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The Ripple Effect of U.S. Soccer’s World Cup Debacle

Experts, including Taylor Twellman, sound off on the problems—and the progress—of American soccer. What happens now?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Nothing has to change.”

These are the words of Bruce Arena, the man who presided over the worst loss—statistically, emotionally, stylistically, subjectively, objectively, metaphysically!—in American soccer history. We’re doing everything right and Arena wants you to trust the process. [Update: Arena officially resigned as USMNT manager Friday morning.]

It’s not quite “this is fine,” but it’s pretty close.

Arena’s boss agrees with him. After the loss to Trinidad and Tobago, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati did what any good economist might do: He shook his fists at the sky and cursed the outsize impact of randomness on low-event outcomes. “You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being two inches wide or two inches in,” he said, nodding at the 77th-minute Clint Dempsey shot that struck the post. Had it gone in, the Americans would be going to Russia.

“What message does this send to all of the players in the country if nothing happens?” ESPN analyst and former national team striker Taylor Twellman told me on Wednesday. “If change doesn't come?”

On Tuesday night, Twellman became the de facto voice of the frustrated, antiestablishment American soccer fan with a viral rant that was equal parts anger, frustration, confusion, and cutting socioeconomic criticism.

He’s right, too. It doesn’t matter what Arena or Gulati want. In a still-developing soccer nation like the U.S., missing the World Cup is a seismic event. When there’s a big enough earthquake, the shape of the planet changes forever. U.S. soccer has already been shaken, and over the next few years we’ll get to see how the pieces fit back together.

“As a nation and culture, we’re really great at selling the product of soccer,” Chris Anderson, author of The Numbers Game and former managing director of Coventry City FC, told me over email. “But we are still struggling with making the product.”

U.S. soccer has reached the point where two things are true: plenty of progress has been made, and plenty still needs to change.

Bruce Arena

He’s done.

Arena didn’t do a good job, but he’s more of a symptom of some larger issues than the cause. He certainly didn’t help, though: Two of the most talented Americans, Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron and Borussia Monchengladbach’s Fabian Johnson, either barely featured at the end of qualifying or didn’t even make the roster.

“You want to make sure you play your best players,” said Anderson. “I’m not convinced that’s what’s happened during this qualifying campaign.”

As Arena did over the final pair of matches, playing the same lineup in a must-win game at home and a must-not-lose game on the road four days later betrays a lack of imagination and unearned complacency. Regardless of the result against Trinidad, the U.S. were outplayed by the worst team left in the region in the most important game of the cycle.

Arena was brought in to steady the ship after the inconsistency of the Jurgen Klinsmann era, and his team spit out a Welsh alphabet soup of results: WTWTLTWL.

Arena only got the job because the U.S. Federation found itself scrambling for a manager. Klinsmann was fired last November after his constant lineup-shuffling pushed the team to the point of disrepair, with losses to Mexico and Costa Rica to start the Hex. Although the German’s first World Cup cycle with the team ended with a handful of exhilarating games in Brazil, getting pummeled by Belgium in the Round of 16 wasn’t exactly a step forward. Plus, it’s rare that an international manager improves in his second cycle. (See: Arena in 2002 and Arena in 2006.) Yet Gulati brought Klinsmann back, and the U.S. proceeded to get dumped out of the 2015 Gold Cup by Jamaica and then embarrassed by Mexico in the one-game playoff to go to the 2017 Confederations Cup. Rather than find a new manager and give him a full cycle to shape his team’s style and roster, the U.S. stuck with what they had and were eventually forced to go back to what they knew.

It’s hard to find a great national-team manager—coaches have so much more control at the club level, so international management becomes more about monitoring players and developing long-term cohesion—and it’s especially difficult in the U.S. For example, the England manager mainly has to just monitor players that have come through the English system, developed under a similar set of developmental criteria, and now almost all play in the same country. For whoever manages the U.S., you’re choosing from a massive pool of players who developed under vastly different styles and systems—some go to college, some go straight to MLS, some go to Europe when they’re teenagers, while other grew up in different countries—and your best players are typically playing on another continent.

