'What Happened to the USMNT' book draws many conclusions from a handful of games

The implicit conclusion of What Happened to the USMNT: The Ugly Truth About the Beautiful Game  will sound like heresy to anyone working in player development in the USA today.

The problem with the U.S. men’s soccer team, authors Steven G. Mandis and Sarah Parsons Wolter strongly imply without saying directly, is not necessarily a lack of technical skill and tactical savvy. Instead, the team fails when it lacks the grit, determination and cohesion of a team like, say, the U.S. women.

It’s not an unsupported point. The failed 1998 World Cup effort is posited as a masterpiece of dysfunction, from the late addition of David Regis and departure of John Harkes to the decision to leave tall, intimidating defenders Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa on the bench while opponents merrily lofted the ball into the air.

And this is no polemic against the conventional wisdom of U.S. youth soccer in this century. It’s simply a balanced look at the state of soccer that sees value in hip development trends such as futsal but otherwise offers would-be reformists little reinforcement.

Promotion/relegation? Nope. The top European clubs have consolidated power and talent in pursuit of championships, not worried about the threat of relegation. Clubs that fear relegation favor short-term revenue streams over long-term investment.

“Pay for play” youth soccer? They don’t support it, per se, but they point out that, absent other benefactors, it has helped U.S. soccer develop. How else do you pay for everything? And how else would the women’s national team, to date the exclusive domain of players who moved from elite travel soccer to college soccer, have maintained any sort of talent pool? Besides, even in a country like Brazil, players at the earliest ages may pay to be in a club’s soccer “school” before the club brings the best of them into its academy.

Back to women’s soccer -- the authors note the existence of women’s soccer elsewhere in the world before the USA announced its presence with authority in the inaugural World Cup in 1991, but they demonstrate global support for the sport has been erratic, to say the least. In 2006, they point out, the USA had roughly half of the three million registered girls in youth soccer worldwide. (Even in 2014, the USA and Canada accounted for 47% of the world’s registered female players, according to a FIFA survey.) And even with those advantages, the USA’s losses in youth international play hint at the possibility that the rest of the world may overtake us.

How? It’s not said directly, but the answer may be found in their analysis finding that Spain became a strong basketball nation by doing things its own way, not by building a system of college and AAU feeders. Could there be any doubt that European nations are catching up in women’s soccer by doing things their way, not by imitating the U.S. system?

So why should the U.S. soccer community try to mimic Europe?

Instead, the USA’s recent failures can be chalked up not just to what we lack but also what we’ve lost. What we’ve lost is alternately called “grit” or “the Spirit of ‘76,” terms that sometimes pop up multiple times on the same page.

A lot of the great moments in U.S. men’s soccer history exemplify that spirit. Oguchi Onyewu staring down Mexico’s Jared Borgetti in one of the dos a cero World Cup qualifying wins in Columbus. Brian McBride shrugging off the plentiful blood on his face in the 2006 World Cup. Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan refusing to give up against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, combining on a late winner encapsulated forever in YouTube videos of fans losing their minds in sports bars across the country.

On the other hand, the U.S. men fail when that spirit breaks down. See 1998. Subsequent teams had large talent pools by necessity -- they note that Bruce Arena used 46 players in 2006 World Cup qualifying -- but the final 23 players were all familiar with each other from sharing plenty of playing fields at youth and senior level. When the U.S. men have failed, it’s because they lack what the U.S. women typically have -- a willingness to run through walls for each other.

The authors still perpetuate a few myths. Steve Sampson’s much-scorned 3-6-1 formation in the 1998 World Cup failed, we’re told once again, because it left Eric Wynalda battling three German defenders by himself. That would be true if we were playing by League One America rules that prevented players from leaving their assigned positions. In the real world, if three German defenders smothered Wynalda, someone else -- maybe Claudio Reyna, maybe Cobi Jones -- would be wide open.

