There was, I must admit, a moment there before the start of last night’s crucial USA vs. Trinidad and Tobago World Cup qualifier when I thought it would be better if the U.S. blew the match and the next couple and wound up missing out on next summer’s World Cup.
The USMNT struggled early in this final stage of qualifying, and Jurgen Klinsmann—who was heavy on grandiose plans and iconoclastic provocations aimed at upending the American soccer status quo, but light on consistently quality managerial practices—justifiably took the fall for the first team’s woes. Still, the re-appointment of an American soccer traditionalist like Bruce Arena to the top job felt like a reinforcement of the status quo Klinsmann was specifically hired to subvert, thus calcifying the existing culture and structure of soccer in America that we all know to be insufficient.
In light of this threat of stagnation, and the good-news-bad-news nature of U.S. Soccer’s recently reported $100 million surplus (the good news: U.S. Soccer has an insane amount of money! The bad news: U.S. Soccer has apparently just been sitting on an insane amount of money, and hasn’t been spending it on some of the obvious infrastructural pillars of the sport that have long been in desperate need of investment!), I thought, if only briefly, that maybe it would be in the program’s best longterm interests for the U.S. to suffer a major shock to the system.
What’s holding the USMNT back from, say, a World Cup semifinal, isn’t a manager’s choice of formations and tactics. What’s holding the U.S. back is more fundamental. It’s about our lack of top-class players, and more importantly the demonstrated inability of the American soccer system as it is currently structured to produce them. Maybe, with an embarrassing CONCACAF qualifying flameout fresh on the mind, U.S. Soccer would hire more than its current nine (only nine!) scouts to scour this enormous country for the burgeoning talents that are undoubtedly out there and currently go ignored and neglected. Maybe the federation would pour more money into the development of good coaching, from the professional level right on down to your niece’s church league team. Maybe it would finally get serious about restructuring the amateur system, eliminating pay-for-play at youth ranks and, if not eliminating them outright, then at least giving high school and college soccer real playing schedules. Maybe it would even revolutionize the club game by giving it incentive to maximize investment and innovation and talent assessment and cultivation by opening up the entire system to promotion and relegation.
Of course, not all of those changes would be likely to come about even if the USMNT failed to qualify for the next World Cup, but it does seem more likely that America’s path to real soccer glory would be shorter if a panicked and criticized federation felt it had to make a sweeping rebuild rather than trust in the same incrementalist trajectory that’s brought regular qualification and Round of 16 knockouts.
Thankfully, it only took about 90 wonderful minutes of watching the mighty wonderteen to make me realize the folly of my ways.
Christian Pulisic’s existence stands as a good refutation to my theories on the upside of a potential USMNT fall. Part of the Pulisic Experience, that newfound knowledge for U.S. soccer fans that a young American player has legitimate and undeniable world-class talent, is projecting just how good this 18-year-old phenom might be in two, five, 10 years’ time. To already ooze so much class, to have such an enviable combination of quickness and strength and inventiveness and intelligence and work rate and movement so early on in a career is mind-boggling. Just thinking about Pulisic and all his skills makes you instinctively chart out those skills’ potential growth, your brain eager to mentally skip ahead a decade to his hypothetical peak, as you picture him standing proud and strong as a fully realized 28-year-old, quite possibly at that point starring as one of the best attacking players in the world and featuring for one of the game’s most historic clubs.
While that impulse to speculate is understandable, it misses out on the fact is that Christian Pulisic, right at this very moment, is a marvel. He can already do things with the ball the likes of which we’ve never seen a man in an American jersey pull off with such consistency and effortless grace. He’s already capable of dominating entire matches by himself, already the national team’s best player who comes up big in the biggest moments.
It’s that thrill of watching Pulisic as he is today that made me realize my error in considering rooting against the USMNT. More than I value a hypothetical overhaul of soccer in this country, I value watching Pulisic waltz the ball up the pitch from deep, slide it over to DeAndre Yedlin on the wing, continuing to trudge toward the opposition’s backline as Yedlin fires in a pass to a deep-dropping Jozy Altidore, twisting his head over his shoulder to scan the lay of pitch and the positioning of those around him, then recognizing before the ball even reaches Altidore an opportunity to break in behind the defense should the striker play him in on goal and kicking up into a sprint, running onto Altidore’s perfect first-time pass as it awaits him inside the box, and firing his second goal of the night past the keeper and then sauntering off to the elated crowd with his arms out wide. It is so goddamn exhilarating to see the feats this kid can and regularly does perform out there on the pitch that worrying about the ultimate fate of the national team feels like missing the point.
American soccer will be where it needs to be when we’re churning out a handful of new Pulisics and John Brookses and DeAndre Yedlins and Michael Bradleys (well, the version of him back when he was still good) every year, and it’s going to take a whole hell of a lot of hard work and commitment to get there. It can be done, and it even if it doesn’t happen as quickly as I’d like it will probably happen eventually no matter what—there’s just too much money and interest and effort and, yes, incremental improvement over the past couple decades to hold the U.S. down for much longer. In the meantime, our eagerness to get to the promised land shouldn’t cause us to overlook the brilliant, ascendant wonderteen we already have, just because ideally we’d have more. The future of American soccer is already here. He is fucking amazing.