With one half of the United States on fire and the other under water, I’m trying to avoid the use of words like “catastrophe” and “disaster” to describe what is going on in the realm of American soccer right now. But the United States men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986, and every fan is currently coping with some degree of cognitive and emotional meltdown.
We are trying to figure out who to blame, obsessing over the details of a game that the Americans were expected to win with ease, attempting to predict just how bad this is going to be for the business of soccer in the immediate future and beyond, and simply contending with the staggering improbability of what happened on Tuesday night, when the exact wrong things occurred in three separate, simultaneous matches, allowing Panama and Honduras to leapfrog the US in the final standings.
Honduras beat Mexico, usually a much stronger team. Panama, too, beat a typically stronger opponent, Costa Rica. And Trinidad, the weakest team in this final round of qualifying matches, took down the United States. Panama’s late win was especially excruciating. It was set up by a tying goal that never actually crossed the goal line, the rare blown call that is equal parts historically consequential, empirically wrong, and cosmically just. (Four years ago, the US, which had already qualified for the World Cup in Brazil, scored a needless goal against Panama in the final minutes of the final qualifying game, enabling Mexico to sneak into the playoff spot instead of Panama.) In international soccer, the laws of karma have a way of outflanking logic—and whatever faculties the referee may possess—with surprising frequency.
After the loss, fans, pundits, and journalists immediately clamored for change. But the US Soccer Federation happens to be run by a very cautious person. Sunil Gulati is shrewd and calculating, qualities that have helped the Columbia University economics professor to emerge in recent years as the most powerful American in world soccer. “You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being two inches wide or two inches in,” he said after the match. He was referring to the fact that Clint Dempsey hit the post late in the loss to Trinidad, but the same reasoning could be applied to the fluke own goal that put the US behind in the first half, or the botched call in the Panama game. To explain this failure with any one of these details is to miss a worrying trend that is bigger than any single bad moment from this qualifying cycle, of which there have been plenty.
The United States men have underperformed in every age group from U-17 on up at critical moments in the last decade. Since 2011, US men’s teams have failed to qualify for major international championships at the U-17 level, the U-20 level, U-23 level (twice), and now at the senior level. It’s an appalling record for a rich and populous country, especially given the fact that our region, CONCACAF, is the easiest in the world from which to qualify. (Oceania is weaker, especially since Australia joined the Asian confederation, but CONCACAF receives many more berths.) Iceland, as Taylor Twellman pointed out on Tuesday night, managed to qualify in Europe with a population roughly the size of Corpus Christi, Texas. In other words, the rot runs deep.
To be clear, the odds of qualifying for international tournaments from CONCACAF are in the United States’s favor every time, and yet our teams have failed to do so at every level. (The US women struggled in the Olympics last summer, but their advantage over regional rivals is even greater than that of the men, so they’ve never had trouble getting into the big events.)
Missing the World Cup is the big one, the one that will surely spark a “rebuilding” period, as those who are grasping for an upshot have put it. I hope this is true, but the program faces significant obstacles.
First, the leadership of US Soccer is deeply entrenched and highly allergic to criticism. It is going to be very difficult for a challenger to unseat Gulati when the next vote occurs, in Feb. 2018. This is because USSF bylaws favor the incumbent, and because Gulati is a skilled politician with lots of real power beyond his role with the federation. His vision and cautious incrementalism have benefited the organization, capping its transition from the plucky, disorganized, and underfunded operation it was in the early 1990s to the corporatized and extremely profitable business it is today.
His biggest weakness, however, is directly related to the team’s failure to qualify, and that’s a lack of technical soccer knowledge. A recent profile of Gulati contains an anecdote that perfectly illustrates this. (Disclosure: the piece ran in Howler Magazine; I’m its editor; you should subscribe.) In the story, Gulati is preparing for a trip to Zurich, where he’ll be playing in a game with FIFA officials and retired soccer legends, and he is warned to expect icy conditions. So he calls Bruce Arena, the coach of the US men’s national team, to ask whether he should purchase molded cleats or metal studs. Gulati relayed this to the writer, and it struck me as strange and revealing. Every soccer player over the age of 13 knows that metal studs are used in wet and muddy conditions on natural grass. They’re totally inappropriate for a cold day on frozen, artificial turf.
Now, the CEO of McDonald’s doesn’t necessarily need to be a whiz on the deep fryer. But Gulati’s inexperience has manifested in ways that delivered the soccer equivalent of soggy french fries.
First, he gave too much power to Jurgen Klinsmann, who he hired in 2011 as head coach of the men’s team and technical director for the program. Then Gulati made the odd decision to renew Klinsmann’s multimillion dollar contract before the 2014 World Cup. There is a rule of thumb in international soccer which holds that coaches very rarely succeed beyond their first World Cup cycle, and when it became apparent in 2015 that the team suffered from some serious flaws, Gulati stuck with Klinsmann, possibly because he was worried that saddling the USSF with a massive severance payment would reflect poorly upon his own leadership. Klinsmann won a couple of high profile friendlies against superior European opponents, but more important was his team’s fourth place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup, the regional championship where the US had not placed outside the top two since 1996. When the coach began the final round of qualifying with two losses in late 2016, including a shocking 4–0 performance against Costa Rica, Gulati finally fired him. We’re still paying for his indecision, and not just in the form of the fat checks hitting Klinsmann’s mailbox.
The delay turned a transition that could and should have been planned for—usually something at which Gulati excels—into an emergency, and the federation hastily hired Bruce Arena, a capable coach with a mixed record in charge of the national team. In 2002, he coached the US to the World Cup quarterfinals, still this country’s best finish at the tournament since 1930. Four years later, in his second cycle in charge, his team didn’t win a single game at the World Cup in Germany. This time around, the team fared better under Arena than it did under Klinsmann, but Arena brought his own shortcomings to the job. The US team could have expected at least a point from the two matches Arena lost—at home to Costa Rica and away to Trinidad—but his squad selection and tactics turned out to be wrong in both cases.
The silver-lining scenario in which US Soccer drastically reforms itself will require not just a coaching change but likely a different person hiring the coach. But, no matter who is coaching the team, soccer in the United States faces several structural barriers that prevent our players and teams from reaching their full potential. The list includes our system of pay-to-play, which excludes kids without enough money from access to top coaching and competition from a young age. It includes our lack of promotion and relegation, which protects the investments of Major League Soccer owners but stifles investments at lower levels of the game and prevents our players from competing in the crucible of pressure that, in other countries, has the trickle-up effect of improving the player pool and thus the national team. It includes the practice of American professional clubs plucking the best players from youth teams without compensation, incentivizing them to seek out the players most capable of paying to join their team, rather than the ones who are most capable, full stop. In other words, Americans are practicing nearly the opposite of the player development standards embraced by much of the rest of the world.
The US Soccer Federation now finds itself in a position not unlike the Democratic Party: reeling from a surprising defeat that in retrospect looks all too obvious. In both cases, the lack of fresh ideas, of a pathway for new leaders, and of accountability led to overconfidence and underperformance.
Gulati has said the status quo is unacceptable, and in the coming days we’ll begin to see just how he and the other people who have a say in all this plan to reform. Who will be in charge come Feb. 2018? What is their plan? And will it work? The nation and its men’s soccer team will have to wait four long years to find out.
In the meantime: Go Iceland.