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The Failure of US Soccer (Part One)
Picking up the pieces on the USA's failure to qualify for next summer's World Cup.
Not quite 24 hours after the United States was knocked out of next summer's World Cup, I sit here dumbfounded and angry. I don't feel sad because I'm too numb to feel any sadness about this. This is the worst that it can possibly get as a sports fan. A typical refrain in times like this is "there's always next year." In this case, "next year" is 2022. Sure, there will be friendlies and a 2019 Gold Cup, but the World Cup is everything you play for in international soccer.
Tuesday Night, the United States went into Trinidad & Tobago, a team that had nothing to play for, needing a draw to be assured of at least an Inter-Confederational Playoff against Australia. A win and they were in, regardless of the results from Honduras v. Mexico or Panama v. Costa Rica. Instead of playing like they wanted to win, the U.S. was perfectly content to sit back, show little effort in their own game, hope for favorable results elsewhere, and as a result got beat by last place T&T, while Panama and Honduras were able to grind out comeback wins in their game, leap-frogging the U.S. and advancing.
The long term damage this does can not be overstated. No U.S. in the World Cup means no opportunity to grab the casual "every four years" fan and convert them. It means soccer loses its chance to steal the spotlight in the sporting landscape. It means the reputation of MLS takes a major hit. It means that the draw of a soccer team in a smaller market is lessened. Soccer has taken so many steps forward since the '94 World Cup, and this fiasco erases a lot of that progress.
This failure is not about what happened on Tuesday night. This is about a pattern that plagued the U.S. throughout this cycle and through this round of World Cup Qualification. Historically, the United States has never produced elite players on the level of a Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. There have been a lot of good-to-average players, but the team has had success against teams with more talent because those good-to-average players banded together to create a machine that was greater than the sum of their parts. More importantly, you knew that a game with the United States would be a battle for 90 minutes, that they would never quit no matter how difficult the conditions or the score line. This current group had more talent, more resources, and more fan support behind them than any of the previous World Cup teams and instead of continuing the American way, they showed how soft they were, often wilting at the first sign of adversity or in difficult circumstances, such as playing on a wet, soggy field in a stadium that's one third full in Trinidad.
So where do we go from here? Part Two will examine the systemic failures that caused this debacle.
Lionel Messi has willed Argentina into the World Cup. Now he faces a familiar rival back in Spain.