The thing to remember is that last night wasn’t the failure. It was a failure, sure, falling 4-2 to Canada in a game that felt like a prolonged and particularly sadistic euthanization that eliminated Team USA from the World Cup after just two games. But Canada’s better. They have better players, and more good players, and their best players are better than our best players. This is the headline: Team USA lost to Canada, like they were expected to. This is the context: Team USA never had a chance, not against Canada and not in this tournament, thanks to wrongheaded roster construction and coaching that felt from the first more like sabotage than strategy.
The Canada loss was just the coup de grâce; the 3-0 loss to Team Europe, a fine enough group of players who still hadn’t played together more than three times in their life, was the signifying failure. This was a team sorely lacking in offensive weapons, and what’s worse, that was partially by design.
From the start, GM Dean Lombardi and the Team USA executives spoke about giving the team a clear “identity.” (That’s a direct quote.) That identity became painfully obvious with the hiring of John Tortorella as head coach: This would be a team built around “hustle,” “energy,” “grit.” (Those are all scare quotes.)
The problem there was that grit is and should always be a complementary virtue; it serves an already-good team. There is a reason an NHL team’s energy line is usually its fourth of four.
The U.S. left home a bunch of potential goalscorers in favor of Tortorella’s preferred old-schoolers and role players. The knock-on effect of this is that on a team full of role players, everyone has to shift up in order to fill the roles that the roster selection didn’t provide. Ryan Kesler, a skilled agitator who managed to get himself ejected from a pre-tournament game, had to play the boring part of well-behaved top-line center against Canada. Justin Abdelkader, a low-scoring grinder whose presence on this team at all was questioned from the very beginning, started on the second line last night.
In 120 minutes of hockey, Team USA scored two goals; this was a team that desperately could have used Phil Kessel or Tyler Johnson or Kyle Okposo taking shots. Team USA held a lead for all of 90 seconds; Cam Fowler or Justin Faulk or Kevin Shattenkirk manning the blue line would have been better.
Both games were started by Team USA’s third-best goalie.
Tortorella couldn’t even stay philosophically consistent. After just one game, he decided more offense was needed and dressed Dustin Byfuglien and Kyle Palmieri, who had sat against Europe. Brandon Dubinsky’s best role is to make Sidney Crosby’s life miserable, so naturally he played the first game and was scratched against Canada. Despite Team USA’s focus on identity, it never had one.
“I feel like we let our country down, we let ourselves down,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “You come into this not knowing how many more chances you’re going to get and to be out after two games is extremely disappointing.”
At least one American player was enjoying himself last night.
But that wasn’t even the harshest Twitter burn of the night. That honor belonged to two-time Paralympic gold medal-winning sledge hockey player Josh Pauls. (He later deleted the tweet.)
Blow up Team USA. Burn it to the ground. Bring in a coach who doesn’t think skills are anathema to character. Bring in a GM who understands international play is different than the NHL and can keep up with the rest of the world. It is time to stop pretending that the answer to narrowing a talent gap is to value a metric wholly separate from goalscoring. As much as this country prides itself on a Protestant work ethic, the point in building a World Cup team isn’t to feel good about the things they do do well.
Team North America, the 23-and-unders, provide the only sliver of hope. The absolute best thing you can say about Team USA’s future is that its most talented players aren’t eligible to play for it yet.