“American coaches may know the U.S. soccer landscape well, but [they] have less experience in elite environments,” Anderson said. “Foreign coaches will know how to coach elite players, but struggle with the oddities of U.S. soccer.”

The next hire will help clarify where the federation wants things to go. Will it be Tab Ramos, the technical director of the youth national teams, but also a member of the U.S. Soccer establishment? A promising MLS coach like Oscar Pareja or Peter Vermes? Or an expensive European option like — spin the wheel of free-agent managers and take a deep breath, USMNT fans — Carlo Ancelotti?

Beyond that, the program needs to hire a technical director — a more complex version of the typical general manager in other sports — to oversee the entire American program.

“I think that’s the more important hire,” Twellman said. “I think that person needs to have the say in multiple if not all matters. I think that person needs to have the responsibility.”

The federation has only had one technical director in its history. And that was Klinsmann, who was also the national team manager at the same time. Those are two full-time jobs.

“You’re in charge of all of the youth national teams, you’re in charge of the development academy and a lot,” Twellman said. “You know, it's more than just Bill Belichick worrying about his roster for the Patriots.”

Sunil Gulati

While Gulati will preside over those decisions, he’s engendered little to no trust that he’ll get it right. After becoming president of the federation in 2006, Gulati has overseen the growth of U.S. Soccer into a financial behemoth with a $100 million surplus and 100-plus employees. With that, he’s become one of the most powerful people in world soccer, as he’s now a member of the 37-person FIFA Council.

“I worry that USSF is not in a great position because there is relatively little of what you would call ‘soccer IQ’ at the highest levels of U.S. soccer,” Anderson said. “Their skill set is probably more weighted toward business as well as the politics and diplomacy at the FIFA and CONCACAF level than toward understanding the elite game.”

The results—at least, for the men’s teams—bear out Anderson’s point. There hasn’t been much progress … at any level.

There isn’t much this decade for Gulati to point to. A quarterfinal run by the U-20s in 2015? A couple watered down Gold Cup trophies against the C-teams from the rest of CONCACAF?

And while the U.S. women’s team is the defending world champion, Gulati has managed to screw up that relationship, too. The women don’t make anywhere near as much money as the men and they’ve been forced to play matches on substandard—if not dangerous—artificial turf. Their star players haven’t shied away from being directly and publicly hostile toward the federation. Gulati and Co. had an opportunity to push for change in a soccer world where women are often treated like third- and fourth-class citizens, but they instead opted for the status quo.

And that’s sort of been the M.O. of his reign: When the U-17 team missed the 2013 World Cup, Gulati didn’t replace head coach Richie Williams; no, he let him coach the team again, and despite the presence of Christian Pulisic, the team couldn’t make it out of the group stages of the 2015 tournament. The same thing can be said about the Klinsmann era: While he was certainly an outsider, the former Germany manager rebuffed Gulati’s advances in 2006. Then, despite Klinsmann’s disastrous stint at Bayern Munich, Gulati offered him the job again in 2011. And then he decided to run it back with Klinsmann despite plenty of evidence suggesting that was a bad idea.

“If you have the same 15, 18 people sitting at the table—I don't care if you're at your Thanksgiving dinner table with your family,” Twellman said. “It becomes stagnant. You need new blood. You need new ideas.”

It’s time for a new face at the top of the U.S. Soccer pyramid. Gulati is up for reelection one last time in February, but he shouldn’t even run. Now that the economic might of the USSF is secure, people with more direct and applicable soccer expertise should be given positions of power. And why not, as Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl suggests, let former USWNT captain Julie Foudy take over? After all, the women are the only ones who actually win anything.