And there’s a danger in drawing too many conclusions from a handful of games. Suppose any of the multitude of shots the USA clanged off the woodwork against Iran in 1998 had gone in and forced their opponents out of counterattacking mode? Suppose the referee had spotted John O’Brien’s handball in the 2002 World Cup and handed Mexico a penalty-kick lifeline? (Granted, Brad Friedel may well have saved it, given his form in that tournament.) Conversely, how different would women’s soccer be if the ref had penalized Briana Scurry for stepping several yards off her line before saving a penalty against China in 1999, or if England hadn’t been so unlucky (and poor at taking penalties) against the U.S. women in 2019?

But their arguments are difficult to dismiss out of hand. Mandis and Wolter are economists, and they dig into the numbers without fear of bogging down in the details. One example: In the 2002 World Cup, crosses, set pieces, counterattacking and goalkeeping were the difference-makers, not just for the USA.

They also have some reform ideas of their own. Perhaps the federation can reimburse coaching licensing costs for those who go to work in underserved areas or with the youngest players, sort of a Teach for America-style program. College soccer is worth supporting not so much because it will develop national team players, though it’s a valuable if shrinking pathway, but because it will develop future coaches and parents. See Christian Pulisic. Josh Sargent. Even Michael Bradley -- without college soccer, would Bob Bradley have ever been a coach and father of a prodigy?

And when it comes to “grit,” Mandis and Wolter can speak with some authority. Mandis has twice completed the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. Wolter made the U.S. women’s ice hockey team for the 2006 Olympics while still in high school, though a serious injury cut her career short.

The book is ultimately optimistic. The authors speak in glowing terms of the player development systems in France and Germany, where federation programs supplement the clubs’ academies. But if we can’t duplicate that, the U.S. men can still rebound with a fiery underdog spirit with which most Americans are born.

What Happened to the USMNT: The Ugly Truth About the Beautiful Game by Steven G. Mandis & Sarah Parsons Wolter, 384 pages, Triumph Books. Hardcover $20.99. Kindle, $11.99.

35 comments about "'What Happened to the USMNT' book draws many conclusions from a handful of games".
  1. Santiago 1314, July 13, 2021 at 9:01 p.m.

    Bingo.!!!...We have a Winner.!!!... "Instead, the USA’s recent failures can be chalked up not just to what we lack but also what we’ve lost. What we’ve lost is alternately called “grit” or “the Spirit of ‘76,” terms that sometimes pop up multiple times on the same page."... This is a Book that Santiago has been writing on this Site for Years... Only Mistake the Authors made was Starting with The 1990 World Cup Team, Instead of the 1988 Olympic Team... Where the Real "Spirit of '76", was Nutured and Formed in the Crucible of Burning Stadiums(El Salvador); Pitch Invasions(Trinidad); Food Poisioning(South Korea)...I could go on,  but get the Book... Excellent.!!!

  2. Santiago 1314 replied, July 14, 2021 at 10:12 a.m.

    Why does this Article NOT appear on the Landing Page.??? Have to Search by Teams.???

  3. Santiago 1314 replied, July 14, 2021 at 10:14 a.m.

    Never Mind... I see it coming up now...

  4. Bob Ashpole, July 14, 2021 at 1:43 a.m.

    I reviewed the book as commercialism and pandering at its worst, i.e., worthless. US fans will like it because it was written for them, telling them exactly what they want to hear. Despite the comparison to "Moneyball" on the cover, this book is nothing like "Moneyball" which is a great book.

  5. Santiago 1314 replied, July 14, 2021 at 6:25 a.m.

    Bob, I agree about the Moneyball "Comparison". You seem to disagree with the Conclusion that the "Drift" from American Style of "Spirit of '76" was the cause of the Debacle of Non-Qualification.

  6. Santiago 1314 replied, July 14, 2021 at 9:55 a.m.

    So Bob, How do I Square what you are saying.??? "Worthless" and "US fans will like it because it was written for them, telling them exactly what they want to hear." ... I take it you are a "US FAN".???  So do you agree with the Authors or consider it Worthless.???

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, July 15, 2021 at 3:08 a.m.

    I am a fan of the beautiful game. Non qualification occurred because the team under JK's direction dug a deep hole. The USMNT still had their fate in their own hands on the last day. For the US to miss out, required that all 3 matches that day end in upsets. Pretty unlikely, but it happened.

