So here we are. After a shambolic qualifying campaign full of perceived nadirs, false dawns, and nearly constant disappointment, the USMNT has finished behind Mexico and Costa Rica and Panama and Honduras in the hexagonal table. The U.S. fell to Trinidad & Tobago last night, and will not compete in the 2018 World Cup. With the players the U.S. has, and the size of the country, and the money it pours into the sport, and the alleged determination of those in charge for the USMNT to take the leap into the soccer elite, and CONCACAF’s comically easy qualifying setup, this is a shock of historic proportions. There is no justification for this being so stunning, though, and that is precisely the problem.
In retrospect, no one should’ve expected anything other than what happened down in Couva, Trinidad last night. The USMNT played the same tentative, passionless, uninspired, plodding game they have time and again in this qualifying cycle, and Trinidad & Tobago punished them just as Mexico and Costa Rica and Panama and Honduras had before. Once again Christian Pulisic demonstrated his enormous talent and stratospheric potential, which once again only made the contrast in ability between him and every single one of his vastly inferior teammates that much starker. No honest, clear-eyed follower of this team could credibly argue that the U.S. are anything other than a poorly managed bunch made up of Pulisic, maybe one or two other players who aren’t completely worthless on the high-level international stage, and a whole lot of hardworking but untalented scrubs—a group uniquely prone to gagging against a team playing to the U.S.’s many weaknesses, even or maybe even especially when they could least afford to do so.
And yet the loss was still legitimately stunning. Not because it was impossibly unforeseeable that the likes of Jozy Altidore and Jorge Villafaña and Omar Gonzalez might play poorly in a big spot; or that the U.S. would confront a deep defense turtled up in its own half for the umpteenth time and show the same puzzlement in regards to how to break it down as if it were the first time they’d encountered one; or that playing with a single true central midfielder might not work out too well. No, what was shocking was the realization that things actually were exactly as bad as they’d seemed for so long, that the institutional rot truly had set in so deep that even the world’s easiest World Cup qualification process couldn’t bail the team out, that the United States of America is so staggeringly incompetent that they couldn’t even bungle their way into a draw against the absolute nobodies of Trinidad & Tobago. Literally everything was set up for the USMNT to at the very least stumble into a playoff spot, and yet they still found a way to blow this once in a lifetime chance.
There’s no way to overstate how horrendous it is that the U.S. couldn’t qualify for the World Cup. It is disgusting. It is ridiculous. It is humiliating. It is enraging. It is the lowest moment in this country’s history in the sport. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so heartbreakingly disappointing. The only reaction that comes close to capturing what it viscerally felt like to witness this debacle was Taylor Twellman’s postgame rant last night on ESPN:
Everyone has to go after this, and everything associated with soccer in America has to change. If, in that literally and metaphorically massive head of his, Bruce Arena had any room amidst all the self-regard for a modicum self-respect, he would’ve resigned on the spot last night. Sunil Gulati should tender his resignation by dinner time tonight, but since we all know that’s not going to happen, he must lose his seat as U.S. Soccer president in next February’s election. The next coach cannot be an American. At minimum, players on the current roster like Besler, Gonzalez, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley, Graham Zusi, Nick Rimando, and Chris Wondolowski should never again pull on another USA shirt in a meaningful game.
No longer can MLS get away with touting its tediously incremental growth strategy—that to this day has borne almost no fruit—as evidence that the quality of play and players America produces is capable of stocking the player pool with talents befitting the status the country aspires to. No longer should fans treat the decision of good American players to run away from the challenges and pressures of Europe in exchange for a highly paid vacation back in the American league as some good or even neutral thing. No longer can fans who behave first and foremost as cheerleaders, happily parroting the bullshit fed to them by the proponents of the status quo, pretend they are not part of the problem. No longer should the media that covers the USMNT and the greater American soccer scene treat everyone from the players to the leagues to the entire sport’s framework with blinkered support and faith, sparing them from criticism due to their supposedly good intentions. Everything that has culminated in the USMNT’s failure to qualify is wrong, and if anyone is serious about making sure it never happens again and that America realizes its latent potential, the changes must be drastic and immediate.
We should not kid ourselves here; this is an unmitigated disaster. It’s true that even if the USMNT had gone through, they almost certainly wouldn’t have done anything of note in Russia next summer. (International soccer has long been a game favoring steely defenses and powerful, organized, creative midfields adept at sealing off access to their own penalty area while chiseling their way into their opponent’s. No line of the USMNT’s roster is particularly strong, but the defense and midfield are especially weak.) Still, having the U.S. compete in the World Cup is about so much more than wins and losses.
Soccer is far more prominent now in America than it ever has been, but it still takes the U.S. competing in big headliner events like the World Cup to capture a large share of the public’s attention. This attention is vital to ensuring the game’s continued growth. An enormous chunk of that invaluable attention evaporated last night, and there’s no way to reclaim it other than to wait five more years until the next edition of the tournament. An entire generation of young kids who might’ve seen a potential Wonderteen hat trick in a group stage match now will never discover a passion for the game. They will never dream of becoming the next Pulisic, obsessively queueing up Youtube compilations of Messi and Neymar and Isco, spending countless hours out in the backyard trying to mimic those moves, honing the skills necessary to maybe make their dream a reality. Iconic moments—think Landon Donovan against Algeria or Tim Howard against Belgium in the most recent cycles—are the critical inflection points that create new fans and new players. The absence of them will certainly set the sport back.
Even outside of the broader concerns about how to maximize the chances that the U.S. produces a Messi or Ronaldo or even a Harry Kane in the next decade or so, having the U.S. in the World Cup is just flat out fun. There’s nothing like dipping out of work early to head to a nearby bar and tilt a couple back alongside a communal throng of newly converted diehard fans of the Red, White, and Blue. As we said earlier today, the USMNT is in a unique position to unify the country. Everyone getting behind the team in a World Cup year is one of the best experiences sports has to offer. Now we won’t have it.
That is all to say that there is nothing good about the U.S. missing out on the World Cup, and there is a whole hell of a lot that’s bad. There does, however, remain the possibility that this epic embarrassment could cause the soccer culture in America to change in important ways that could prevent something like this from happening again. Of course it’s probably even more likely that Gulati and his ilk will successfully focus attention away from the bigger picture flaws that have directly contributed to the USMNT’s current standing and, like Arena said last night, convince most people that “There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing ... Nothing has to change.”
In order to prevent that from happening, everyone has to truly, sincerely accept that what happened last night and throughout qualifying isn’t good enough, and that it will take some serious changes to the way things are done in order to get better. It won’t be easy, as there are just as many obstacles that make the USMNT gig uniquely challenging as there are reasons to believe it could also become one of the most coveted jobs in the international game, but we can’t resign ourselves to a continuation of our current fate. The USMNT, U.S. Soccer, the soccer media, and fans all deserved to see the team knocked out of the World Cup this time. We don’t deserve to see it happen again.