World Cup qualifying for the USA is supposed to be like a movie with enough drama, action and intriguing characters to keep us entertained even though we know it’s heading toward a happy ending.
It’s a predictable script because the USA has been a fixture at the World Cup for so long we couldn’t imagine it missing the great quadrennial sporting event.
The USA has played in more World Cups in the last three decades than England, France, the Netherlands, Russia, Portugal or Colombia.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard was the only starter against Trinidad & Tobago alive the last time the USA failed to qualify for a World Cup -- the 1986 edition.
But this time we got a twist ending. The Hexagonal meets “Twilight Zone.” The USA loses. Honduras and Panama pull off comeback wins over Mexico and Costa Rica. Three results -- which included two own goals and a goal awarded when the ball never crossed the line -- that spell doom for the USA.
A shocking, nightmare ending. A dark day for American soccer. Calls for a complete overhaul of the U.S. game. Listen to or read some of the rants and it seems everyone in American soccer has been getting everything wrong, especially the U.S. Soccer Federation.
But how bad is it really? Unacceptable as it is for the USA to miss the World Cup, does this mean that there has been no progress?
For however miserable the qualifying campaign turned out, the performance of the leading man reminds us that not all is dire.
The 19-year-old Christian Pulisic, the best player on the field in Trinidad, had a hand in 12 of the USA’s 17 goals in the final round of qualifying, scoring five, assisting or involved in the buildup on seven others.
Two years ago, Pulisic was playing for the U.S. U-17 national team and he’s not the only sign that the development of exceptionally talented players has accelerated in the USA.
The 19-year-old defensive midfielder Weston McKennie, a product of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy program at FC Dallas, has won a starting job at Schalke 04, where he lines up alongside national team players from Germany, Ukraine, Switzerland, Serbia and Brazil.
New Yorker Tyler Adams, a U-17 World Cup teammate of Pulisic’s, is starting for the New York Red Bulls. The 18-year-old who also played for the USA at the 2017 U-20 World Cup was instrumental in the Red Bulls reaching this season’s playoffs.
The 18-year-old midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez, a part of the U.S. national team youth program since U-14s, is starting for Liga MX first-place club Monterrey.
St. Louis product Josh Sargent signed a contract with Bundesliga club Werder Bremen before leaving for the U-17 World Cup in India this month, and six of his teammates have already signed MLS contracts.
The recent rise of American teens into professional soccer is unprecedented, and although we don’t know how many will turn into top level players who prevent another World Cup qualifying debacle, it’s an encouraging trend: MLS signing teens and foreign clubs courting American youngsters like never before.
The failure in Trinidad may have unleashed raging anger at U.S. Soccer, but one cannot deny that its launch of the Development Academy (DA) 10 years ago is starting to show results.
U.S. Soccer can solve some problems in American soccer, but not all and not all at once.
Pay-to-play has been a uniquely American and significant impediment to becoming a soccer power. But the DA has vastly increased opportunities for lower-income players to climb the ladder and has made U.S. elite youth soccer more diverse.
While MLS clubs subsidize their DA programs so players don’t have to pay, U.S. Soccer’s financial aid program has paid out more than $2 million in DA scholarship funds. Non-MLS clubs have also increased scholarship funding for their players over the years to remain competitive in the DA. U.S. Soccer’s nationwide training centers to identify players with youth national team potential are cost-free.
U.S. Soccer may not have solved the pay-to-play problem – any parent in America knows that there’s a business out there pouncing to capitalize on any endeavor your child may pursue – but it has taken steps that its detractors often do not acknowledge.
One thing to keep in mind as we cope with the disappointment of missing the 2018 World Cup and point out all the problems with youth soccer is that, traditionally, U.S. Soccer played a limited role in the youth game. It managed the youth national team programs but left most everything else to the various youth organizations.
It was in 2007, one year after Sunil Gulati was elected U.S. Soccer president, that the Federation started to invest heavily and have greater influence on youth soccer.
It may have turned out to be a longer-term project than we had wished, but not all the factors are under U.S. Soccer’s control. It’s only recently that MLS began fielding reserve or under-23 teams in the USL and PDL, adding a key ingredient: providing a competitive adult soccer environment for players in their late teens who aren’t ready for the first team.
And U.S. Soccer has continued to advocate many of the methods for which there is wide agreement on being valuable for player development at the early ages.
Futsal, on which South American skillful stars are often weaned, became a part of DA programming. More recently, U.S. Soccer implemented small-sided standards and the build-out line, an excellent way of creating an environment at the early ages that's conducive to long-term development over short-term results.
Of course, there must be reevaluation, critique and accountability when the USA fails to reach a World Cup. But one bad ending doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any progress.