    The book contained no insights into the game or insights into the team. It is filled with misinformation about the game. The authors know nothing about the game. They just pander to sell books. I consider that worthless whether I agree with their thesis or not. 

  8. Santiago 1314 replied, July 15, 2021 at 9:52 a.m.

    Bob, "No Insights".???... I think Their Analysis of Espana and Tiki-Taka's Limitations(Born Out again this Euro) was very Insightful... Having been there at the Inception of the "Spirit of '76", I can tell you that IT is a TANGIBLE factor in the "Play" of the USMNT(and USWNT) ... We throw it away, at our own peril.... The "Beautiful Game" occurrs "Once in a Blue Moon" and will NOT Qualify you in CONCAcaCrApF... Last time I saw the Beautiful Game was Brazil '86 ... I do Hold out a Hope, that a WC Qualified USA Team, with all these Young, Frisky, Twitchy Players  could bring about a "SPIRITED", Pressing, Go-to-Goal(after a Few Tiki-Taka Passes) Style of Play ... Could be Quite Beautiful.... Cause they Don't know any Difference Yet... Just Babes in the Woods, with Stars in their Eyes... Just like the '88 Olympic team guys... Ggg PepBerhalterKlopp, just needs to Wind them Up and Let them GO.!!! Except for Lt Back and a SCORING Hi-Forward, We Looking Pretty Good right now.

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, July 15, 2021 at 12:42 p.m.

    Santi, did they say anything about Spain that was not conventional wisdom spouted by every European fan? "Tiki Taka" originated many years ago as a perjorative term for Spain's ineffective short passing style. Cryuff and others transformed that style by adding Dutch Style principles creating Barca's unique way of playing. Now even Barca is getting away from it's classic positional play style. 

    Repeating fan conventional wisdom as if it were some new enlightenment to sell books is pandering. Tell people what they already believe and they think you are a genius. Oldest trick in the book.

  10. Santiago 1314 replied, July 21, 2021 at 10:16 p.m.

    Bob, Having Lived in España many years, I can tell you that the Phrase, Was never used in Spanish futbol, until Pep came along as Coach in 2008.

  11. Sean Guillory, July 14, 2021 at 7:36 a.m.

    Comparing the women to the men and deciding they have more grit is silly.  There is one thing the women don't have that the men do, real competition.  The other countries around the world don't really care about women's soccer.  Traditional men powers like Argentina, Chile, Uruguay even Mexico stink at women's soccer.  Look at Italy who just won the Euro's or even they have good women's teams?  Nope.  The men's game is ultra competitive and it's truly a global sport.  

  12. Santiago 1314 replied, July 14, 2021 at 9:51 a.m.

    Sean, I agree that the Authors make a "Stretch" in tryng to infer that the Women have MORE "Spirit of '76" then the Men, and that's why they Win... the Women had Anson Dorrance, that MADE/Formed the Mentality of 1v1 for the US Women... The "Old Timers" Had the "Double WHY" as the Authors states. Not only getting the World to see US Soccer as Legitimate, But Proving that WOMEN's Soccer was Legitimate. Having worked Closely with and Around those players "Back In the Day", it was an Inspiration to see how they "Joyed" and Regaled in their 1v1 Dribbling Competitions and Physical and Emotional Dominance...The Likes of "Crazy Legs" Jennings-Gabarra and April Heinricks and Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly and Cindy Parlow and..ETC..Etc...etc... (something our Current Squad is Lacking, except for Heath) I am a little Scared for this Squad... Too Old, Too Torn on the National Anthem, Too Predictable...

  13. Santiago 1314 replied, July 14, 2021 at 10:37 a.m.

    Oh, and Don't Forget TITLE IX .... Killed my Men's Program, but Set the Women's Soccer on OverDrive.!!!

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, July 15, 2021 at 3:25 a.m.

    The premise that the USWNT has no "real" competition is completely false. The premise that no other country really cares about women's soccer is also false. While it is true that our culture supports women's athletics so do some other countries.

