By some miracle, or maybe some collusion by angry CONCACAF teams, the USMNT missed out on a spot in the Russia 2018 World Cup. Here’s why it’s a good thing.
First off, the United States Men’s National Team had this coming for years. There has been no change in American soccer culture for decades, and this huge disappointment will get attention from all of America, even from Americans who aren’t fans of the game. People in the US rally around the USMNT every four years when the World Cup comes around. Since America is so dominant in basketball and no one really cares about international hockey, the world tests America’s athletic prowess in the World Cup, where the USMNT is almost always an underdog.
America loves an underdog; that’s what makes the USMNT so appealing. But in reality, the United States should be one of, if not the best national soccer team in the world. A rich country of more than 320 million people should not come close to losing to Trinidad and Tobago. This loss, which caused the USMNT to miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986, will cause a huge revamp of the entire US Soccer system, and with American football, hockey, and baseball losing interest around the country, there’s no better time for it to happen.
The main flaw with the US Soccer system is the youth development system: there really is none. What is now in place is a pay-to-play model, which means that in order for a child to be on a good youth team, they have to pay to join the team. It’s expensive, and it’s mostly upper-middle-class kids who get to play. There’s nothing wrong with upper-middle-class kids, but most of the country is middle- or working-class, and poorer children have more to play for than richer children.
In addition to that, the travel teams that are so prevalent in the American youth soccer system care more about profit than they do about player development. The travel teams have no motivation to develop their players into professionals because a vast majority of the travel teams do not have an affiliation with a professional team. The only MLS team with a respectable youth program is FC Dallas, who have nine homegrown players on their roster and an academy setup ranging from a professional team to a U-12 team.
If MLS teams invest in their youth setups, it benefits everyone. MLS will have more young stars, which will help it move away from its reputation as the last-chance hotel for washed-up superstars. In turn, that will draw in young players from other countries, which will help the USA’s domestic league become much more powerful. Since six of the starting 11 USMNT players from Tuesday’s match against Trinidad play for MLS teams, it would be a worthwhile long-term project to build from the ground up and improve the league rather than export the star players.
Bruce Arena is another major issue, but replacing him is a much easier fix than totally revamping the American youth soccer system. He apparently can’t set up a good defense, which is half the battle when it comes to this sport. There are plenty of managers with great reputations and track records that are available, but whether or not they would agree to manage the USMNT is another story. Thomas Tuchel, Laurent Blanc, Paulo Sousa, Luis Enrique, Frank de Boer, and Remi Garde have all had success on the club level during their careers, and it’s hard to imagine that any of those men could do a worse job than Bruce Arena. Tab Ramos, the U-20 coach for the USMNT, is another option. He led the U-20 team to the quarter-finals of the World Cup this past summer.
America needs a total overhaul of the youth system, and it needs to start now. As the best athletes gravitate away from slower like American football and baseball, soccer has a huge chance to explode in popularity. If MLS clubs can set up comprehensive youth academies and if the US Soccer Federation can hire people who are qualified to do their jobs, then the USMNT will not miss a World Cup for the foreseeable future. If US Soccer decides to do nothing about the lack of culture around the sport in the country, then the quality of soccer played in the stars and stripes will continue to deteriorate.