Where does US Soccer go from here?
Some may think that the embarrassment is only now settling in after the United States failed to qualify for the World Cup. For many Americans, this the first World Cup where they will not see their home side play the best of the best. However, the embarrassment has been a long time coming to those who have paid attention. The highest highs of the Klinsmann Era, beating strong German and Dutch sides in the space of a week in friendlies comes to mind, were met with many startling lows, including a semifinal loss in the Gold Cup to a national team not known as El Tri (Jamaica) and losing to Guatemala in World Cup qualifying. Finally, the bottom fell through after a thrashing at the hands of Costa Rica, the breaking point for many inside and outside of the federation.
These were all incredibly embarrassing, but the most embarrassing moment of the campaign was still to come. Klinsmann was sacked and in came Bruce Arena, whose greatest accomplishment in the sport was gifted to him by the most talented team ever seen in MLS. November 22, 2016 was when the already low morale of most supporters sank to depths unfamiliar to Americans in CONCACAF play.
And Arena did nothing to quell these feelings. Some broadcasters and analysts tried to sell Arena as the one who was righting the ship, but the writing was always on the wall. Even in victory, the United States looked like a team fighting relegations by accepting draws in any possible situation; the rare full three points were just a cherry on top. The Gold Cup was propped up as a defining goal for the team—not just a mere expectation. Missing the World Cup was just Sunil Gulati’s chickens coming home to roost. So what is next?
Gulati, Arena, and their Supporters within the Federation Must Leave
In European politics, it is customary for the leaders of the losing parties in an election to resign and allow the party to rebuild and recover. It does not always work out this way in sport, but it is more than warranted in this case. The fact that Sunil Gulati and Bruce Arena have not already resigned (as of the night of October 11) proves the arrogance with which both of these alleged leaders approach their roles. October 10, 2017 was the worst night in the history of US Soccer, and neither of the two most powerful men in the federation find themselves responsible for it.
US Soccer has stagnated under Sunil Gulati’s leadership, and it has been stagnating for quite some time. The team’s form at the end of the Klinsmann Era and the rehiring of Bruce Arena to fix it prove that. The hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann was the only risk Gulati has ever taken in his time as President of US Soccer, and for a while, it looked like the best move he could have ever made. Once that risk ran its course, Sunil reverted to a “safe” pick. Playing it safe in a time of dire need is rarely, if ever, the right move. He could have brought in the experimental style of Marcelo Bielsa, whose only request was to hire the most recognizable player in the history of the national team. Gulati will probably never disclose why he did not hire Bielsa. At best, he did not think his style would work with the team; at worst, it was an ego play to not have to hire Landon Donovan as a coach. To take Bruce Arena because of either of these reasons is the single biggest reason why the United States will be sat at home.
The situation that Bruce Arena inherited was a desperate one, but it was not an untenable one. His tactics perfectly matched the attitude of the higher ups in the federation: scared, weak, and directionless. If you want to be referred to with any respect as a coach, your tactics cannot be “Beg the 19-year-old wonderkid bails us out while playing out of position.” The ineptness of Arena’s tactics came to a head in the home qualifying loss to Costa Rica. Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron, the starting center backs on the night, both played their positions much wider, as if they were expecting a back three. Graham Zusi and Jorge Villafana started as the fullbacks, but both were playing the whole wing with very few defensive responsibilities (Villafana was doing this while Fabian Johnson, an excellent wing back for the national team, played in the midfield). The two central midfielders were Michael Bradley and Darlington Nagbe. This is not a good role for Nagbe at all, as he is at his best while attack and is anonymous in defense. This left Bradley isolated in the midfield, and anybody, except for Bruce Arena apparently, who has watched any United States soccer since 2006 could tell you that is a disaster waiting to happen. The result was predictable: a 2-0 defeat in which the United States looked totally lost except for the odd foray forward. Mix this combination of poor tactics with poor team selection throughout qualifying, and you end up with an unsurprising failure to secure a top four place in a six team group.
Overhaul the Youth Development System
Even if, or when, Sunil Gulati and Bruce Arena go, there are still problems deeply entrenched within the national team that will cause more disasters in the future. The United States have not sent a team to the men’s Olympic football tournament since 2008; they have not advanced from the group stage in the Olympics since 2000. This is significant because the Olympics are a U23 tournament, and most of the players in the age group for the 2012 and 2016 squads were absent from the senior team because they are not good enough. The inability to cultivate homegrown talent is the worst possible disfunction a national team can have.
