Nashville Soccer 346: Why isn’t the United States in the World Cup?

Since high-level soccer is new to Nashville, we have to make sure that fans are up to speed on the game. Today, a big-picture look at why the United States isn’t in Russia for the next month. See other entries in the series in Nashville Soccer University here or linked on the menu to your right.

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Location: definitely not Russia. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

We’ll gloss over some of the material from your 100- and 200-level courses in the subject, just to make sure we’re up to speed here.

NS103: What is the World Cup

This is the quadrennial competition between the top national teams in the world. It currently consists of 32 teams (it’s expanding eight years from now) who qualify through their regional confederations. Generally speaking, the top handful of national teams from each region make the competition. Europe (UEFA) and South America (CONMEBOL) are traditionally the two strongest, and get to send more teams. The United States’ region, Concacaf, typically sends between three and four teams. Asia and Africa are in the same ballpark, whereas Oceania sends the fewest.

This is not a collection of pro teams: you won’t see Nashville SC or the Chicago Fire competing. However, you may see gentlemen from those teams representing their nations. Think of the teams like the olympic basketball squads, for example: LeBron James is a Cleveland Cavalier (or whatever team he can defect to in order to have a better shot to win a championship), but every four years, he wears the Red, White, and Blue of the United States.

International Soccer (the term generally used for competition between national teams, rather than club teams) is a more significant part of the landscape than it is in most other sports with established professional leagues. The World Cup – unlike olympic basketball, to continue the same example – is the biggest, most important event in the sport.

(On the women’s side, by the way, the World Cup takes place on a four-year cycle as well, offset one year later than the men’s edition. Next year’s WWC is hosted in France).

NS203: How does Concacaf Qualifying work?

The United States failed to qualify out of Concacaf. how does that happen? We’ll look at the mechanics of it first before the blame-assigning portions. The confederation includes North and Central America, the Caribbean, and two South American teams. There are 41 total members of Concacaf, but six of them are not FIFA members, and therefore not eligible for the World Cup.

Qualifying out of the confederation is a five-step process, with the lowest-ranked teams in the region taking part in rounds 1-3. The first round includes the bottom 14 teams, playing in seven home-and-home series (random draw), with the winners advancing to round two, the same format with 20 total teams (13 next-lowest ranked teams plus the seven winners), and round three is with 12 teams (teams ranked Nos. 7 and 8 plus the ten winners).

After those rounds, we have the top six teams in the region join, and take on the six who have worked their way through earlier qualifying stages. This round is where Mexico, the United States, and Costa Rica will pretty much always join the competition, with Honduras, Panama, and Jamaica also in the top six for the 2018 edition (though Jamaica, Haiti, and Canada are intermittently in the top six teams in the confederation, as well).

Round four splits the twelve remaining teams into three groups of four, with a double round-robin played within each group. The top two teams in each group’s table after the six games (three points for a win, one point each for a draw, with goal differential breaking any ties). The USA’s group (Group C) consisted of Trinidad and Tobago (remember them – they’ll be back), Guatemala, and St. Vincent-Grenadines. The Americans won the group with 13 points, with a 2-0 loss in Guatemala City and a nil-nil draw in Trinidad the only non-wins. Trinidad was second in the group and also advanced. Mexico and Honduras advanced out of Group A over Canada and El Salvador, while Costa Rica and Panama advanced out of Group B over Haiti and Jamaica.

Round Five is known as “The Hex,” with the six teams advancing to this final stage of qualification placed into a single group, playing home-and-away round robin, with the top three teams qualifying for the World Cup, and No. 4 in the table qualifying for a play-in game against an Asian side.

Long story short, the United States lost (or drew) plenty of games you wouldn’t expect them to, and finished fifth in the table, ahead of only Trinidad. On the final day of qualifying, Oct. 10, 2017, the United States entered play third, behind only Mexico and Costa Rica, and facing confederation minnow Trinidad and Tobago. The USA needed any one of three extremely likely results to come off: Mexico not losing to Honduras, Costa Rica not losing to Panama, or the Americans themselves not losing to Trinidad. All three happened (thanks to phantom goals, an own-goal from USA defender Omar Gonzalez, and all sort of crazy happenings), and so here we are, outside of the 32-team field.

NS346: So who’s to blame?

There’s plenty of blame to go around, several stories breaking down various aspects of that, and a whole lot of soul-searching in the American soccer world in the aftermath. Here are some of the key parties, and we’ll take it back to perhaps an unexpected place: Panama City.

Graham Zusi and Aron Johansson

On the final day of the 2014 Hex, Panama had a chance to qualify for its first-ever World Cup. All they had to do was beat the Americans on home turf, and they would make the inter-continental playoff with a chance to make the final 32. The United States was comfortably qualified, and in fact even a loss to Los Canaleros couldn’t have seen USA finish anywhere but first on the table.