    If there was no "real" competition, why didn't the WNT win the world cup in 1995, 2003, 2007, and 2011? Why didn't they win more Olympic gold medals?

    I agree with Santi's points about Title IX and Anson Dorrance. The women have had a coaching advantage since day 1, not just with Anson Dorrance. About Title IX, it has not been an exclusive advantage of US women. It is also an advantage for femal college players from other countries too. 

    Our women have been outstanding players in the past due in no small part to playing with and against bigger, stronger opponents, i.e. men. That advantageous practice, however, has been largely ended by USSF restrictions. I know of no current WNT players who developed playing with and against male players.

  15. humble 1, July 14, 2021 at 1:13 p.m.

    I have heard one of the authors interviewed, though not read the book.  What strikes me is it is intended to be an outsiders perspective. We are still in the anaysis phase of what we can do better with men's soccer, because we can all agree, for the investment in youth and professional soccer, maybe it is early, but for the moment the results are not in allignment.  Thank you for the reminder to have a read.  All the best.

  16. Wooden Ships, July 14, 2021 at 1:15 p.m.

    MB, a prodigy? 

  17. Kevin Leahy, July 14, 2021 at 1:57 p.m.

    I think as far as the women go they, have a standard to live up to. The last 6 qualifiers the men played, Arena changed the lineup substancially from game to game except, the last game. He even had said he felt there was an emotional aspect that, was missing from that team. There will always be questionable choices made in selections but, the coaches are tasked with putting together the right group. 

  18. Peter Bechtold, July 14, 2021 at 2:33 p.m.

    Any serious book entitled "Whatever happened..." must go to the origin. The best known "(not really origin) was the 1950 team which upset England in Brazil 1-0. Of course, you can go back to the first ever WC in 1930 (won by Uruquay, I believe) but at that time, relatively few nations were independent and fewer tried the then difficult transportation to South America. (For example, the King of Rumania ordered their national team to travel to Brazil in 1950, and it took three weeks to arrive by boat mostly. The players did not wish to go but had to obey their then king. They performed well there).

    The argument about "grit", Spirit of '76",etc. can only be made by someone who never coached or played at a high level; it is Anglo-Saxon nonsense. Just as arguing that the USWNT players are better soccer players than the men. What rubbish.

  19. Santiago 1314 replied, July 14, 2021 at 5:24 p.m.

    Sorry Peter, It's Called AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM... and When Embraced, it is worth One Goal a Game, versus CONCAcaCrApF Teams... You would agree that when Bayern Munich walk on a Field, the other team is already Mentally "Down" One goal, because, Well... It's Bayern Munich over there.!!! Same Principle applies.

  20. Bob Ashpole replied, July 15, 2021 at 3:42 a.m.

    Peter, "ouch"! How could you possibly dismiss the importance of the mental aspect of the game.

    Also, the USWNT is more talented than the USMNT. You have to ignore the gender differences, however, to make a true comparision. Yes the MNT players can bench press more than the women, but that isn't a useful soccer skill. Yes, the MNT would beat the WNT in a head to head match, but because of gender differences, not because they are more talented.

    The MNT team is a poor man's version of Germany. They depend on physicality and toughness. I would rather they play smarter. Like in the 2009 victory over Spain. Bradley's game plan was brilliant. Forced Spain to match their weaknesses against our advantages.

  21. Santiago 1314 replied, July 15, 2021 at 11:44 a.m.

    Yes Bob,  I would like to see us "Bastardize" all the Best Concepts and throw in Some American Spirit/Grit... German Thru-Ball that goes down the sideline of the 18, has always been one of the Things I Picked up from my Times in Germany... They had all the Youth Teams Trained to send the "Killer" Pass between the Ct.Backs and the Outside Fullback, to a Predesignated area..(The Future Pass they call it). The Split Zone is Perfectly Outlined by the Sideline of the 18... Too Far Out for the Sweeper to Go, to Far IN for the Outside Back.... Imagine some Quick Tiki-Taka(Espana), with a thru Ball down the 18 sideline(German), with a Dest Overlapping Run(Holland/Brazil) Meeting up with the ball on the End-Line that get Driven across the 6 yard Line for a Near Post Flick-In...  Now, That's The Beautiful Game that we would all like to see.!!!

