US Men's National Team Fails to Qualify for 2018 FIFA World Cup
Tuesday night loss results in first time since 1990 that USMNT will not appear in World Cup tournament
After a frustrating year and numerous squandered opportunities, the US Men's National Team has officially failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. It's a crushing blow to US soccer fans who have been cheering the underdog men's team at the World Cup for seven straight tournaments starting in 1990. This is the first time in living memory for many fans that the USMNT will not be in the tournament and comes at a critical time of growth for US soccer.
It's been a rough few years for the men's national team with chaotic performances under manager Jurgen Klinsmann and his successor Bruce Arena, brought back as coach at the end of November 2016 to save the team and secure a World Cup qualification. The November leadership turnover was a welcome change for the players who won their next game over Honduras and brought the USMNT record to 10-2-6 in ten months. But, like all things related to US men's soccer, there was a catch: of those ten wins only three were World Cup qualifiers.
With a crucial 4-0 win against Panama in Orlando on Thursday Arena sent the exact same line-up to a very wet and half-full stadium in Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday, full of confidence as the highly favored team in the World Cup qualifier match-up. The US team just needed to win to secure its qualification, or at the very least tie and it would qualify or go to an international match to qualify depending on the outcome of other games between Panama vs. Costa Rica and Honduras vs. Mexico. There was only one unlikely scenario that would result in the US team not qualifying: if the USMNT did not win against lowly-ranked Trinidad & Tobago, and if Panama and Honduras both won their games.
That unlikely scenario became a reality on Tuesday, with a shell-shocked US team looking tired and making critical mistakes (including an unfortunate own goal) on the field. The 2-1 loss in Trinidad & Tobago and the Panama and Honduras wins left the US fanbase horrified at being left off the list of teams heading to Russia next summer.
On the one hand the story of the USMNT's failure to qualify is a comedy of errors with bad breaks, bad luck, and bad calls throughout the qualifying cycle, but these are ultimately failures that could have and should have been overcome. The US men's soccer team has the athleticism and talent for a good team (or at minimum a qualifying team). Rising star Christian Pulisic plays for Borussia Dortmund, a successful team in the world-class German Bundesliga, and other players on the USMNT roster have long histories with premier European teams and growing MLS teams. Former manager Jurgen Klinsmann spent significant time recruiting rising star German-American players including Fabian Johnson who was inexplicably left off the USMNT squad against Trinidad & Tobago. In recent games Arena's game day tactics came under fire with opponents easily finding and exploiting weaknesses in the American lineup. In reality the USMNT should never have been in the unfortunate scenario of "win or go home" on Tuesday night, but it's still inexcusable that the team lost at such a critical moment. Missteps, poor preparation, and bad judgments have been sprinkled along the past year of qualifier games, snowballing into the fatal flaw of Tuesday night's loss.
With the men's team's failure to qualify for the World Cup it's easy to demand turnover from the top down starting with Sunil Gulati (the head of all US Soccer) and Bruce Arena - particularly at a time when US Soccer is working with billions of dollars in revenue via lucrative TV and sponsorship deals (which may turn out to be sour investments for those sponsors with no chance of US involvement in the tournament next summer and potentially low viewership for games) and a pay-to-play model of youth soccer which can be financially inaccessible to talented youths from lower income families. The state of soccer in the United States is vast and complex, but as a (very mediocre) soccer player and (very rabid) soccer fan I do know the following:
1) It is essential to provide early, strong foundations for the sport in youth soccer.
While the friendly yet clueless parent coaching the local team is a wonderful idea for building community, if we want to see more competitive soccer in the United States in the future then we need to make the foundations of the sport readily available throughout the country. This means providing infrastructure for small-town coaches to help their young players succeed competitively beyond the pay-to-play model exclusively.
2) Provide the opportunity to play constantly.
True creativity and talent on the soccer field has to be cultivated with passionate players who have access to the game on a regular basis. This can only be achieved by letting kids play and invent, and kids can only do this if they have constant exposure to the sport.
3) Cultivate a culture of soccer sportsfans.
While a men's national team competing on the world stage could have been an incredible inspiration for youths playing soccer now, we can still support the sport via the US Women's National Team playing in the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2019 (not a done deal, but as the current ranked #1 team in the world there's a really solid chance), as well as local teams. The MLS is expanding soon, so encouraging competitive soccer in America can still expose youths to the sport and get them energized to play.
Plus for North Carolina soccer fans the NCFC, now ranked #2 in the league, has a strong chance to head to the playoffs at the end of October, and the NC Courage is heading to Orlando for the NWSL championship game against the Portland Thorns. On a national level the USWNT will play against North Korea in Cary towards the end of October and will be an excellent chance to ramp up excitement for the Women's World Cup in 2019. Because let's face it: the 2018 FIFA World Cup was just going to be the warm-up act to the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup anyways.
Note: Not my images; these are licensed images via Getty Images. Though if you can get me a media pass to a national team game then I'll gladly take my own photos next time, ahem.