The Old Guard

It’s hard to ignore how the “everything is fine” mentality infected the senior team. The team used in World Cup qualifying was essentially the same squad from the 2014 World Cup—except everyone was older and worse—plus one 19-year-old superstar. Tim Howard might have been one of the better Premier League keepers of the 21st century, but he hasn’t been at his best in at least three years. Yet he stayed in goal, presumably, because he’s Tim Howard. The same centerback pairing that lost to Belgium just lost to Trinidad. Clint Dempsey, who’s 34, was still being relied upon in the dying minutes of crucial games. And Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore aren’t discernibly better than they were back in 2010.

These guys have all played pivotal roles on memorable iterations of the USMNT, but if they’re not going to be a part of the 2022 roster, then there’s no reason to call any of them up ever again. The team won’t play another competitive game for more than 600 days. Despite his perceived stodginess, Arena is aware that changes had to be made, albeit across a much shorter timeline: “If we had qualified for the World Cup, there needed to be a number of changes for a World Cup roster.”

One of the silver linings of missing the World Cup is that the U.S. no longer has to worry about winning now. They have an extra year to integrate youngsters and start developing some kind of cohesive tactical identity that fits the next generation of talent. If the roster doesn’t look radically different for the team’s next game, it’ll be a huge alarm bell.

The Kids

The U.S. youth system is in better shape than ever. The U-17 team is stacked with already-professional talent. There is basically at least one American in the youth ranks at every big club in the world. Every MLS team has a youth academy, so talent development in MLS cities has been professionalized, too.

“Some really good things are happening at the youth level,” Anderson said. “I know that some of the world’s best clubs are now scouting the U.S. market for young talent in a serious way, and in a way they never used to. So they’ve woken up to the potential of American soccer talent, and you can see some of that in players making the move to Europe.”

Despite the progress, the system is still plagued by plenty of systemic issues. From a talent-development standpoint, the biggest problem with U.S. soccer is the same problem with the U.S. economy writ large: Its highest levels are inaccessible to African-Americans and only open to those families with a certain amount of wealth.

In 2007, the U.S. instituted the Development Academy system, which essentially systematized the frequency of training and gameplay among 64 clubs across the country and has since expanded to over 150 clubs. MLS clubs all have academy teams, and if a player makes the team, all of his expenses are typically paid for. But for most of the non-MLS-affiliated clubs, players have to, as the jibe goes, “pay to play.” That tuition costs around $2,500 a year.

“Parents in the U.S. are routinely spending up to 50 to 100 times what parents in Europe spend on signing their kids up for competitive soccer,” Anderson said.

So if a player doesn’t live near an MLS academy, he only has access to the best training the country can offer if he can afford it. Elsewhere in the world, talent development is, as the Wall Street Journal put it, looked at as a “civic responsibility and an investment, because one of them just might turn out to be the next Lionel Messi.”

“Decisions in this country are made about the dollar instead of about the game,” Twellman said. “And I think when that changes, then you'll see incremental progress. But until that changes—and if every decision in our country is made about the dollar and not the game—then you’re in trouble.”

Then there’s the size issue: America is huge. European countries have training and coaching centers across the entire nation to make sure no talent falls through the cracks, but doing the same in the U.S. is a gargantuan task. We can’t systematize development in the same way a tiny country like Iceland has. (So, please stop using them as a point of comparison to America’s failings.)

“The U.S. Soccer Development Academy system has been an important step forward, but there are still large swathes of the country where the player pathway up the pyramid is virtually nonexistent unless parents want to go to extraordinary lengths and expenses,” Anderson said. “So you could and probably should easily double the number of USDA teams and introduce additional feeders.”

The same issues plague the U.S. coaching structure. As Will Parchman wrote for Howler magazine in 2016:

In countries like Germany and Argentina, coaching education centers have turned out knowledgeable adults to guide future generations of professionals. This ensures that young players cannot advance very far without developing a grasp of formations, tactics, and proper training methods. Granted, much of the infrastructure has been provided by the professional clubs themselves, enabling the best players to be identified and developed by experienced coaches at the club level before they move up the ladder. That system still has not fully taken root in the U.S. If a promising 11-year-old player surfaces in Missoula, Montana, he is far more likely to wither on the vine than be picked for the harvest.

