World Cup Qualifying Failure Must Bring Sweeping Changes for US Men’s Soccer

Failure. Complete and utter failure. No better words can describe the US Men’s National Team’s performance on Tuesday night and throughout the entire World Cup qualifying process.

After 11 months of incompetent lineups and inconsistent performances, the team has found itself out of a World Cup spot with nobody to blame but themselves. Time after time, the team was bailed out of mistakes due to their continent's easy qualification process – three of the top six teams in North and Central America qualify, while fourth place faces a team from Asia in a playoff. And yet, when it all came down to that one match, the team could not deliver a winning performance.

A win against Trinidad and Tobago, a team that the USMNT beat 2-0 in June, would have guaranteed the US team a place in the World Cup, and even a tie would have given them fairly good odds to qualify, as they were leading Panama and Honduras in the goal differential tiebreaker. But after Omar Gonzalez made a ridiculous own goal, and Trinidad and Tobago fired an incredible rocket of a shot which came with no defensive pressure from the USMNT, the team found themselves in a hole too big for even wonder-boy Christian Pulisic to rescue them from. They fell 2-1.

The team will not be competing for the World Cup in Russia next summer for the first time since 1986. With that fact sinking in, they can only reflect and grow. How did they end up here? Who’s to blame? What will be the consequences of failing to qualify? What can change  to ensure this never happens again?

How did they end up here? It’s pretty simple, honestly. After winning the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) qualifying group in the two previous World Cup qualifying groups, the team stumbled out of the gate with a loss to Mexico at home on their sacred turf at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. They then received their worst defeat in a World Cup qualifier since 1980, a 4-0 loss to Costa Rica.

The team tried to regroup and redirect, firing Coach Jurgen Klinsmann and hiring a former coach, Bruce Arena, to steady the ship. But even though the team recovered in their next qualifying matches in March and June, they once again stumbled with weak performances at home against Costa Rica and then away at Honduras. This left them with their backs against the wall this past week.

After a 4-0 win against Panama Oct. 6, it all came down to the game against Trinidad and Tobago. However, even desperation could not push the USMNT to grab the result they needed.

Now, most of the team will have to enjoy playing in MLS games while a country like Iceland, which has a population of 334,252 (approximately the same as Corpus Christi, Texas), will compete for soccer glory.

Who’s to blame? That’s pretty simple as well: everyone. No single person or player should take on sole blame for what is the biggest embarrassment in US men’s soccer history, but rather everyone involved in US men’s soccer should feel somewhat to blame. With the amount of money the US Soccer Federation poured into training and facilities and coaching, this should never happen.

At times the quality of play expected was absent; at other times it, seemed as though the team lacked the mental fortitude needed to pick up results in hostile environments on the road. Klinsmann was tactically unsound and lost the motivation of all his players. Arena chose Tim Howard and Brad Guzan over a newer and younger goalkeeper, left Michael Bradley alone in the midfield, and refused to put Christian Pulisic at a creative midfield role until it was too late to recover.

The people in control of the team continuously invested in Klinsmann after he barely proved his worth, and for that they should feel responsible. Even the media at times took soft approaches at critiquing players' poor performances. All in all it was a total failure and letdown to the country.

What’s the fallout from the team failing to qualify? In economic terms, millions. As a federation the USSF will lose tons of money from potential ticket sales for international tune-ups, potential payout from competing in the World Cup, and the loss of leverage in future negotiations with sponsors – not to mention the potential revenue that companies like Nike and Fox could lose.

In cultural terms, the effect will be astronomical. The World Cup is an opportunity for the United States to grow its soccer fandom and continue to recruit youth athletes to compete in the sport, and this time that opportunity was allowed to sail on by.

How does the USSF ensure this never happens again? Should the team immediately change coaches? Do they now spend the next five years doing everything possible to secure a spot for the 2022 World Cup? 

If the USSF wants sweeping overhaul and change, they should look no further than what the Germans did in 2000. After flopping out of the 2000 UEFA European Championship, the German soccer federation (known as the DFB), met with the leaders of their domestic league, the Bundesliga, to see how they could improve talent scouting and development. Eventually, the DFB invested in a myriad of grassroot and local training centers and regional coaching bases across the country. In the long run this helped Germany to make the semifinals of seven consecutive major tournaments and win the 2014 World Cup. The USSF reportedly has a surplus of 100 million dollars burning their pocket, and nearly every penny of that should be spent to making sure this never happens again.

In the aftermath of this disappointment all that remains is a gut wrenching pain. The USMNT failed massively. The public knows it, the media knows it, and I am sure the players and coaching staff know it as well. While blame and anger can be expressed over the coming few days, major improvements by the USSF must follow quickly.

As ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman put it on Tuesday night, “If this failure does not wake up everyone from U.S Soccer (Federation) to Major League Soccer to ‘pay to play’ [youth soccer], to broadcasters, everything, then we are all insane.”

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