a semifinal spot. A win over Ghana in the round of 16 would’ve set up a match against an Uruguay side that came into the 2010 tourney having missed three of the last four World Cups. But we all know what happened in Rustenberg, South Africa. Or do we?
Do we remember that Howard was far from the reliable backstop he became at this same stage of the tournament four years later? How easily Kevin Prince-Boateng beat him to his right for Ghana’s first goal (Bradley’s lackadaisical distribution in central midfield played a part, by the way)? How cheaply he gave up the top half of the net on Asamoah Gyan’s game-winner in extra time? Yes, upon further review, 2010 marked the beginning of a decade full of missed opportunities for US soccer on the world stage.
Qualification Failure the Indelible Legacy of an Underachieving Generation
In soccer circles, the term “golden generation” gets bandied about frequently when discussing the player pools of certain national sides. The French squad of the late 1990s/early 2000s certainly qualifies, boasting legendary footballing names such as Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Didier Deschamps and Patrick Vieira among others. Then there’s Spain from roughly a decade later, with players like David Villa, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Iker Casillas. Both teams won their first ever World Cups in 1998 and 2010 respectively on the shoulders of these superstars.
Even if there’s a convincing argument that the current crop of US players overachieved over the course of the past decade, it likely wouldn’t match the accomplishments of France or Spain above. All things considered, though, and said argument is spurious at best. Did the US beat anybody they weren’t supposed to at the previous two World Cups? What about the Olympics? Well, that’s impossible since they didn’t qualify for either of them this decade. Is winning watered down Gold Cups in 2013 and 2017 the best this group was able to muster? It sure seems like it.
Brian Sciaretta delves into the shortcomings of the current player pool in a magnificent piece from American Soccer Now. In it, he points out that there’s a rather concerning dearth of regular national team contributors currently in or about to enter their prime years. Among capped players born between 1990 and 1994, only DeAndre Yedlin, Bobby Wood and Darlington Nagbe saw regular action when it mattered. Combine that with Howard showing his age, Bradley continually showing his ineffectiveness and nobody except Christian Pulisic stepping up and everything was ripe for a catastrophic finish to the Hex.
What the Future Holds
One day after the worst loss in U.S. Soccer history, it’s easy for doom and gloom to creep in regarding the future of the program. To say that changes are necessary moving forward is the biggest “duh” statement imaginable. It’s not just at the top too. The way the game operates at the grassroots level needs major fixing. The unfair pay to play model which too often causes hungrier, more deserving kids to fall through the cracks needs to be wholeheartedly reformed.
Despite the manifest shortcomings of this decade as laid forth above, there are promising indications that the next one turns out better. Pulisic, at 19 years old mind you, put this team on his back down the stretch and will continue to develop into a world class player. The U-20s made the quarterfinals of the World Cup at that level during its previous two editions. And the U-17s, despite losing to Colombia on Thursday, won two of three games in the group stage and have a chance to make a run in India. So it’s possible a golden generation of American soccer talent is in the midst of emerging.
But for now, Tuesday’s catastrophe serves as a scarlet letter around the necks of a generation that just set U.S. soccer back 30 years. It’s an affront to that pioneering group that included names such as Eric Wynalda, Alexi Lalas, Marcelo Balboa and Tony Meola. Their achievement in getting the US to its first World Cup in 40 years paved the way for the Stars and Stripes best performance to date 12 years later. That generation, including Donovan, Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Gregg Berhalter, pulled off two upsets en route to the World Cup’s final eight.
Since then, this group has interchanged between treading water and getting swallowed up by the Kraken of underperformance. It’s only fitting then that, in the Caribbean, amidst the incessant din of a water pump, in a half-empty stadium, against a B-team with no hope of qualifying, in the words of Lalas during his now famous televised rant, a US team that had been “given everything,” ended up “squandering everything.”