It’s hard to think of a single day that better encapsulated the pitiful state of American soccer culture than yesterday.
First we learned about an absolutely absurd, moronic, avaricious, unintentionally self-disgracing plan by the money-grubbing shitbrains in charge of soccer in this country. These geniuses are apparently attempting to organize a Tournament of Losers next summer in the U.S. that would host some of the prominent international teams that failed to make the World Cup. Rather than hibernating for a year or so in shame over how colossally the U.S. botched the World Cup qualification process—and rather than undergoing a sober and ruthless accounting of the specific ways the entire soccer system in America failed, and coming up with a strategy for how to fix these flaws—U.S. Soccer and their shady marketing arm Soccer United Marketing thought the best use of their time was to draw even more attention to the most humiliating incident in this country’s history in the sport by dreaming up a risible, though almost certainly profitable, World Crap.
That U.S. Soccer might have thought these were even halfway appropriate or feasible ideas—let alone that countries with actual proud soccer traditions would go along with it—would be a riotously funny example of how greedy and out of touch they are if it weren’t so depressingly plausible. Instead of U.S. Soccer trying to make us more like the rest of the world, they’re trying—and could very well succeed—in dragging everyone else down to our level, where the success of the national team isn’t determined by how many tournaments you make, how many games you win, or how many great players you produce, but instead how much money you earn.
But that was just the start of the day’s indignities. Around the middle of the afternoon, the USMNT suited up for the first time since failing to qualify for the World Cup and played Portugal in a meaningless, low-stakes friendly. The match itself was something of a positive—a measured positive, but a positive nonetheless. The team featured lots of promising young talents, many of the most promising of whom are already pushing themselves by competing at the highest levels of the sport. One of these youngsters did a real good thing and scored a nice goal. In the end, the game finished as a 1-1 draw. It was a fairly creditable result by a young team against largely disinterested opponents.
None of that was in any way objectionable. The bad stuff came after the match was over and Fox Sports cut to its postgame studio show, which featured none other than the architect of America’s World Cup qualification catastrophe, the arrogant clown himself, the man who’s yet to meet a question pertaining to the present and future state of American soccer that he couldn’t fuck up: Bruce Arena himself. And it went just about as poorly as imaginable, as the folks at ESPN FC couldn’t help but roast him for:
Arena’s very presence on a commentary team discussing the USMNT on TV so soon after he’d been allowed to resign was itself unbelievable. Arena had a single, simple job when U.S. Soccer gave him the USMNT’s reigns after firing Jurgen Klinsmann: Find a way to guide the richest nation on the planet—the second-most talented player pool in the region, with the single best player in all of CONCACAF—into at least a top-four qualifying spot and earn your way to the World Cup. That was it. Just, at bare minimum, be better than at least Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras, and Panama.
Arena failed. If he were ever to appear on live TV again after his royal fuck-up it should’ve been immediately after the match, as Michael Bradley, Sunil Gulati, and Christian Pulisic hoisted Arena by the seat of his pants and chucked him into a murky, crocodile-infested river so as to give American soccer fans some semblance of catharsis. Then Bradley and Pulisic should’ve done the same to Gulati, and afterwards Bradley should’ve handed Pulisic his captain’s armband and retired from international play. Maybe that would’ve been enough regain some trust between U.S. Soccer and the righteously angry fans they’d let down.
Instead, Arena’s post-bungling TV debut came as he sat on a nice cushy seat in a clean and quiet set and was asked softball questions about the team’s performance against Portugal, his own managerial tenure, and where he sees the sport going, as if Arena hadn’t mere weeks ago overseen the biggest fiasco in American soccer history. Elsewhere in the soccer world, police escorted Italy’s manager home to protect him from irate fans after his failure to lead Italy to World Cup qualification.
Why did this happen? Why did U.S. Soccer give Arena the chance to resign instead of the shit-canning he deserved? And why would Arena and Fox Sports think it would be totally fine if he appeared as a national team TV commentator right after his shoddy management let the country down? The clue to all that is in some of the rock-dumb comments Arena made during the broadcast.
Here is Arena responding to a question (one whose obvious answer is “Yes. Like, of course.”) about whether the American talent-spotting and -cultivating processes are letting would-be elite young players slip through the cracks:
“I do not agree with [the idea there are talented players falling through the cracks of the U.S. system] at all,” Arena said. “I think all the talented players are involved in our systems. We need to do a better job developing them. We see a variety of levels at the youth competition, we have very talented players on the field. When we look four or five years later, we can’t find them.”
Here is Arena on what he does see as a potential problem with how soccer is done in America:
“Today you saw a bunch of young players on the field,” Arena said. “They’re coming out of our system. So there’s some hope there. Obviously a number of them have moved on to European clubs as well.
“I think our system has to find a way to get younger players on the field. Major League Soccer is predominantly international players now.”