Panama scored an 83rd-minute goal to take a 2-1 lead in Panama City. The team was practically on its way to Brazil 2014. Then, with little need, the Americans score two goals in stoppage time, knocking Panama down to fifth in the Hex and out of the playoff position – and even more frustratingly, giving Mexico the opportunity to qualify through the inter-continental playoff (which it would).

Harming a little guy for no purpose? To put your hated rival into the World Cup? Because of an American attitude that losing even a meaningless game is dishonorable? It’s easy to see why the USMNT lost plenty of its good will with the little guys in the confederation. Of course, I’m mostly joking here (Panama and Trinidad weren’t going to bow and hold the door for the Americans in 2018 if there hadn’t been this situation four years earlier), but it gave Panama added motivation this time around to make its first-ever World Cup, and certainly helped motivate the smaller nations against what has always been a regional power – but now had the evil empire factor to add on.

Jurgen Klinsmann

The former German international (and Germany head coach) was considered one of the top managers in the world after leading Germany to a third-place finish in 2010. He’s also a resident of California, and the combination of “European pedigree” and “institutional knowledge of USA Soccer” (the latter will come up a bit) made him a top candidate.

He was hired in 2011 for the next World Cup cycle. He led the USA to a solid qualifying campaign in 2014, as outlined above, and a Round of 16 exit from the World Cup itself. That’s impressive – though has been unfairly minimized in hindsight – given that he led the team to advance out of the so-called “group of death” and came within a missed sitter in stoppage time from beating Belgium to advance as deep into the World Cup as the Americans had been in modern history.

However, Klinsmann was not known as a tactical genius, and some of his personnel selections for the trip to Brazil (particularly leading off the team’s all-time leading scorer, Landon Donovan, in favor of 18-year old Julian Green and Donovan’s fellow MLS striker Chris Wondolowski, who would ultimately miss the aforementioned sitter against Belgium) began to grate on the personnel. It may be unfair to say he lost his locker room, but certainly he hadn’t built a unified team all working toward one goal.

When his team started qualifying for 2018 with a loss to Mexico in Columbus (which had previously been considered a fortress, particularly for games against Mexico, with every game ending 2-0 – “Dos a Cero” in favor of the United States) by a 2-1 count and then Costa Rica on the road, he was fired.

While Klinsmann wanted to do lots of different things to push the United States forward in the international landscape, some of those ideas backfired (others were successful, or are in the process of being implemented still, etc.), he wasn’t popular among the MLS contingent on his team and in the federation, and he was ultimately let go for the results on the pitch.

Bruce Arena

Klinsmann gets roasted for starting the 2018 Hex poorly, but, uh, his replacement’s results were way, way worse.

Klinsmann lost to the top two teams in the table (and in the first weekend of the Hex). The Costa Rica game was uncompetitive, yes, but on the road. It also came by the time Klinsmann’s firing looked imminent, so there wasn’t a whole lot of positive motivation in the squad.

Arena’s teams:

  • Beat Honduras 6-0 at home
  • Drew Panama on the road
  • Beat Trinidad and Tobago at home
  • Drew Mexico on the road (literally the only good result he got)
  • Lost to Costa Rica at home
  • Drew Honduras on the road
  • Beat Panama 4-0 at home
  • Lost to Trinidad on the road

“If I’d been hired sooner, we wouldn’t have been in this mess” has been Arena’s line since the failure in Trinidad, but it’s utter bullshit. His results were pathetic.

He further fractured a locker room that was already fragile by favoring MLS players over those playing in higher-level leagues (which, like, “having lower-level talent” probably wasn’t great for getting those results, either), and put a trash product on the field. Arena is the single-most responsible person in this whole story.

US Soccer, Soccer United Marketing, Major League Soccer, pay-to-play

There’s a lot about soccer in our country that makes us unique in the world: we’re one of very few nations whose children either play recreationally or have to put up huge sums of money to play on competitive travel teams. That prices out lower-income (and particularly minority) communities, which is obviously a limiter to the talent pool. The United States Soccer Federation doesn’t have the power to prevent clubs from charging players, but certainly hasn’t done its part in subsidizing costs, advancing youth development, etc.

The intertwining between the federation and our top-division league, MLS (through the television rights company SUM, which is owned by the owners of MLS teams and controls domestic TV for the men’s and women’s national teams, the American television rights for the Mexican national team, and more) is uncomfortable for some. It may be considered a necessary evil after IMG sold off the USSF rights for pennies on the dollar prior to the formation of SUM, even if it’s perhaps outgrown its purpose in the country.