Pay-to-play systems need to be abolished. The first qualification for an American to join an American youth travel team or program is if the family can afford it; this is asinine and robs underprivileged, talented youth players the opportunity to hone their craft and become the next sensation. “The best ability is availability” is typically thrown around to describe health and fitness of athletes, but this is the mentality US Soccer need to have when developing talent. Making the sport unavailable to people who cannot afford it is going to shrink an average-at-best talent pool to a truly pathetic state. Gifting spots to players who can afford places in a team also hurts the mentality of the team. Watching the game against Trinidad and Tobago, the only players who looked up for the pressure were Christian Pulisic, Kellyn Acosta, and Clint Dempsey. Even when the team fell behind 2-0, the effort and desperation chasing down balls was non-existent from far too many players. The only reason a player should be on the pitch is if they are one of the best 11 players in the team; pay-to-play makes finding the best 11 players impossible.
The other bit of development that needs to be addressed is the use of academies. This is one of the places where MLS can take the lead in developing the talent in their home cities. MLS continues to expand, and this will only increase the amount of outreach to youth US Soccer will have. The teams that have taken youth development the most seriously are Philadelphia Union, Atlanta United, and soon-to-be Los Angeles FC. The Union have two players in the United States U-20 team in Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty, and Atlanta have Andrew Carleton, one of America’s biggest talents at only 17 years of age. These teams are recent expansion teams. More MLS clubs need to follow this blueprint of building more than a team but rather a football club, like Bob Bradley said after being named coach of LAFC. Loaning academy products for further development with professional teams is common sense in Europe, and it represents the best way the United States can grow their talent pool in order to compete with the best in the world. But until this happens, the best American players need to follow the path of Weston McKennie and Josh Sargent—go to Europe, not college.
MLS Needs to Shed its “Retirement League” Image
Finally, the top league in the United States needs to behave like a top-flight league in any other nation. There are several ways to accomplish this, but the two most important ways are going to make international fans laugh at their existence: abolishing the entry draft and scrapping the salary cap. It is a known fact that college soccer stunts growth and development because it encompasses the most important years in a player’s development. At ages 18 to 22, players who want to go on to be the best at their craft should not be participating in amateur league. Can you imagine Dele Alli trying to develop his skills playing against Akron University instead of playing in the Premier League? He would not even be a quarter of the player he is today. MLS will always be the primary destination for American talent, whether or not it is ideal. The easiest way for a young player to get into the league is by getting drafted, which forces more players to stunt their growth in college soccer. Abolishing the draft would allow young players more options to better suit their growth. College soccer should be an option for players, but it cannot be the primary way of getting Americans a professional contract.
The existence of the salary cap in MLS is arguably the most embarrassing part about the league. Salary caps in any sport are a dubious, artificial invention that rarely accomplish what they set out to do, but the way MLS goes about it makes their salary cap even more ridiculous. General Allocation Money, Targeted Allocation Money, and designated player spots are flat out ridiculous concepts. There have been trades in MLS history where a team trade TAM for GAM. It makes the league sound like a parody of itself. Bring in loans and transfers like every league in the world. Instead of using designated players to circumvent the salary cap, scrap the salary cap and institute homegrown rules. This will make the league more relevant in the international market and encourage teams to build up their academies. MLS attempted to come up with a system to encourage international activity while maintaining “competitive balance,” but instead they came up with a needlessly complex system that largely sees the international activity being used for players looking to play out the string in their careers and the same teams always securing the high profile moves.
The installation of promotion and relegation has been a popular answer to the “Where do we go from here?” question, and it certainly would benefit the American leagues in the long haul. The popularity of the U.S. Open Cup competition shows that bringing the leagues even closer together in a promotion/relegation system would ultimately work. This solution cannot be implemented over night since there would be a lot of negotiations between the leagues, and expansion fees are incredibly expensive to pay to immediately risk relegation in the inaugural season. Making the players in these leagues full time professionals would only help develop local talent in every city with a team in the hypothetical American System. The risk of relegation and prize of promotion would also force teams to consider their transfers more closely; instead of bringing in a 39 year old European export to sell shirts off name recognition, MLS teams can try to lure legitimately useful players to help their club. Promotion and relegation is a more complicated issue than some fans seem to give it credit for, but it certainly seems to be the best way forward in rebranding MLS. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, everybody can accept that rejecting a $4 billion investment offer because it required the installation of relegation is incredibly frustrating. Turning down that offer will certainly hurt MLS more than angry expansion cities.
US Soccer is at a crossroads after the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. However, this result was a long time coming due to incompetence from the people charged with leading the federation, failures in youth development, and misplaced prioritization in Major League Soccer. The good news is that all of these errors are correctable; the bad news is that they will not come via an easy process. But if an easy process is what you are looking for after finishing fifth in the hexagonal, you are part of the problem in US Soccer. Americans need to embrace the widespread changes that would come with cleaning the house. Mediocrity was accepted for far too long with the United States Men’s National Team—if utter failure is what it takes to end that, then this was the best possible outcome.
By: Kyle Andrulonis
Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/AP