A National (Team) Crisis

USA Soccer

 

It was a rocky road to attempt qualifying for the 2018 World Cup for the United States of America. There was the stinging loss in Columbus to Mexico that broke the “Dos-A-Cero” streak. The crushing home defeat to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena, a match that was all but a home game for Los Ticos. However, at the end of it all, there was a simple hurdle to clear. Trinidad & Tobago. Away. All the US needed was a draw. T&T brought their C team to the table. A simple, safe stalemate would have sent the US to the 2018 World Cup. The US managed to fumble that match in shocking fashion and missed out on qualification for the World Cup for the first time since 1990(Or when we actually started taking soccer seriously again after a 40 or so year absence from it being in the mainstream, the NASL aside).

It couldn’t possibly have been any worse for US fans…Until October 15th. The US was defeated 2-0 by Canada in a CONCACAF Nations League match, giving the Canadians their first victory over the Stars & Stripes since 1985. It wasn’t simply defeated, either. The Yanks were dominated by Les Rouges, run off the pitch at BMO Field in Toronto by a Canadian side that was hungrier, better coached, and more motivated to succeed than the US was. There was not one facet of the game that the US proved itself to be better than their Canadian counterparts last night.

We could spend days micro-analyzing the X’s and O’s of the match, but the bottom line is that the United States National Team is somehow in a worse place on October 16, 2019, than it was on October 11, 2017—and on that date, we were nursing our wounds about missing the World Cup the night before. Taylor Twellman’s “What are we doing?” rant on live TV following the capitulation in Trinidad will long be remembered in US soccer lore as one of the great segments of all time.

People blamed then manager Bruce Arena for not cleaning up the mess. People blamed former manager Jurgen Klinsmann for creating the initial mess in qualification. We demanded better from the federation. The USSF brought us a hire, alright. The manager of the Columbus Crew, Gregg Berhalter. He is the brother of one of the executives at US Soccer and was the ONLY man interviewed for the job in over a year of its vacancy date. Berhalter was a fantastic player with a long overseas career and a truckload of US National team caps to his resume, but as a manager, he was unproven. His work as the main man was limited to two stops: Swedish side Hammarby and the middling MLS side, Columbus Crew. He was let go by Hammarby in 2013 as they sat mid-table in Sweden’s second division because the ownership group felt that they lacked attacking prowess. He came to Columbus and managed well with a short deck—The owner, Anthony Precourt, was hell-bent on moving the franchise to Austin, TX, and was pulling a Major League(Do kids know this movie anymore?). Berhalter managed to make the playoff with Columbus but was by no means a world-class gaffer.

The result of hiring Berhalter without any other candidates has been nothing short of a disaster. Tactically, the US is disjointed, defensive, and trying to play a style that we’re not fit to play. Roster-wise? It’s an even bigger mess. While other nations look to Europe as the be-all, end-all—We’re loading our roster up with highly paid, under-skilled, under-motivated MLS based players. The results speak for themselves. Players coming from a league where there exists no threat of relegation, where half the teams make the playoff—simply not good enough. Not tough enough of an environment. There will be a camp that says the Canadians also utilized a number of MLS based players on the night—What does that say about the state of soccer in the United States that the Canadian MLS based players took apart the American based MLS players? There was not a Canadian team in MLS until Toronto FC came in 2007. They did not have an organized, professional league, not even a top tier one, but a league that is equivalent to the USL, prior to this year.

Is Major League Soccer the problem here? Yes, it’s part of the problem. The league does not focus on the role of being a developmental league for American(and Canadian, in the case of Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps) talent. Instead, it has undertaken a marketing crusade involving referring to itself as one of the “Top Leagues” in the world. They will utilize random statistics which have ZERO bearing on the quality of the league, but that is another topic for another time—The bottom line remains that MLS is not a top league. Players who struggled in lower leagues in Europe have come to America and ripped MLS apart—The newest example of that is Polish striker Kacper Przybylko. Przybylko spent his entire career in the lower leagues of Germany and found little success. He came to Philadelphia Union and promptly scored double digits in his first year, making it look easy in doing so.

Instead of developing our own and seeing them off to greener pastures in Europe, as say, the A-League of Australia does, they are overpaying top Yanks to stay in MLS for marketing purposes to play in an inferior league. Is it working? The league is over 50% foreign, the stadiums are half empty, the quality is not there. Sure, these guys are getting paid, well beyond their worth abroad, but their lack of exposure to the next level prevents the national team from reaching the next level. Players who 10-15 years ago would depart MLS to play in European leagues, be it top leagues like the Bundesliga or English Premier League, or secondary leagues such as the Allsvenskan in Sweden, Tippeligaen in Norway or numerous others, including second divisions in England or Germany(Championship and 2 Bundesliga) are now domestic-based. The cut-throat nature of the European game, the threat of relegation, the promise of Europa or Champions League, the societal pulse that surrounds the sport, all combines to create the “next level” environment. MLS lacks that. A player like Aaron Long, for example, making above $750,000 in MLS, is a dime a dozen guy over in Europe. He’s a League One(English 3rd division) type of player. The West Ham interest would have resulted in an immediate loan down the pyramid, given the depth and value they currently have at centerback—That said, MLS and Red Bull NY were foolish not to cash in on him this past summer after his hot 2018 quickly unraveled in 2019 for both club and country.

While we have players in Europe, they’re not being called into the national team, for whatever that reason is, and we’re suffering for it. There are young prospects who need to be “bled” into the national team. Teenagers worth giving a run-out to those who are based abroad. The Canada loss, the thumping in the friendly from Mexico in September at the Meadowlands, all would have been easier to stomach if Berhalter said, “We’re going to think about the next three cycles, build around Pulisic and the kids.”

If they brought in the stars of the U20 World Cup, the U-23 pool—even the domestics, as a means of “promoting” them for sales abroad—and sacrificed the middling MLS prime-age players, the media, the fans, US Soccer community in general, would not be calling for his head, demanding further change..They would have stomached the loss as growing pains as players like Tim Weah, Andrija Novakovich, Djordje Mihajlovic, Luca De La Torre, and two dozen others were broken into the senior team. Instead, it was more of the same, and the same just is not good enough anymore. US Soccer must demand more going forward.

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