On Oct. 11, one day after the U.S. men’s national soccer team lost to Trinidad and Tobago, former U.S. national team member and current Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas joined Colin Cowherd on the set of Cowherd’s podcast show “The Herd” to talk about the team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
“I woke up this morning and I physically ached,” Lalas said. “It was a disappointment and a sadness and a shame. This team, they failed themselves, they failed the sport and they failed the country.”
Lalas put into words the feelings of every American soccer fan that morning. There was (and still is) a lot of animosity toward the entire U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) after the national team was eliminated from the Hex – a weak qualifying group, in global terms, which sends almost two thirds of its teams to the World Cup.
So what changes will be made to American soccer to prevent this from happening in the future? And what will the effects be on the environment surrounding the sport in this country?
In Feb. 2018, the USSF will meet in Orlando, FL, and elect the new President of the federation. Many influential figures of U.S. soccer – including Steve Gans, Eric Wynalda and Landon Donovan – have announced their plans to run for the office. It is still unclear whether or not the current President, Sunil Gulati, will run for re-election in what would be the first time that he runs opposed.
Since originally being elected President of the USSF in 2006, Gulati has overseen tremendous growth in multiple areas of U.S. soccer. A senior lecturer in economics at Columbia University, Gulati has helped to stabilize and increase soccer’s financial power – the USSF now has a surplus of around $135 million – and stimulate steady growth in American soccer fandom every year of his tenure. In fairness though, the fanbase started growing before the Gulati era.
In 2012, he spurred the creation of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the highest level of professional women’s soccer in the country, and he has led the effort in the United States’ bid to co-host the 2026 World Cup.
However, despite the economic growth during his tenure, Gulati has not done enough for the development of American players and talent, ultimately resulting in the catastrophe that was Oct. 10.
Throughout Gulati’s presidency, there has been a strong demand for the removal of the pay-to-play youth system and for the implementation of of a promotion/relegation system in professional American soccer leagues, and he has yet to even attempt to achieve either one.
The pay-to-play youth system in the U.S. is damaging the country’s ability to produce and develop talented young players; playing on a major youth club in America can cost up to several thousands dollars each year, money that a large percentage of parents can not afford to spend regardless of how talented their kid is.
With such high costs, soccer clubs are in effect limiting their players to kids only of wealthy backgrounds, while children in lower economic classes do not even get the opportunity to play.
Additionally, implementing a promotion/relegation system in the U.S. would increase the depth of American players. With more connection between the various levels of professional soccer leagues, more players will be competing with and against each other, gaining valuable experience in higher levels of play.
A promotion/relegation system could also help American players get used to playing under pressure as they try to avoid being relegated and sent to a lower division.
“Do you know what pressure is?” Taylor Twellman, a former U.S. national team player and current ESPN analyst said on SportsCenter. “When your club gets relegated in England, or in Spain, or in Germany, and your town loses jobs. That’s pressure.”
The men’s national team has been accused of not having the mental strength to cope with pressure of late, and for not putting in enough effort during games. That is largely due to the fact that they do not have to deal with much pressure in their careers. But simply adding a system to MLS where only the bottom few teams get relegated would not completely resolve those problems.
The media is arguably the most powerful instrument through which pressure is applied to sports, but it has dropped the ball on holding the American players accountable for their recent failures.
“If you hold teams accountable, they’ll be accountable,” Cowherd said on “The Herd.” “Children are not born spoiled; we make them that way. We have coddled our soccer players.”
For some reason, when it comes to soccer, the American media has been far too lenient in its treatment of the national team. Whether this leniency was an effort to protect the American ego and enforce the idea that the U.S. can be the best at anything, or if it was to protect this country’s growing but vulnerable sport of soccer, doesn’t matter. It has damaged this generation of players, who, in absence of valid criticism, became comfortable with mediocrity.
During the team’s struggles during qualifying, analysts rarely held the players responsible for their poor performances, but instead came up with a myriad of excuses – the referees, the heat, the field conditions, even the location of their own home games.
When Lalas went on his rant about the American players in September, it was the harshest public criticism the team had ever faced. However, it was so contradictory to the status quo of American soccer coverage, that most of his co-workers disregarded his statements as merely crowd-pandering and bitterness, rather than the truth.
“Alexi is a showman,” former U.S. national team member and current ESPN analyst Herculez Gomez said on his podcast show after Lalas’ comments. “He is not dumb; he knows the type of reaction he is going to get. To me this feels like a cop-out … a little over the top. [What he said] was a little bit unfair…The most embarrassing moment in U.S. soccer was the 1998 World Cup that [Alexi] was a part of, and he didn’t play one minute of.”
It took the loss on Oct. 10 for people to realize that pundits like Gomez were wrong and that Lalas was right.
The media needs to change the way it covers the national team in the future, because during these qualifiers, it was living in an American soccer fantasy while the actual team was crashing and burning in reality.
But what will the effect be on soccer fandom in this country after its first World Cup absence since 1986?
Contrary to most conceptions, soccer is actually a pretty big deal in America. According to an annual ESPN poll, the soccer fanbase in the U.S. has been steadily growing for decades – overtaking hockey as the country’s fourth favorite sport in 2006 – with a relatively large spike every four years.
However, those particular four-year spikes happen to coincide with (you guessed it) World Cups.
Even if the quadrennial bump in soccer fans skips over 2018, though, soccer will continue to have a large and growing influence on American sports fans. This failure could even prove to become a rallying point that attracts even more fans than World Cups past.
Besides, even in these dark times for the men’s team, it is important for fans to remember that it only makes up 50 percent of U.S. soccer. In 2019, the U.S. women’s national soccer team will travel to France and be among the favorites to win its second consecutive, and fourth overall, Women’s World Cup.
And that is a team that this country can be proud of.