Either way, the cozy relationship between USSF and MLS has been cited as a reason MLS retread Arena was considered more desirable than Klinsmann, it’s been accused (mostly by the lunatic fringes of the pro-rel movement, who we refuse to take seriously by rule) of conspiratorially ensuring that Major League Soccer players get preference for USMNT selection as an advertising vehicle for the league, etc.

The mere existence of Major League Soccer is also cited by the same groups as a problem, because there’s no promotion and relegation mechanism, and teams are locked in (like they are in every sport in our country since time immemorial), unlike soccer around the rest of the world. When the missing link between “disband Major League Soccer” or “institute pro-rel” and the third step “qualify for the World Cup” is discovered, that’ll be a first. From my perspective, it’s a non-starter. Pro-rel would be fun from a spectator standpoint, but it’s not germane to discussion of talent development in our country from where I stand.

In the wake of the failure to qualify, federation president Sunil Gulati opted not to run for re-election, a tacit admission (even though he’s overtly denied) that the actions of the federation – in various ways – were responsible for its flagship team not making the World Cup.

Sheer dumb luck

It’s soccer. Things go crazy in weird ways. 99.9% of the time, Omar Gonzalez is not going to score an own-goal against a minnow like Trinidad, and a blast from well outside the box isn’t going to beat a keeper like Tim Howard. Clint Dempsey’s potential equalizer in Trinidad hit a post and rattled out. It sucks. It happens. Italy, Chile, and the Netherlands are among the consistent powers to join us as spectators this time around. Mexico should have been on the outside looking in for the 2014 Cup. You get it: it just happens.

Other unluckiness – a literal goal that didn’t happen propelled Panama past Costa Rica and into the World Cup – plays in, as well. Like the rest of this story, a single thing going wrong isn’t the full explanation.

There’s also bad luck (exacerbated by actions in the federation, the development model in our country, etc.) in terms of personnel: the players who are in the 22-28-year age range are more sparse at a major international caliber than generations before (or since). That should be accounting for the bulk of a World Cup team, but instead the United States had to rely on players much older, or a bit younger, in qualifying. With old, tired legs, and young, inexperienced players… it’s bad luck, but it happens. It would happen less if we were better as a nation in identifying and developing talent.

NS357: The way forward

There’s a major “woe is us” attitude among soccer fans in our country given the failure to qualify. That’s fair: it sucks to not be in the World Cup. However, I’d also contend that it’s overwrought, and this is probably an anomaly.

First of all, there’s new leadership in USSF for the first time since Gulati’s rise in 2006. That federation president Carlos Cordeiro was the vice president under Gulati hasn’t inspired much confidence around the nation, but at the very least, a new perspective is some sort of change (and it’s not the sort of destructive change that would have resulted from Eric Wynalda or Hope Solo winning the election). There has been a bit of structural adjustment to the federation and MNT program since. Hopefully, it includes learning lessons from our past.

Major League Soccer and lower-level soccer continue to boom in our country – Nashville is an obvious example of that – and that can only help with talent identification and development. Higher levels of coaching, pro club-funded academies for youth, and a wider scouting network can only serve to push our country closer to other nations in the world: and we’ve never previously been all that close.

Tomorrow is actually a massive day for the future of American soccer, as well. The combined bid for the 2026 World Cup with Canada and Mexico will go to vote (Morocco and “neither of these” are the other options – if the latter wins, the two current bids would not be reconsidered). Hosting the World Cup in our country, and with two other nations who are at an… interesting geopolitical point in history (our current geopolitical standing, unfortunately, being one of the major expected reasons for countries to vote against the United Bid)… would be a major boost to fan interest, development, and much more.

Christian_Pulisic_2017_(cropped)
Save us, young talented players. Photo by Reto Stauffer (Creative Commons license).

Finally, the next generation of players coming up is very exciting. 19-year old Christian Pulisic is already a world-class player, and led the Hex in goals (five) already as a youngster. Other young Americans playing in top European leagues include 18-year old Timothy Weah (whose father, George, was the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995) at French superclub Paris Saint-Germain, 19-year old Weston McKennie at Schalke 04 (which finished second in Germany’s Bundesliga ahead of Pulisic’s Borussia Dortmund), and several others.

It’s early to dub it a “golden generation,” but compared to the lost generation ahead of them (which has produced occasional national-teamers in addition to defenders DeAndre Yedlin and John Anthony Brooks, the latter of whom actually grew up in Germany, and forward Bobby Wood, but not the base of talent you’d like to see), the likelihood of a stronger, deeper group is high.

See you in 2022 in… uh, Qatar. Because you know, these FIFA votes are always on the up-and-up.

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