  22. Bob Ashpole replied, July 15, 2021 at 1:14 p.m.

    Sounds to me like you really enjoyed how Pep managed Bayern Munich. My thinking is that studying Pep's time in Germany and England gives useful insights on how to improve US MNT play.

    What Pep does is graft Dutch Style principles onto existing styles of play. In Spain the Dutch Style principles gave the short passing possession style a purpose and teeth. In Germany the Dutch Style principles made Bayern even more efficient and dominating. In England things are less clear because less than 30% of their players are English. The EPL has a strong international influence. I am waiting for Pep to move on and a book published about his time at Man City.

    I think that the best indicator of what US soccer could look like is how the USWNT has played over the last six years. They are 75% their. The big difference is their dependence on superior 1v1 performance rather than beating opponents with combination passing in the attacking half. What improvement would bring to the WNT is the additional of another club to their golf bag.

    As generally everyone posting here understands playing qualifiers in CONCACAF is not the same as playing in the finals. One size does not fit all.

  23. Santiago 1314 replied, July 21, 2021 at 10:21 p.m.

    Bob, The USWNT has been in Decline, Stylistically, for the Last "6" years... As witnessed today in the Loss to Sweden..,. No Fresh Blood... No Fresh, Twitchy, Clever Players to start.

  24. Kent James, July 14, 2021 at 5:40 p.m.

    While there is no one formula for success (and any formula requires "grit", talent and a bit of luck), 1998 shows you a formula for failure; if you lose faith in the guys that got you there, you undermine the confidence of the team.  Sometimes you have to believe you are better than you actually are, and then play up to that belief.  Sampson listened to the people who said we didn't have the talent to compete at that level, and sought salvation from places he thought did (Regis).  You also need team cohesion, and Sampson's actions undermined that.  Until the actual WC, I thought Sampson had done a good job.  I think he actually lost faith in himself, and transferred that to the team.

    As for comparing the men to the women, it's apples and oranges.  The context is completely different.  The women have been dominant in ways no men's team has been, much less the USMNT.  All the credit to them.  But comparing them to the men (at least to this point)  just shows you don't understand international soccer.

  25. Bob Ashpole replied, July 15, 2021 at 3:46 a.m.

    Blaming Sampson for the team's performance in 1998 is a mistake. He had a coaching nightmare to deal with through no fault of his own. Sadly I blamed him too until the true story came out years later.

  26. Santiago 1314, July 14, 2021 at 10:13 p.m.

    Yes Kent, I think your Term "Cohesion" is critical... Look how the Minnows of Europe do... Czechs, Croats, Danes, even Swiss, ... Countries of a Few Million can Compete with the "Big Boys"... Sometimes, The Parts are Better than the Whole... Look at Yugoslavia, Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia...

  27. Greg Gould replied, July 15, 2021 at 12:06 a.m.

    But do they really compete? How many Euros and WCs have the Czechs, Croats, Danes, and Swiss won?

  28. Bob Ashpole replied, July 15, 2021 at 3:51 a.m.

    Greg, you are conflating winning with competing. Big difference. In a field of 32, 31 teams are going to "not win". That doesn't mean that they don't compete or are not competitive.

  29. Philip Carragher, July 15, 2021 at 12:48 p.m.

    Bob, I agree that the book is worthless except for this: it's good to know the lies (or disillusions) that others believe. Yet here we are, on the verge of possibly missing out on Qatar, and I'm too old to miss another one. They're too rare. So Santi, maybe we need the American Superman approach to get us to Qatar,?, I don't know, but if we do, I would reluctantly cast my vote for it. (We have some strong national team players for this next round, but is it enough? Still, why are there so few after decades of soccer development programs?) This, of course, would probably set us back even further in terms of player development, i.e. players that can play 360 degrees, intelligently rather than brutally, and display an aesthetic quality to their game; certainly a dream of mine, but not nearly as difficult as it may seem with the proper backing. Lastly, to get teams to play the Beautiful Game isn't rocket science and is attainable. I had a Girl's JV High School team playing the BG and I've had success with youth teams, boys and girls, with this. Believe!

