Could the US ultimately emerge from the wreckage of its failed attempt to reach the 2018 World Cup finals as a bigger power?
“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” striker Jozy Altidore wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night.
He might have added that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you miss out on millions of dollars of sponsorship and prize money, an incalculable amount of free publicity, invaluable experience for young players, expanding the fanbase, enhancing international credibility and leveraging the only way to achieve a mass domestic television audience.
So, stronger? No. What the confounding 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday will do is accelerate by nine months a process of hand-wringing, navel-gazing, retirements and resolutions to make structural changes that probably would have occurred next summer anyway. It is hard to believe that a mediocre group of players under Bruce Arena’s monochrome management would have made it very far in Russia.
Other than that, and reducing the chances of any more radioactive “why soccer is un-American” columns from Ann Coulter, there can be no benefits to losing an invitation to the party.
It’s impossible to say just how harmful the US’s absence will prove because of the lack of recent precedents. Next year’s World Cup finals will be the first without American involvement since 1986. That’s 10 years before the inaugural season of Major League Soccer transformed the landscape. In the mid-eighties the team included part-timers and players more used to the indoor format.
The magnitude of the shockwave on Tuesday night is a reflection of how far soccer in the US has developed in the past three decades. But if a solid platform means that publicity, attention and reputation are less vital than they were 10 or 20 years ago for a sport that’s facing obstacles to continued growth rather than an existential crisis, that very progress underlines why failing to make the tournament now is so unacceptable.
The US was part of the World Cup furniture; a familiar, solid, comfortable piece. Not especially ornate; but an absence that will be noticed in Russia. The Americans had become such a fixture every four years, and Concacaf’s qualification such a simple test, that it is more eyebrow-raising to see them missing from Russia than to anticipate a tournament without the Netherlands.
Yet anyone expecting swift accountability and humility from US soccer’s key figures would have been disappointed (though perhaps not surprised).
More than 24 hours after the trauma in Trinidad, US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati – the man chiefly responsible for hiring Arena and appointing then culling his predecessor, Jürgen Klinsmann – had not resigned. Nor had Arena.
England are a shrivelled side these days, but even there, Roy Hodgson had quit after the Euro 2016 loss to Iceland before the sound of the Viking clap was done echoing in his ears.
“You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being two inches wide or two inches in,” a tone-deaf Gulati told reporters straight after the T&T defeat, sounding every inch the calm, ruminative economics lecturer that he is, curiously enough, when he’s not being an unpaid volunteer who directs a non-profit governing body that’s reportedly sitting on $100m.
But you should make wholesale changes after failing to prosper in one of the planet’s least-challenging qualification formats, a blunder marking a nadir after several years of uneven but palpable decline. Four years ago the US topped their qualifying group with seven wins from 10 games. They won the group in 2010 and 2006, too.
Dominance built buzz. Viewing parties in a Chicago park attracted 20,000 fans per game in 2014. Television ratings were strong (even if they only amounted to about 7% of the population watching the big games).
Christian Pulisic, the US’s best player in the qualifying campaign, was poised for a mainstream breakout. Now, as SI.com reports, Fox Sports, the US rights holder for 2018, is expected to try to mitigate the inevitable decline in viewership with a redoubled emphasis on Mexico and overseas superstars such as Lionel Messi.
Instead of acting as US Soccer’s quadrennial marketing opportunity, the tournament will cement America’s status as football’s greatest multicultural marketplace. It’s not that there isn’t a thriving soccer culture in the US; it’s that the environment is diverse, crowded and not fully centered around the national side as it is in most other countries. It’s entirely possible to be deeply passionate about the sport while maintaining only a passing interest in the US national team and MLS.
Last year’s Copa América Centenario, more PR gimmick than prestige event, attracted an average crowd in excess of 46,000 despite high ticket prices. The US’s quarter-final win over Ecuador in Seattle drew 47,322 and was by far the worst-attended of the four games in the round.
Instead of looking forward to 14 June, when the tournament kicks off in Moscow, American anticipation will center on the day before, when Fifa decides the hosts of the 2026 tournament. Spoiler alert: the joint US, Canada and Mexico bid is almost certain to get the nod ahead of Morocco.
Given 2026, Gulati’s influence within Fifa, the US Department of Justice’s 2015 corruption investigations, the excellence of the women’s team and the country’s appeal to national and club sides enticed by its facilities, wealth, size and untapped potential, the US is and will remain an influential country regardless of how its men perform on the pitch.
The relevant question, then, is not new, just more pointed now: how does the US graduate from hosting elites to joining them?
Only 15 months ago the aim was for the US to ascend from regional power to global force, with Klinsmann targeting the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. “Things are definitely moving in the right direction. Our goals are challenging but achievable,” he told CNN.
Four months later he was sacked after the final qualifying phase began with losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. It concluded a five-year stint in which Klinsmann set lofty standards which he and his players mostly failed to reach.
In place of a clear vision of tactics and youth development there was a rose-tinted fog of good intentions. He challenged America’s best players to show they could compete with the world’s finest; on Tuesday they were outfought by the worst team in their qualifying group.
As for bringing through young talent: of Arena’s 23-man squad in Trinidad, 14 were older than 30. The 19-year-old attacker, Pulisic, was the only player under 22.
Would lowered expectations – a return to the old hallmarks of spirit, solidity, athleticism and organization rather than a more ambitious emphasis on stylish play and dazzling individual expression – in fact herald better results?
Is only a moderate squad overhaul required, or are the five years before Qatar 2022 enough time to effect a total rebuild that places the emphasis on youth development and shrugs off short-term results with a view to securing medium- and long-term success?
That reaching the World Cup finals became so routine may have flecked US Soccer from boardroom to field with a hint of the arrogance and entitlement of the traditional old-world powers, without the results, coaching structure, strong domestic league or effective youth system that would merit such self-assurance.
The country clearly has the resources and potential for greatness, but right now the old underdog identity that served them well in the past seems like a more natural fit. Klinsmann’s blueprint was an Icarus project.