US Soccer Must Go Back to Basics to Make America Great Again

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Dec 22, 2017 07:58 AM EST
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The margin of failure was just a single point, or rather a couple of inches given that Clint Dempsey's shot thwacked into the woodwork, rather than nestling in the back of the net, in the key qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago.

But the reality is that the chasm between qualifying for the World Cup in Russia in 2018 - and not - is a million miles wide.

This is the first time that the US national team has failed to qualify for a World Cup since 1990, and while we can all bemoan the hard luck stories the truth is that qualification is secured over a lengthy ten-game campaign. It was this format that highlighted the systemic problems at the heart of soccer in the States.

The fallout in the media has been spectacular, with fingers pointed and heads expected to roll. And they will, in due course, but rather than scapegoating and scaremongering perhaps now, with the dust settled somewhat, the time is right for a more balanced analysis of what went wrong....and suggestions on where we go from here.

Tough at the Top

When US Soccer fired Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach, it sent such shockwaves through all connected to the game in this country that you sense there is still some kind of recovery going on even now.

Here was a global star that had led the USMNT to the last 16 of a World Cup (in 2014), a semi-final of Copa America (in 2016) and who finally reclaimed the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2013 after a pair of close-but-no-cigar runners-up finishes.

USMNT were a nap to head to Russia but defeat to Mexico and Costa Rica in the final stage of qualifying for World Cup '18 was enough for the German to get the sack, however, and that was considered a rather reductive strategy given that the man who replaced Klinsmann - Bruce Arena - is pegged as something of a dinosaur courtesy of his rather antiquated tactics.

It was that old-hat mindset that ultimately proved the US's undoing in qualifying. They failed to win any of their matches away from home, with the 1-2 defeat to Trinidad & Tobago the nadir of a run that also included a 0-4 hammering in Costa Rica and draws in Panama and Honduras.

Arena was very much a goodwill appointment; a man who has done more for soccer in America than perhaps any other individual. But sentimentality is often the enemy of progress, and so surely the time is right for the two parties to go their separate ways.

Talent Vacuum

When the USMNT played Portugal in a friendly match back in November, it was noticeable that a real sea-change was in the air.

Gone were stalwarts like Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, DaMarcus Beasley, Geoff Cameron, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, Jermain Jones, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey. Instead, the squad that congregated to take on the European champions featured just two players aged 30, with eleven of the twenty selected 25 or under.

It was a clear admission: the journey to finding the stars of tomorrow starts here.

That was a squad that didn't feature some of the US's brightest starlets either, and so there is the mouth-watering prospect of the likes of Christian Pulisic, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood and Darlington Nagbe to also come into the reckoning.

It's a generation of players with untold potential, and while the 'here and now' is rather more alarming it is roughly five years until the USMNT would play their next World Cup match, if all goes well.

That gives the young guns plenty of time to mature and develop; let's just hope they are given the opportunity to do so.

The MLS: Cause or Cure?

When America was awarded the rights to host the World Cup in 1994 - a tournament still revered across the globe to this day, for what it's worth - a condition was put in place that we created our own national league system to help the game grow at a domestic level.

Hence the MLS was born, and while in the early days it was a necessary if slightly underwhelming attempt at developing soccer on these shores, these days it is a different beast altogether.

Foreign investment has come and so have a number of formerly world-class talents seeking a handsome payday late in their careers. Sure, that puts bums on seats, but it also prevents young American talents being nurtured as they watch a half-hearted 38-year-old from Europe jog around the turf and bank a hefty pension package. It's telling that some of the brightest stars in US football, from Dempsey and Howard to Bradley and Altidore, have previously headed overseas rather than trying their luck in the Major League Soccer circus.

Of course, you can't blame these players for wanting to improve their game in a better standard in the world's most recognisable leagues, but it does rather diminish the ambition of the MLS somewhat if the system here is not supported by key USMNT figures.

Perhaps the worm is turning on that front. Jordan Morris, so impressive in the Gold Cup win this summer, actually turned down a move to German club Werder Bremen in order to stay with the Seattle Sounders, while the likes of Dempsey, Bradley and Altidore have all since returned to the MLS.

Outstanding young talents such as Christian Pulisic can improve their game overseas, but you would wager that the core of the USMNT will need to be based in the MLS - and, in accordance, the MLS needs to provide a high-quality standard of soccer week in, week out - if the national side is to return to their former glory at the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

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