When asked by Alexi Lalas if MLS should mandate teams use players eligible for the U.S. national team, Arena replied: “It’s certainly a thought.”
And here is Arena’s reponse to the question of whether U.S. soccer is broken:
Well, U.S. soccer’s not broken.
Bruce Arena is and has always been a water-carrier, and he was given the U.S. job to make up for his predecessor’s principled insistence on challenging the status quo. To the powers that be in U.S. Soccer, Klinsmann was a loudmouth agitator who kept jabbing at their cash cow with a steady barrage of critiques of how soccer in America works and how he’d like to improve things. When said powers got fed up with Klinsmann’s pestering, and when the on-pitch performances of the team he led faltered enough to make the once-popular manager vulnerable, they axed him.
In his place they brought in a U.S. soccer lifer who owed everything to The Way Things Are and had no designs on even insinuating that the path the sport was on might be the wrong one. Arena was supposed to possess a pair of steadying hands to right the listing U.S. ship at the time he took over, but because his brand of media dust-ups involved him taking shots at those who questioned the wisdom of U.S. Soccer’s unjustifiably pompous and isolationist worldview, he wasn’t unceremoniously tossed to the sharks the way his actual job performance called for. And even now, when his career-defining failure has crystallized to any sane observer that there are indeed deep fissures in American soccer’s foundation that must be repaired if we are to progress, he’s still out here giving the same lame, “Everything’s fine, we’re doing things just right, we just happened to shit the bed on a fluke, no need for any big drastic changes to the brilliant plan those in charge have charted out for us—though if you should blame anyone, blame the foreigners” routine that does nothing but protect those with a vested interest in profiting from the system as it currently exists, while scapegoating those who bear the least fault for the state of things.
(Let me get this straight: MLS is amazing and run so intelligently and is practically perfect, but if there is a teeny tiny problem it’s that the teams incorporate too many non-Americans—you know, the ones that came up in countries with real soccer development traditions which made them into, like, actually good players—to give minutes to subpar American guys from the college system? And not the fact that, as a sad Pulisic pointed out in an article he wrote earlier this week, the entire American system under-prepares young talents—and, yes, loses them through the cracks, which is an inevitable consequence of the pay-to-play model—at the most crucial developmental ages, thereby making it all but impossible for world-class or even top-European-league-class players to emerge from this environment? If you say so ...)
During his second stint as USMNT manager, Arena proved that he doesn’t have the coaching acumen or ability to pull off a feat as unimpressive as mustering a draw against Trinidad and Tobago; in doing so, he lost the right to opine about soccer in America for a nationwide audience for at least a few years, if not forever. His brand of inferior coaching emerged from the sorry U.S. soccer system, and that plus his blinkered support of said system makes it even more evident that he should shut the fuck up and go sit somewhere far, far away from microphones and TV cameras while he thinks about the errors of his ways and his worldview. If American soccer is ever going to grow up, then a failed manager cheerily chatting about how he failed on TV just weeks after his failure has to be a completely untenable proposition, and likewise for the stupid and counterproductive rhetoric he espoused.
But that’s the thing. If the U.S.’s World Cup qualification disaster was to prove the inciting incident that sparked sweeping changes the likes of which are desperately needed, then all of this would’ve been self-evident. For that optimistic view of soccer’s future to feel justified, we would have to exist in a much different world than the one we currently find ourselves in. In that world, the leaders of U.S. Soccer would’ve known that leaking the possibility of holding a World Crap would be just about the dumbest non-starter of an idea imaginable. Gulati, the longtime U.S. Soccer president, would’ve faced so many waves of harsh criticism from fans and soccer leaders that he wouldn’t even think he’d have a chance to win reelection during the upcoming presidential elections. Arena would’ve known to either resign on the spot in the press conference after the Trinidad and Tobago loss or be fired the next day. Fox Sports never would’ve approached him to join their USA-Portugal postgame coverage, and even if they had, Arena would’ve known how much shit he’d have been in for had he took them up on it and declined.
Instead, U.S. Soccer really does seem to be pursuing their insane World Crap, Gulati has gotten off light and is a virtual lock to retain his presidency if he chooses to run again this winter, and Arena was right there on TV, stupidity just pouring forth from his dumb face, his blatherings going unchallenged, as if all of it was perfectly acceptable.
That the greater American sports fandom complex has not precluded all of this from happening already with a loud and strident clarion call for change, and instead has followed up the brief period of umbrage immediately following the Trinidad and Tobago loss with a disconcerting quietness, is probably the single worst omen for the prospects of a better USMNT emerging from the wreckage of 2017. If this continues to be the case, then we might as well throw up our hands and stop pretending that serious change is even possible, let alone. American fans will get the national team we demand from our leaders, and because of that it’ll be the one we deserve. And it seems like the USMNT we deserve looks a lot like the one we already have.