This article is the second part in a three part column about the U.S. men’s national team and its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Part one is posted on the KCOU website and part three will be available in the coming weeks.
About an hour after the U.S. men’s national team lost to Trinidad and Tobago, ensuring that they will miss out on next summer’s World Cup in Russia, head coach Bruce Arena faced the press.
“There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing,” Arena said. “Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes would be foolish.”
Arena resigned two days later.
After its shambolic 2-1 loss to complete the embarrassment of failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986, the U.S men’s national team is in a state of turmoil. Calls for changes to everything about the United States Soccer Federation are coming at alarming rates. Most of them center around a few core questions.
Who should the new manager be? What becomes of the players on this current team? How does this team move forward into the qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup?
This loss dismantled all pre-existing beliefs about the men’s national team, and left a lot of uncertainty about the future. Answering these questions correctly will be instrumental if the team hopes to rebound from its disgraceful loss on Oct. 10.
First up: The head coach.
Even with this loss, managing the U.S. national team is still a pretty attractive job for coaches. The U.S. has a large and ever-growing fan base in the country, and even though it is not a global soccer power, the national team is still well-known across the globe due to the tremendous influence of its country. This head coaching job is a very high profile one with lots of publicity.
Plus, the team is at its lowest point in 30 years. There is a lot of glory to be gained from leading it back to prominence.
But who is the right man (or woman) for the job?
Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes is an early front-runner for the job. He has won the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup with K.C. and he is familiar with many of the MLS-based players.
Another option is U.S. U-20 coach Tab Ramos. Ramos led the youth team to the finals of the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championship and qualified for the 2013 U-20 World Cup. Many of the players he coached on the youth teams have made their way up to the senior team.
A third possible candidate is Atlanta United manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who has the most foreign experience of the bunch. Martino guided Barcelona to a second place finish in La Liga in 2013-14, and then coached the Argentinian national team to consecutive Copa America finals in 2015 and 2016.
Whether the new coach is appointed from these three options or comes from somewhere else, it is important for him or her to be focused on the long-term development of the team as a cohesive unit. The U.S. will not play any competitive matches until the summer of 2019, so there is plenty of time to rebuild the squad.
And what is to be done with the current crop of players? 19-year-old Christian Pulisic aside, there are no competitors on the team that have consistently played well enough to be considered untouchable.
It is time to say goodbye to Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and DaMarcus Beasley, assuming they don’t retire first. These players were stars for the national team in the past, but now are now past their prime (Dempsey, the youngest, is 34-years-old) and simply becoming a problem. The team has been relying on them much more than it should, and at this point they are just taking playing time away from younger players who will still be playing in 2022. They should not be considered a part of the future of the program.
The future does not have to include players like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez either. This is a group of players who have a lot of experience and who are still in good shape due to their age, but also players who have not been living up to their expectations.
Throughout qualifying, these players were often automatically placed in the lineup because of their high ceilings, but were in turn often criticized for their apparent lack of effort. They consistently came up short in their performances.
These players do not have to be dropped immediately, but they should have to work much harder and perform much better than they have been recently in order to remain on the team. If they are unable to do so, then there are plenty of younger and better options for the U.S. to turn to.
The future of the team will be built around Pulisic. The teenager has the potential to be the greatest American soccer player of all time, and has already been the main focus of the team for much of this past year, as he was directly involved in 12 of the 17 goals that the U.S. scored in the Hex. However, in the future, Pulisic should not have to be alone in the way he was for many of the qualifying matches in the Hex.
DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Bobby Wood have all performed well for the national team while healthy, and are all entering the prime of their careers (all at 24 years of age). 17-year-old Josh Sargent was a key player in the U-20 World Cup earlier this year, and Sargent along with Timothy Weah have have been lighting up the U-17 World Cup in India this month.
These young players give the U.S. a foundation to build off of in the coming months as their talents continue to develop. Another thing that these players all have in common is that they all play club soccer in Europe (with the exception of Sargent, who will be playing in Germany starting this January).
While high profile American soccer players signing for MLS clubs is good for MLS, it does not necessarily benefit the U.S. national team. MLS has made amazing strides in its 25 seasons, but it is still miles behind the top European leagues in terms of overall quality of play.
When skilled Americans play in the Premier League or the Bundesliga, they experience playing against talented opponents, much like the ones they play against in World Cups. When Brooks defends against the likes of Thomas Müller and Marco Reus on a regular basis in the German Bundesliga, he is not afraid of them when the U.S. plays Germany in the World Cup (the Americans only lost 1-0 to the eventual world champions in 2014).
But when skilled American players move back to MLS (as Bradley did in 2014 and Altidore did in 2015), they suddenly are not used to playing against high-level opposition, and they play poorly against better teams such as Costa Rica and Mexico in qualification.
Another benefit of playing in the top leagues is that the Americans are not guaranteed spots in the starting line-up. When Bradley played for Italian club A.S. Roma in 2013, he had to compete with world-class teammates like Daniele De Rossi and Miralem Pjanic for a starting spot. This ensured that Bradley was constantly putting full effort into practices and being the best player that he could be in order to get playing time.
But now that Bradley has come back to MLS and plays for Toronto F.C., he competes with Benoît Cheyrou and Jay Chapman. This low level of competition allows Bradley to be satisfied with mediocrity in his own play, because he will still be starting over his teammates.
The difference between Americans who play in the top European leagues and Americans who play in MLS manifested itself on the field in the Hex, as the European club players consistently outperformed their MLS counterparts during qualifying, both in skill and in mentality.
So how does the national team rebuild and move forward into the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup and eventually into the 2022 World Cup qualifiers?
As stated before, the U.S. has 20 months until its next competitive match. They have plenty of exhibition matches in that timespan to experiment with the personnel and formations, and to eventually find a new system that works for the future of the team. The U.S. has the resources and the support to rebound from this setback and be even stronger by the next World Cup in Qatar.
However, watching this World Cup from the sidelines will not feel good for anyone involved with the national team. It will be important for everyone to remember how that feels, and to use that shame, depression, guilt and rage to ensure that something like this never happens again.