Some 60 minutes into what remained of a 1-0 game in San Jose, Costa Rica on Nov. 15, 2016, BeIN color commentator Thomas Rongen festered aloud at the visiting Americans’ inability to go forward. He identified the problem, quite rightly, as originating in the center of midfield, where 29-year-old Michael Bradley dropped ever deeper and 35-year-old Jermaine Jones drifted even further into irrelevance. Rongen suggested that Jurgen Klinsmann needed to make a change — that inserting Sacha Kljestan was the best option to link up, in attacking fashion, with the troika of Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore and Christian Pulisic.
It was then that I realized the U.S. was doomed this night and that Klinsi would soon be out of a job. Rongen’s analysis was spot on. But if Sacha Kljestan is your best midfield attacking option off the bench, one can reasonably argue the cupboard is more or less bare.
As it happened, Klinsmann was relieved of his U.S Men‘s National Team duties the following Tuesday morning and L.A. Galaxy skipper Bruce Arena was hired in his place. And so, pointless and facing a win-at-all-costs game at home vs. Honduras this Friday night, March 24, U.S. Soccer finds itself at an unfamiliar crossroads.
Yeah, sure, the U.S. has once or twice stumbled or started slowly in Hexagonals past.
But the U.S. finds itself in an altogether different situation in 2017.
Prior to 1990, the U.S. had never qualified for a World Cup, of course. That signal success, after 40 years of utter failure, ushered in a new era of American soccer, one where qualification was a given and the challenge lay in determining a) how U.S. teams would inevitably ascend to the next echelon, to truly compete toe-to-toe with the best 12-15 teams on the planet, and b) who would lead them to this new place of relevance.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to relevance.
For the first time ever, the USMNT lost the first two games of a Hexagonal qualifier. Not since 1990, when another Euro, Lothar Osiander, gave way to another Yank, Bob Gansler, had the U.S. changed coaches in the middle of a qualification campaign. Yes, the U.S has pretty much been guaranteed a spot at the World Cup Finals every four years, thank to FIFA’s awarding 3.5 spots to just six Hex participants (thanks, Sepp!). But as we pick over the entrails of Klinsmann’s tenure (he was in charge of the U-23s, too, and their failure to qualify for the last two Olympic tournaments is another blot on the resume) looking for clues, explanations, blame and hope, let us not be coy.
The nations comprising The Hex have never been stronger. More important and relevant, this crop of senior U.S. players Klinsmann had to work with was neither young nor particularly talented. As such, we can’t honestly call their performance the last two summers and during the nascent 2018 Hexagonal “under achievement”.
I haven’t heard anyone suggest, in retrospect, that Klinsmann had, in pushing for European club experience or courting Euro talent with American bloodlines, ignored or failed to develop a pool of talented, USMNT-worthy domestic players.
Frankly, I don’t think those players exist. That’s what makes this qualification such an anomalous throwback.
Since Arena’s hire, his familiarity with the domestic league has been mentioned with metronomic frequency. But I watch Major League Soccer. You watch MLS. We can agree there are no glaring omissions for which Klinsi must answer — or rather, which Arena can now run out as remedy… You think Dax McCarty was the answer and Klinsi just ignored him? You would perhaps prefer to have seen Darlington Nagby running the show in Costa Rica?
The German may have “lost the locker room” in wake of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but I don’t think we should go forward under any illusion that Klinsmann was the problem here. I have a stronger feeling that he was merely doing the best he could with a pool of players whose core is aging, whose younger options are largely not up to snuff, and whose successors — that oft-invoked golden generation of 20 year olds poised to assert themselves — simply isn’t in the offing.
That is the crossroads at which American soccer finds itself today.
And here’s another sobering point on the eve of these two crucial Hex matches (a loss in either one would make outright qualification a tall order indeed): The Americans Klinsmann fielded, and Arena will field, are only as good as they are on account of half the starting XI being wooed away from Germany by Klinsmann himself, which begs the question of whether that clearly rich vein can be tapped going forward by just anyone.
Klinsi’ perfectly reasonable expectation that U.S. players seek regular gigs in the world’s best leagues has also come under major scrutiny since his firing, which is unfortunate because it’s a red herring. Look around and scrutinize the attitudes of national team coaches serving all but the elite soccer nations. Klinsmann’s was not and is not a controversial position. Players become world class only by competing with the elite, day in and day out. We know this. Every national team coach outside Europe knows this.
And I’ve got news for you: Bradley, Jones, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Altidore aren’t playing in MLS today because they want to be closer to their families, or they have some romantic responsibility to bolster the fortunes of our domestic league. Klinsmann had the misfortune of steering the U.S. ship at a time when all five of these core figures lost their value in Europe — because they were no longer good enough to command the dollars or playing time there. If they could make the same money playing in France or the Netherlands, they’d be doing it.
What we saw in Costa Rica (and, to a lesser extent, in Columbus vs. Mexico in the Hexagonal opener) is demonstrable evidence that the old guard needs changing. I’m still fairly sanguine re. Arena’s ability to get this team to Russia, by hook or by crook. But that does not mitigate the larger issue — that the pool of international caliber U.S. players does not seem to be growing, here or abroad, in the manner we might expect from a world-top-15 footballing nation.
Hell, the current choices, save Mr. Pulisic, point to a discernable regression.