There’s no chicken or egg here: You can’t develop players without the proper coaching.

“Coaching development is the key to U.S. soccer’s long-term success,” Anderson said. “We are still playing catch-up when it comes to the number of adults interested in coaching who also played the game at a reasonable level.”

While the U.S. Federation offers varying levels of coaching degrees, they’re expensive, and the results have been scattershot at best. The Development Academy doesn’t start until under-12, so before then, many kids have to hope they get proper guidance from the right well-meaning volunteer parent. After that, the focus of coaches is too often on winning games against other American teams plagued by the same issues, rather than expanding the tactical and technical development of their players—results be damned.

“I see it at the national team when you are having conversations with a lot of these players,” Twellman said. “When these new players come in, the ones that are developed within the American system in some form or another, the tactical understanding of the game in multiple positions is lacking compared to the rest of the world.”

As always seems to be the case with American soccer, it’s capitalism’s fault.

“U.S. coaches continue to be heavy on athleticism and effort and weaker on tactical and technical sophistication,” Anderson said. “Size and speed are powerful when you’re interested in winning games at the youth level. When you have for-profit clubs where winning trophies is important for the business model to attract paying customers, technical and tactical ability are less important.”

It’s not easy to unwind all of the knotty for-profit structures that prop up the game in America. Hiring the right people is only the beginning, but there’s way more work to be done after that. Could missing the World Cup lead to some wide-scale introspection?

“I believe that the moment is there,” Twellman said. “I'm not completely convinced that the United States will maximize the moment. In my gut, I hope and think we do, but in my brain, part of me thinks that people are still too reluctant to admit and commit to change.”

The One

Christian Pulisic papers over a lot of the cracks.

He scored or assisted on 12 of the 17 goals the Americans scored in the Hex. Had they qualified, it would’ve been because of a 19-year-old superstar. Plus, how broken can a youth-development system that produced one of the best young players on the planet really be?

In a way, everything will get better because of Pulisic. The system is producing enough players to eventually support him and play like him. It’s likely that the current iteration of the USMNT is worse than every group that follows.

“There are lots of good what you could call ‘structural’ reasons for why the future will continue to be bright: the demographic change in the country, the youth participation numbers, a healthy domestic league, infrastructure,” Anderson said. “That’s a pretty potent combination.”

Still, next summer will go down as a massive missed opportunity.

“Not having Pulisic at next year’s tournament means that today’s eight-year-olds won’t imagine themselves in his shoes, they won’t beg their parents to sign them up for a team, and it all goes from there,” Anderson said. “It’s a big hit for Fox, ESPN, and sponsors.”

Soccer grows with every passing day. It’s America’s most popular sport among children below the age of 10, and it only trails basketball once kids hit double digits. Talk to any teenage sports fan, and chances are they will have a favorite European club. MLS is steadily expanding and improving, too. In the first year of their existence, Atlanta United averages more fans than any other MLS, NBA, NHL, or MLB franchise in the country. Of course, the quality of play in the domestic league still needs to improve—Bradley, Dempsey, and Altidore certainly didn’t get better when they came back to MLS—and the same obviously goes for the national team. The sport remains on an upward trajectory, but it has hit a temporary plateau.

“I think we still think of soccer as an insurgent sport—and there is a worry that this could make people start to wonder about the power of that insurgency,” Anderson said. “I was secretly hoping that Christian Pulisic would have an amazing tournament to power that insurgency to a new level—a legit American international superstar would be hugely helpful. Now that’ll have to wait.”

The realistic possibility of a true American superstar isn’t something fans in this country have ever experienced. But provided Pulisic continues to perform at such a high level, it’s going to happen.

Now, we just need it to happen again, and again, and again.

“Our media is so excited about Pulisic,” Twellman said. “OK, on a certain level? Great, awesome. Reality is: You need 20 more of him.”