The United States Men’s National Team lost 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago, which resulted in them not being able to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This is the first time that the United States has missed the World Cup since 1986.
How it happened
After the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, most American soccer fans were projecting the USMNT to take a step forward and compete on a higher level for the next World Cup cycle. Jurgen Klinsmann had promised to make the USMNT better by incorporating youth into the team, while also convincing players with dual citizenship to play for the United States.
Klinsmann had five years to implement his plan and although it looked promising, he failed after the 2014 World Cup. The USMNT finished fourth in the 2015 Gold Cup, losing to Jamaica and Panama in back to back games. Although the USMNT got out of their initial group for World Cup Qualifying, they lost their first two games in the Hexagonal, the last stage of qualifying in CONCACAF. Klinsmann was fired because of the team’s terrible showing in 2015 and 2016.
Bruce Arena was brought in for a second stint as the USMNT manager. They were well behind in qualifying, but there was new hope and an easier schedule going forward. Arena chose another strategy than Klinsmann, by relying on mostly MLS players. The culture change and difference in strategy in the middle of the World Cup cycle didn’t do any favors.
Despite the change, things were looking better for the USMNT. They had a chance to qualify for the World Cup heading into their last two World Cup Qualifiers. They beat Panama in the first match and only needed to get a draw against Trinidad and Tobago to reach the World Cup. Everything went wrong, as the U.S. lost, while Honduras and Panama beat the two best teams in the group, Mexico and Costa Rica, to finish ahead of the USMNT.
What went wrong
The conflicting strategies of Arena and Klinsmann in one World Cup Qualifying cycle was too much. Klinsmann as thinking to the future, and at times did so too much. Arena went back to using more seasoned players overall, sometimes picking players way past their prime, but they failed as it was too little too late.
In this whole fiasco, what was lost by both men, was that the best players should be playing in important matches. Should Demarcus Beasley have been selected by Bruce Arena? No. Should Klinsmann have started Ventura Alvorado in a Gold Cup match against Jamaica in 2015? No. The USMNT does not have the depth necessary to get too cute when selecting squads and starters and both managers failed at that in different ways.
The big problem on the field was the defense. In the Hexagonal, the Americans had 17 goals scored, which was the most of any team, but they still didn’t qualify. Rarely did anyone know who was starting in goal or on the back line.
Tim Howard was and still is the best goalie that the USMNT has, but both managers switched between him and Brad Guzan. Even if Guzan was as good as Howard, changing the goalie so often can break down the communication and in general breaks up consistency at a position where it is most needed.
The center backs were especially awful and have been pretty much since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. John Anthony Brooks and Geoff Cameron are both solid starters, with Brooks being one of the most promising young defenders in the world. The problem is that both are often injured and again it has broken down the consistency where it is needed.
With their injuries players like Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and others have gotten way more playing time than they should have. This is a weak point on the USMNT heading to the future and one that needs to be addressed, especially if Brooks can’t stay healthy.
Finally some of the young players that Klinsmann had started to build up for the country did not progress as much as they were expected to. Aaron Johansson, Julian Green, Mix Diskerud are just a few to name. Even Deandre Yedlin has had his ups and downs, although Yedlin should’ve been starting in every important game the USMNT had due to his blinding speed. Had these young players, as well as others, the Americans would’ve been in a much better position to make the World Cup.
Now the USMNT will need a new manager and the search will likely start immediately, even if it isn’t announced until after the World Cup. The new head man needs to urge players to go play in the best leagues in the world as well as convince the MLS to continually improve to help support the national team.
Tim Howard and Nick Rimando are likely done with international soccer which leaves a huge gap at goalie. There are some young promising players like Ethan Horvath, but it is best to not expect much out of them as we’ve seen in this World Cup Cycle.
Clint Dempsey, one of the best players in USMNT history, is also likely done with international play. He was still good enough to be on the 2018 World Cup roster had it happened, but that was about it. Dempsey was the soul of the USMNT and often came up with ridiculous goals when the team needed them the most. He will be missed.
Other notable players that are likely done by the time the next World Cup comes around (for better or for worse) are: Fabian Johnson, Matt Besler, Chris Wondolowski, Graham Zusi, Tim Ream, Geoff Cameron, Dax McCarty, Benny Feilhaber, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Michael Orozco, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, Demarcus Beasley, Lee Nguyen and Sacha Klestan. All of these players were on the roster at some point in the last four years. Love them or hate them, that is a lot to replace especially when the USMNT is thin on talent.
The squad still has a lot of young promising players like Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Deandre Yedlin, Matt Miazga, John Anthony Brooks and more. These players will be in their primes when the next World Cup comes around, but will need better support around them.
Now the focus needs to shift to prepare the younger players for the next World Cup Qualifying cycle which will start in 2019. On a bigger scale in American soccer, more needs to be done to fix the problems they have. That will include a huge effort by people involved in American soccer to get players developing better at the grassroots level, to make the MLS a better league competitively in the world to support the national team and getting better people in charge to help lead the team to glory.
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