Warning…this is a heavily opinionated rant. Like many American soccer fans, Tuesday night I had my eye on the crucial away match with Honduras in our CONCACAF World Cup qualifying group. While some unfortunate life circumstances prevented me from catching the game on TV, I was able to follow the action via social media. I saw that Honduras scored first, which was disappointing but not necessarily surprising. Then I did what I assume most of us who couldn’t watch had to do—anxiously refreshed my Twitter and ESPN apps for the remainder of the game. When the US nabbed a late equalizer, courtesy of Bobby Wood, I should’ve been relieved. But then I made the mistake of reading some US Soccer personalities’ takes on the result and the blocked valves of my rage were released.
I won’t get into specific people’s opinions, as some of them may actually be petty enough to cry libel or slander, but suffice it to say that most of the more notable American commentators/analysts were just chock-full of excuses. Here’s Sans attribution (a small sample of the kind of crap flooding the internet in the wake of an absolutely terrible and embarrassing result), along with the reasons why each constitutes a cop-out response:
“Honduras away is a tough place to play—a draw is a good result”
This is one of my personal favorites. If you listen to some US Soccer homers, you’d think CONCACAF was the most difficult qualifying group in the world. This despite the fact that the region boasts just a single team inside the top 20 of FIFA’s international rankings (Mexico at #14), and is instead stocked largely with teams that are in 55th position or worse on that scale. Costa Rica and Mexico are the only teams in this group that should ever prove difficult to beat, irrespective of whether we play them home or away. The rest includes actual third-world countries that we, a nation of 300 million-plus people and almost absurd comparative wealth, somehow struggle to overcome on a regular basis. It wouldn’t even make sense, except for the fact that our domestic league is a joke. It is constantly protected, despite its mediocrity, because it’s “up and coming”—and makes good money for the owners.
Wake up, US Soccer! If we can’t beat Honduras or Panama on a consistent basis, then there is a fundamental problem with the way we’re doing things. Not just at the international level. Not just with the players and coach. If we are struggling to scrape together 11 guys who can compete with teams that have every possible disadvantage compared to us, we have deep-rooted, organizational issues.
“Bruce Arena wasn’t hired to make US Soccer better, he was hired to qualify for the World Cup”
Oh, really? So, we hired a national team coach to qualify us for a single tournament and ignore all future development issues? Tell me which other nation, that considers itself a world leader, does this? I’ll wait.
Truth is, we should never have fired Klinsmann. Sure, he made some baffling tactical decisions at times. And yes, even I was annoyed at his incessant tinkering and seeming reluctance to play a consistent 11 so they could mesh together. But the man had a vision and was working to revamp soccer in this country. It’s no coincidence that he was a key component of the German football renaissance of 2005, that saw Die Mannschaft evolve from perennial disappointments to the complete powerhouse we see today. While current German head coach, Joachim Löw, deserves a lot of the credit there, Klinsmann was his partner and thus instrumental in that revolution.
I know this line is tired by now, and Klinsmann critics will wince at me waxing lyrical about it…but it’s relevant in this case because it’s the exact kind of change the US needs. Ignore the national team’s success or give it all to Joachim Löw, I don’t care. German football, from the ground up, was revamped at Klinsmann’s urging, and that’s why years after the retirement of guys like Ballack, Lahm, Klose, and Kahn, the Germans are churning out class after class of elite young talent.
Why couldn’t Klinsmann bring that ingenuity and upheaval to American soccer, you ask? Well, because the entire system is structured in a way that is counterproductive to that objective, and no one in a position of power wants to change it. The college system is a waste of valuable developmental years for players. Most guys who enter the MLS draft out of D1 schools don’t even get regular minutes in their first few seasons. Our domestic league is a total mess, with the best talent hoarded amongst the top five or six richest clubs—thanks to an asinine designated players rule and no incentive for teams to perform well.
Most clubs’ youth academies (with a few notable exceptions) are miles behind their European counterparts. This is primarily because they charge good players and their families to join them rather than paying for players’ footballing education themselves. The pay-to-play model not only eliminates potentially good athletes due to finances, it also props up inferior athletes, and emboldens their parents to complain and maneuver for playing time because they invested money into it. The whole system, from top-to-bottom, is built to fail. Yet Klinsmann got crucified for suggesting this was a major part of the national team’s struggles.
Meanwhile, Bruce Arena is the polar opposite of Klinsmann in every way possible. He doesn’t want to evolve or change anything because he came up through the ranks of this shambles of a system for the entirety of his professional career. He’s had a stint with the national team before in which he brought the same level of moderate achievement that people viciously berated Klinsmann for. His best moment was more than a decade ago at the 2002 World Cup—where he admittedly got us much farther than we should have gone—but he also oversaw our disastrous 2006 World Cup campaign. There was a time when Bruce was a good coach, but that time has long passed us and the game has evolved beyond his limited skill set.
You can’t have a successful national team without proper direction, nor can a fledgling team like ours survive moronic tactical choices or a shallow talent pool. The defense named Tuesday night, including ancient DaMarcus Beasley and out-of-position Graham Zusi (as fullbacks), was pathetic for a nation of our stature. Poor players, given poor instructions, that played poorly the entire game. Our best players on the pitch were brought into the national team set-up by Klinsmann, too. So, at what point does the buck stop at Bruce? If he was hired with the express purpose of qualifying for the World Cup, how is his current performance acceptable? We’re just a loss to Panama away from not qualifying out of CONCACAF, for Christ’s sake. Klinsmann would have been slaughtered in the press for this.
“We’ll still qualify; there are other games left”
Will we? Based on what? We’ve won a paltry two out of eight games that we’ve played against CONCACAF opponents, and our form is all over the place. Tuesday night, we tied a Honduras team that we had previously shellacked 6-0. Did we become that bad in the span of 10 months? Did they become that much better?
Our remaining games are against Panama (home) and Trinidad & Tobago (away). A tie or loss to Panama puts us in a really precarious position, one in which outside help will be required for us to squeak 4th place ahead of Honduras. If Honduras wins either of their remaining games, and we tie (or lose) to Panama and tie with T&T— very possible given our abhorrent form during away games—we will be eliminated. Our only saving grace right now is that Honduras has to play both Mexico and Costa Rica to close out the group. Yet, Mexico have already qualified and could very well find themselves with our fate in their hands at the end. Given that scenario, how strong of a team do you think they’ll name when they know they could effectively knock us out by taking it easy?
The saddest thing is that, even if we somehow manage to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, we have no chance on current form of even getting out of group. Even the most softball teams from the other qualifying regions are likely to be vastly superior to us, and if we face a group of death, we don’t have a prayer of advancing. Is the goal to get to the World Cup, get murdered, and then consider the job done? Wow, what an achievement that would be.
Whew! Breathe, self, breathe! Long story short, results like Tuesday night’s are unacceptable—as is the subsequent wagon-circling-around-an-archaic-domestic-system that actively sets us up to fail. Combined, these factors demonstrate that there is no clear path to improvement when it comes to US Soccer. Bruce obviously has no long-term plan. The federation doesn’t seem to care either because they and their media representatives are working overtime to make excuses for him. Why? Is it because he’s American? Is it because he didn’t come in and tell the harsh truths about how inferior our entire soccer set-up is?
I wish all the prominent soccer voices in this country (who are currently letting an increasingly rabid fan base down with their lack of critical insight) could see the forest through the bloody trees! US soccer deserves better. We’re capable of better. It’s time to get behind real, dirty, tough progress—or get the hell out of the way!