Bruce Arena was a far younger man in 2002, when he led the U.S. to its only World Cup quarterfinal, a 1-0 loss to Germany where only the unseen hand of Thorsten Frings separated our boys from overtime, penalty kicks and perhaps a place in the semifinal. Arena was 51 in 2002, just 6 years removed from the head coaching position at the University of Virginia (where he started out as a lacrosse assistant). Thereafter, on the strength of this idiosyncratic coaching background, his D.C. United teams proved the class of Major League Soccer — indeed, that’s why this former Cornell lacrosse player and soccer goalkeeper came to be tapped as U.S. Men’s National Team coach, succeeding Steve Sampson after the debacle at France ’98.
Though it was a crushing quarterfinal defeat in South Korea, a mighty opportunity lost, 2002 made us forget about 1998, for it was yet another in a succession of high-water marks we had come to expect from American soccer. The Yanks had qualified for its first World Cup only 12 years before — a moment that surely marked the slow and steady brightening of American fortunes in the decades to come.
Today, the U.S. performance in 2002 is looking more and more like an anomaly, not another step forward on an inexorable rise.
U.S. soccer fans should perhaps start coming to grips with this — with what most of the footballing world has already come to know and accept: There are very few birthrights at the international level.
Look at Sweden. Every 20 years or so, the Swedes produce a generation that can compete for a place at the title-seeking table. In between they are also-rans and struggle to qualify for big tournaments. Here is a country that has produced semifinalists and finalists, several world-class players by any measure, even coaches who are hired to lead the teams of other nations.
Can any of this be said of U.S. Soccer, 14 years after South Korea?
I’m now researching and writing a book called Generation Zero: The Class of 1990 and the Birth of Modern American Soccer. It was indeed this cohort of young players — Harkes, Balboa, Meola, Ramos and Vermes, to name just a few — whose qualification for Italia ’90 changed the game here in America, forever. It paved the way for this new era of U.S. soccer we now enjoy — one where participation in the World Cup is routine, where the domestic league not only exists but builds new soccer-specific stadia to keep up with demand, where, in theory, our best young players are courted, vetted and bettered by clubs in top European leagues, where American plutocrats own iconic clubs like Liverpool FC and Manchester United, where three major networks fight over the rights to televise European, South American and major tournament games to an American soccer audience.
I’m a member of Generation Zero myself (Bruce Murray once billeted in my house). Take it from someone who remembers the wasteland that was American soccer in the post-NASL ‘80s: None of the above existed prior to 1990. It wasn’t even a part of our wildest dreams, frankly. The players who first qualified America made all this possible. They would form the core of the 1994 team that hosted the World Cup (something else, I’ve learned, that might not have taken place were it not for the Class of 1990).
But this cohort of pioneering U.S. players in Generation Zero created something else, something that does appear to be rising inexorably: a foundational fan base, upon which all of American soccer support now rests.
Again, with the 3.5 World Cup allotted to CONCACAF each quadrennial, FIFA has done its best to more or less guaranteed the U.S. will compete in every World Cup going forward. It’s highly likely that Arena will get the job done. That is my most fervent hope, in fact.
But it’s high time we American soccer fans, in our every expanding numbers, get real about where we truly are as a footballing nation and what sort of exercise we’re engaged in here.
It’s high time we dispensed with this “Will America win a World Cup by 2022, 2026 or 2030?” banter. Competing on the world stage is what we call “the long game”. Settle in, America. In soccer, national team programs don’t compete for world titles merely because they set their minds to this goal and/or throw resources at it.
The Netherlands, for example, is, by any standard, a premier footballing nation. Yet the Dutch have never won a World Cup. England, the boys who invented the game, have managed but one (and it required home soil and massive good fortune). Magnificent Chile, now enjoying a Golden Generational moment, finished third on home soil in 1962, but otherwise has never advanced past the last 16. Remember when South Africa 2010 was supposed to produce the first African semifinalist? We’re still waiting — and we’d be hard pressed to name a single African nation capable of this in 2018.
Only the Germans, Italians, Spanish and Argentinians can honestly enter each World Cup cycle believing they have a legitimate shot to win the whole ball of wax. Brazil, currently in crisis following the disaster of 2014, would make it five. France and the Netherlands are capable of winning a big tournament. Apparently Portugal is, too… Everyone else, the U.S. included, is hoping to build and/or luck into a golden generation of talent — then catch lightening in a bottle.
Generation Zero produced the first American cohort of talent good enough to qualify for a World Cup. It took 40 years to get that done, and it was “golden” only relative to all those previous generations of Americans who’d tried and failed. Right now, the 2002 USMNT roster may be closest thing to a truly Golden Generation this country has yet produced.
Klinsmann had promised to change all that, and we wanted to believe him. He offered grand plans to transform the way Americans played soccer on the international stage — by the sheer force of belief, and by influencing the way Americans played at all the various developmental levels. The plan was ambitious and almost credible (he did have a hand, between 2002-2006, in transforming an entrenched system in no less a world soccer power than Germany). And yet for all his efforts, we remain essentially the same soccer nation we were before he took the wheel, albeit with a few more German-Americans in the fold. We even have the same coach we had in 2006 (one who knows how difficult it is to coach two consecutive World Cup cycles).
Welcome to the big leagues, America. Adjust your sights as events warrant. Football on the world stage is hard.