  30. Bob Ashpole replied, July 15, 2021 at 1:23 p.m.

    Yes. If it can be developed and coached at one level of the pyramid, it can be done at the top too. The only real difference between levels is the speed of play. It is the same rules, same ball and same field! The problem is that pay to play-and-USSF strip the beauty from the game, giving priority to building winning teams over developing players for the future.

  31. James Madison, July 15, 2021 at 6:32 p.m.

    Comparie the recent observations by Bruce Arena, in which he conrasted the 2002 team playing  together for country with the 2014 team with each playing for himself.

  32. Bob Ashpole replied, July 15, 2021 at 6:52 p.m.

    I believe the better summary is that the 2002 team was a reflection of Arena, the 2009 team a reflection of Bob Bradley, and the 2014 team a reflection of JK. Whatever you think of JK's coaching, leaving Feilhaber and Donovan off the roster for Brazil had a divisive impact.

  33. Ric Fonseca, July 19, 2021 at 5:58 p.m.

    Verrry interesting comments.... all on a book about our sport written by non-soccer people! I betcha I could write one about rugby or cricket and be just as "damning" as these two authors. y entry into the sport came about in Mexico City, not on a field/pitch, but at the local railroad yards near my home - in the mid 40's. I later in the early 50's in junior high, where we were constantly kicked off by the football/baseball coaches as - in their eyes - we were ruining their dirt field. I changed sports and became a long distance runner, it was in my late 0's when I tried out for the team at Cal State Hayward, but was declared ineligible 'cause I'd been going to college too long, but my"real" entry into the sport took place while in grad school at UCLA where I became the varsity team manager.Thus my inclusion into the inner workings of college athletics John Wooden, Tommy Prothro, Ducky Drake, shaped my "mental state," into the world of intercollegiate Athletics.the book mentioned above, made a fatal mistake and commited an even greater flaw, IMHO, by not going to the '70s onward, 'cause it was during this period of my time, that I saw the trees for the forest. Living in Los Angeles provided me with an greater vision of what futbol soccer was all about, in addition to taking a couple of coaching courses taught by Detmar Cramer first met Pele when the Cosmos came to play the LA Aztecs; and my own kids later also met O Rei about the time of WC USA '94 when I became a referee I was assigned to work some high school boys games, and in one of those occasions, some girls approached about where to find girls teams. Thn ayso sorta ran the youth programs, while the Cal Youth Soccer Association was getting it's soccer boots tied on. I'd no answer to the ladies then, yet I was asked the same question in 1980 at CSUN by other young women of the university, and it was right then and there that I decided to see about forming a team and play in a local university league. Mind you, this was just about the advent of Title IX, my CSUN women's team played against club teams from UCLA, Westomont College, Biola University amongst several others. Long story short, it is my firm belief that the authors above should've delved deeper to at least the 80's, especially about the time US Soccer was beginning to make some noise, but it wasn't until just before WC USA 94 under the leadership of Hank Steinbrecher, and Alan Rothenberg, did the Federation got its head out of sand morass; the time when Bora Milutinovic was hired and he in turn hired Steve Sampson, Ralph Perez, and Sigi Schmid - three coaches who I knew very well and did their very best; Ralph and Steve ought to write a memoir; Sigi, alas has departed, but I can tell you that from the day I met him when he first enrolled at UCLA, I trusted him implicitly.But to blame Title IX for the demise of some men's programs, sorry buckwheat, this doesn't hold water;

  34. Kerry Solomon, July 24, 2021 at 7:54 p.m.

    Well, we have differing viewpoints from Santiago and Bob.  Can't wait to get into it and draw my own conclusion

  35. Kerry Solomon, July 24, 2021 at 8 p.m.

    Ric: a viewpoint from 'non-soccer' people could provide a fresh, unbiased opinion.  Just because it's not your sport, doesn't mean you can't analyze the situation

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