By Matty Lawrence
I fully expected to wake up to see Bobby Ewing in the shower this morning…it had to be a dream.
The mighty USA could not be beaten to the World Cup by Roman Torres and a Panamanian nation of just over 4 million? Torres, a journeyman defender at best, who usually struggles to score in training. To add insult to injury; before Torres even closed his eyes, struck the ball and prayed, the US had their destiny in their own hands. All that was required was a point away at Trinidad & Tobago (pop. 1 million), a team who had lost eight of their previous nine CONCACAF games and scored a measly five goals. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything, I’m afraid.
From the moment Omar Gonzalez slashed wildly at a routine clearance and lobbed Tim Howard with aplomb, the writing appeared to be on the wall.
“Get a broad surface on the ball and the pace of the cross will clear the ball from danger. No need to madly swing at the ball,” said every one of Omar’s coaches since he was seven years old.
The embarrassment grew further in the 37th minute when Alvin Jones sent the home crowd into a stupor. By crowd, I mean the amount of people that could fit inside a red telephone box. The people of T & T had hardly embraced the game and stayed away, as the assumption was surely another routine loss for their boys in red. How wrong they were.
Even after the boy wonder (and he truly is……the one glimmer of hope), Christian Pulisic had struck early on in the second half, I never really believed. I wanted to, but didn’t believe a comeback was fully on the cards. At the time, my assumption was that even a loss would see the US qualify.
There was no way that Panama could beat Costa Rica and Honduras beat Mexico. That was until the football Gods rose up and spoke: a modicum of luck and a touch of Mexico and Costa Rica having nothing to play for, saw the disastrous 2-1 loss to T & T end all hopes of a Russian adventure next summer.
Some people may say it’s too early for a post mortem, but I thoroughly disagree. Now is the time to sit up, take stock of what went wrong, and address why this Bruce Arena led team is the first USMNT since 1986 to not qualify for a World Cup. The game in the US is supposed to be growing and evolving, and to a large extent it is: just not in terms of the USMNT. And that is a huge problem.
The World Cup amplifies the beauty of the game to new audiences and draws in more fans. For the game to reach it’s full potential there has to be a successful USMNT playing in the pinnacle tournament that, after all, only comes around every four years. It is going to be a long and painful wait until Qatar 2022. And for a large number of the US squad, their time has run out: five years is a seeming lifetime in the relatively brief career of a professional athlete.
So wave goodbye to those icons of US soccer: Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and a number of their lesser known teammates. Thanks for all your hard work and endeavor, but this I’m afraid may be your defining moment; the final words chiseled onto the epitaph. I would expect a few international retirement statements before this column even hits the presses.
I also imagine that Bruce Arena may be ushered out of the back door with a haunting lack of fanfare: he was supposed to be the safe pair of hands after all. Arena was supposed to clean up the mess that Jurgen Klinnsman had left behind and sail a steady ship into Russian ports. Instead, Arena left many across the US with heavy hearts and an empty calendar come the summer of 2018. With the calamity that flickered across TV screens in homes and bars across the US; surely a new dawn has been heralded?
Goodbye, Bruce Arena, goodbye Clint, Tim et al, and goodbye Sunil Gulati, the man at the helm and therefore responsible for this terrible qualifying campaign. This huge failure must be the springboard for future success. The clean up operation has to begin immediately. That starts with a thorough discussion about the abject nature of this World Cup qualifying campaign.
What went wrong? How was it allowed to go so wrong; I guess is more to the point? Of course, the focus has to be solely on the US, but let’s not forget, that in kind the MLS and US soccer has aided the growth of other nations.
Panama, first time qualifiers for the World Cup and grateful recipients of MLS: a league that funds and grows many of their players careers. For Panama, see Costa Rica and Honduras too. But, now these nations have bitten the hand that feeds and there needs to be repercussions. Not in a negative manner, but US soccer has to react to the growth of other nations and counter this fact.
An obvious outsider looking in I don’t have all the answers. Far from it. I’m sure the usual suspects of former players and coaches will rise once again above the parapet and cast damning words and monologues towards anyone who cares to listen. Most of it the usual reactionary jibberish that doesn’t care to offer answers, just negativity and waffle. For me, the future of US soccer is as bright as it has ever been.
Christian Pulisic is playing on the biggest club stage there is in the Champions League and looks as though he will go on to be the first truly World class player the USMNT has seen. Multiple players under 23 years of age are plying and learning their trade in Europe. Weston McKennie and Haji Wright are making good impressions with Schalke in Germany.
Ethan Horvath, plays in Belgium and could be the man to replace Tim Howard in the future. (And with Alex Bono and Jesse Gonzalez both starting for Toronto and FC Dallas in the MLS; the goalkeeping future looks bright).
Rubio Rubin plays for Stabaek in Norway and Emerson Hyndman is trying to break into the EPL with Bournemouth. DeAndre Yedlin is a touch older at 24-years old, but is performing valiantly for Newcastle in the EPL, too. Erik Palmer-Brown, captain, and stand-out player for the US U20s looks like he is Europe bound at the conclusion of Sporting KCs MLS season. Academies throughout MLS are ever growing and starting to bear fruit. I won’t patronize you all by listing them, but Justin Glad for one at RSL is a kid with a bright future.
Delve ever deeper into academies at FC Dallas, SKC and NYCFC, for instance, and a plethora of talent is breaking through, or waiting to break through.
As a much smarter man than me said, “while this is a devastating loss for the USMNT and will have an impact short-term, the foundation of US soccer is incredibly strong and in the end this will likely create change that propels the program to new heights. The trajectory of US soccer from just a simple math point-of-view is a juggernaut.”
If words are not enough for you, then look at the German model we all view with such envy today. The German national team is pure precision engineering and a successful monolith at that: the foundations were laid in the dismal aftermath of an early WC exit in 1998 and catastrophic first round exit at Euro 2000. Failure brings rejuvenation and a greater desire to succeed. Let the failure hurt for now, but tomorrow is the time for the rebuilding process to begin.