The biggest failure in American soccer history is as complex as it is damaging. There is no one source, no single target for blame. The list of culprits exceeds five, 10, 20 and even 100. The building blocks of a national soccer team are nearly infinite.
Every single one of those building blocks will be smashed to bits by criticism following Team USA’s 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago, a defeat that eliminated it from World Cup contention. And rightly so. Much of the criticism is long overdue.
But some of the blocks that will crumble are bigger than others. Some are massive. Here are the five most blameworthy culprits of a failure that touched every level of the sport in the United States, in descending order, beginning with the least culpable of the five.
5. Jurgen Klinsmann
The former national team boss is far from the biggest culprit. But he’s not exempt here. He dug the U.S. a qualifying hole with losses to Mexico and Costa Rica 11 months ago.
But Klinsmann’s faults were spread out over much more than 180 minutes last November. He ran the program into the ground with aimless tactics, a stale vision and constant ill-preparedness. He stunted players’ development by playing them out of position, and generally didn’t fulfill the promises he made when he took over as manager in 2011.
Despite all that, though, his team cruised through qualification last time around, and outperformed expectations at the World Cup. His successor couldn’t even get there …
4. Bruce Arena
Arena, previously in charge of the national team from 1998 to 2006, was brought in to dig the U.S. out of Klinsmann’s hole. And the odd thing is that, well, he did. He got eight points from his first four qualifiers, and had the U.S. in position to qualify with ease.
Then it all went wrong. Horribly, painfully, catastrophically wrong.
Not all of the wrongdoing was Arena’s. In fact, not much of it was even when the U.S. picked up just one point from two September games against Costa Rica and Honduras. Those were primarily on the players. Perhaps all of this is primarily on the players. But more on them later.
Arena cleaned up some of Klinsmann’s mess. But he created messes of his own, and those messes caught fire in Trinidad. His close-mindedness when it came to squad selection – his outright refusal to even care about replenishing an aging squad – came back to haunt him.
His lineup philosophies were also two-faced. He seemingly believed in rotation and freshness over consistency, which worked in Mexico City in June, and barely did again in Honduras in September. But then he stuck with an unchanged starting 11 Tuesday in Trinidad, presumably thinking he had found a winning formula. He hadn’t. Instead, he found a tactically naive method to engineer the U.S.’ failure.
Tuesday’s task was fundamentally different from Friday’s in every possible way. On Friday, Arena went all-out attack at home with the U.S. needing a win against Panama. Understandable. On Tuesday, with the U.S. needing only a point in substandard conditions away from home, he inexplicably chose attack again over solidity and control. He effectively played three strikers and two wingers, leaving the U.S. disjointed as a unit.
He also benched his best center back – a center back who played 90 minutes the previous weekend for Stoke City in the English Premier League, and who has been doing just that, and doing it well, consistently for a while now. With that center back, Geoff Cameron, sitting on the bench, the mistake-prone Omar Gonzalez made a horrendous error that ultimately cost the U.S. a spot at the World Cup. But he never should have been in that position in the first place.
Arena had one job. He didn’t do it. And he’s now coached his last game with the national team.
3. Sunil Gulati
It is impossible to shy away from criticism of the man who hired No. 4 and No. 5 on this list as well. The head honcho. United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati.
His hires aren’t the only issue. But they’re the most easily identifiable. He had courted Klinsmann basically ever since the former German World Cup-winning striker managed his native land to third at the 2006 tournament on home soil. Gulati finally got him in 2011. It was an ambitious choice. A pricey one too. But it was probably always misguided.
Nonetheless, Klinsmann performed somewhat admirably, at least initially. The issue was that the allure of his stature in world soccer was too much for Gulati to assess his performances accurately. The president, for some reason, rewarded his manager with a long-term contract extension before the 2014 World Cup, then clung to the coattails of a regime going backward for too long thereafter. When he did pull the trigger and axe Klinsmann 11 months ago, Arena was the right choice. The wrong choice was letting Klinsmann survive as long as he did.
The wrong choices were also many other things. Gulati’s presence in powerful positions has probably been a net positive for soccer in America. But, among other failures, one of them the mishandling of Klinsmann, he has not adequately invested in youth development. In the building blocks that allow a national team to sustain consistent success. He and the federation have invested in them, but haven’t devoted enough attention to actually solving real problems. They are sitting on millions of dollars that could be used to address the problems. Those dollars haven’t been used for that purpose.
And Gulati himself could pay. A U.S. Soccer presidential election looms in four months. Gulati, for the first time, has challengers. There will be louder calls for change than ever before.
2. The players
Gulati, though, didn’t make defensive errors. Arena didn’t misplace passes in midfield. Klinsmann didn’t waste chances in front of goal.
The players, in the end, are to blame for what just transpired. They were deserving of praise on several specific occasions. On the whole, they, as a collective, were sub-par. And then on Tuesday, they were worse than that. Far worse.
Not all of them were at fault. Christian Pulisic is and was special. Michael Bradley carried a massive burden and handled it fairly well. But the rest … most of them were mediocre at best. Jozy Altidore was too inconsistent. The back four were disorganized and generally underwhelming, whoever the four were. Darlington Nagbe didn’t live up to his creative billing. Tim Howard made several mistakes throughout the Hex, and in his prime might have kept out both of Tuesday’s goals.
The players did not perform up to the standard expected of them. At times, circumstances could be used as legitimate excuses. But none of them excuse 12 points from 10 games against mostly inferior opposition.
The natural follow-up question, then, is this: Did the players underperform? Or are they simply not good enough?
1. A broken system
The answer is both. The second item on this list speaks to the underperformance. The first, this one, speaks to the inadequacy.
The U.S. player pool is strong. Stronger than it was two decades ago. But the obvious point is the broad one: That player pool is nowhere near what a nation of 325 million should be able to produce. The reasons for this are deep-seated and poisonous.
The main one is the youth soccer model that was established in the U.S. decades ago. Whereas talented young players in many other countries are given scholarships to soccer academies, the vast majority of children in the U.S. “pay to play.” This slashes the size of the player pool into a fraction of what it could be, because kids from low-income families can’t afford the hefty registration fees and travel-related costs. Elite coaching eludes them. The issue is far too complex for this forum, but it’s a major hindrance.
Talent identification and youth coaching have also been severely lacking. Scouting efforts ignore many under-served communities. Potential pros slip through the cracks at young ages. In many cases, kids aren’t educated properly, because they’re taught by teammates’ dads who don’t know the game. The kids, therefore, don’t develop the most relevant and applicable skills. Again, the root causes are impossible to explain in two paragraphs. But they’ve plagued the U.S. for years.
The symptoms of the problems are easier to explain. As American Soccer Now’s Brian Sciaretta explored just last week, there is a glaring gap in the age profile of the current U.S. squad. There are talented youngsters and accomplished veterans. But the 23-27 age range – made up of players born in the years 1990-1994, players who came through the system before youth development reform truly took effect – is alarmingly bereft. A generation of players that should be spearheading the national team is absent.
The “Missing Years,” as Sciaretta called them, more than anything else, explain why the U.S. shockingly couldn’t beat Trinidad and Tobago, a nation 1/230 its size. With MLS academies growing, other revamped youth systems producing and problems gradually – very gradually; too gradually – being addressed, this won’t happen again. Or at least it shouldn’t.
But the failures in scouting and coaching have left a massive hole in the men’s national team. A hole that not even Klinsmann could dig. And one that the U.S. finally tripped into Tuesday in Trinidad.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.
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