In 1994, after riding the train to Palo Alto with chanting, excited fans, and then watching the USMNT play competitively against Brazil in the Round of 16, I was optimistic about the game in the US. So optimistic that I was convicted we would compete for the world cup in a generation, and win it in my lifetime. My friend Jorge was kind in his amusement at my euphoria, and tried to bring me back to earth, but I would have none of it. So much so, that I insisted we bet: he promised to buy me a case of fine champagne when the US wins.
For a time, it appeared we were improving; for a decade we consistently beat Mexico. Four years ago we swaggered into the finals, made it to the Round of 16 and if Chris Wondolowski was able to put a ball into an open goal, would have made the round of 8. [Yes, I know this is both unfair to Wondo and doesn’t represent the Belgium game, but leave me alone, I’m on a roll.] Meanwhile, Mexico needed a miracle goal from Graham Zusi to squeak into the finals (“St. Zusi,” they began calling him). The MLS has been growing in popularity and quality. The next generation hasn’t been as competitive as I had expected, but better, always better…
But there were warning signs. Our young players failed to make the Olympics two cycles in a row. The men’s team was struggling in qualifying, losing and tying games at home against countries so small that most Americans wouldn’t recognize them as countries, let alone find them on a map. There was a coaching change. And then, on October 10, 2017, in Couva, Trinidad & Tobago, the wheels came off. The US Men’s National team lost another game in the qualifiers, and were eliminated from the competition.
I honestly can’t understand how it’s possible we are weaker now than we were 20 years ago. Some of it is undeniably a consequence of improved play throughout the region. But the men’s team is surely not a world power, and given the size and resources we have, even as a fourth-tier sport in the country, we should be. So what is going on?
This article from “These Football Times” is overlong but I thought had some pretty good points. This paragraph in particular really resonated for me: it’s not any one thing, it’s a bunch of them.
Examining why on the men’s side the US failed to qualify for the last two Olympic cycles and the 2018 World Cup is essential and painstaking. Factors such as pay-to-play, affordable and available coaching education, the absence of an open and connected tiered professional system (promotion-relegation), the refusal of the USSF to incentivise and reward player development by way of solidarity payments and training compensation, the reliance of the restrictive collegiate system at a crucial age range, all play a pivotal role. Identifying and listing the obvious and not-so-obvious elements contributing the latest failure of the national team only tells part of the story.
The MLS will never allow promotion-relegation (due to the single entity corporate structure), but doing so would energize several tiers of American men’s soccer. There’s no way to unify the collegiate leagues into a coherent development program, but doing so would energize player development which “is competitive until the age of 17 or 18 … [but] without a cohesive nine-month college system, the 18 to 22 age range [falls behind].” The MLS will never abandon the drama of the college draft, but if it allowed some level of individual bidding and in-country discovery, it would create opportunities for inventiveness in new approaches to player development. Lest anyone is tempted to think this is an indictment of the MLS, the MLS is still losing money every year; they don’t make deep changes because they can’t take the risk.
A problem is as incomprehensible as this is almost always deep and systemic. Unfortunately, deep and systemic issues cannot be addressed by selecting a new coach, or even a new USSF President. Two decades later, I’m ready to concede that I was not just overoptimistic in 1994, I was wildly naive. Sigh.