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Henry Bushnell: It’s been over seven months. And Doug, Leander, I don’t know about the two of you, but I still have vivid memories of Oct. 10, 2017. I remember that emptiness, and mortifying shock. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today in The Mixer. We’re here to talk about what has come afterward, and what is still to come.
There were three categories of immediate response to Trinidad. There was the search for culprits – the assigning of blame. There were the calls for widespread reform. And there was an attempt to understand consequences.
Consequences. That’s what we’re talking about today. And frankly, I’m really not sure where to begin. So I’ll throw a few questions out there. First of all, what is/are the biggest consequence(s) of the U.S. men’s national team failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup? And is there any chance that this debacle, in the long term, could turn out to be a positive?
Doug McIntyre: I’ll answer that last question first: Yes. Why? First of all, every team on the planet starts from scratch again on July 16, the day after the World Cup final. And you can be sure that for this promising next generation of U.S. players – guys like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams – getting to Qatar 2022 will become an obsession. And these kids can really play. They’ll be bent on qualifying and good enough to achieve it. Plus, U.S. Soccer will be forced to do a better job. The scrutiny on the federation during this next cycle will be like nothing we’ve seen in any previous one.
That’s not to say there won’t also be pain. It will be difficult for American fans and players to watch regional foes like Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico participate in Russia this summer. And no matter how those rivals fare, simply being on the biggest stage will make all of them tougher to beat when qualifying for Qatar kicks off next year. Conversely, the Pulisics and McKennies – for all their successes in the German Bundesliga – won’t be able to lean on experience gained at this World Cup in those crucial international games to come. They also won’t get to benefit from that white-hot World Cup exposure, which can hurt them professionally. I’m not sure DeAndre Yedlin would be a starter in the Premier League today if he hadn’t taken his chance to impress for the U.S. as a 20-year-old in Brazil.
Other consequences are even harder to quantify. An 11-year-old Pulisic was inspired watching Landon Donovan score his unforgettable group-winning goal back in 2010. Donovan, in turn, looked up to his own American World Cup idols. Now an entire generation of kids in the U.S. won’t get the opportunity to see their countrymen compete against the best in the planet’s biggest event, sporting or otherwise. It’s impossible to know how much that will hurt the national team program in the future. But it definitely won’t help.
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Major failures only become watershed moments and program-altering tipping points when you allow them to be. For reform, you need reformers. And while I think there’s plenty of enthusiasm for change among the fan base, I’ve yet to see a whole lot of it within the game itself.
The big, hyped U.S. Soccer presidential election left us about as close to the status quo as it possibly could have. Carlos Cordeiro was Sunil Gulati’s long-time sidekick and confidant. This feels a little bit like a two-term president’s vice-president winning a de facto third term for that same administration. And maybe that’s unfair to Cordeiro, who insists he’d been pushing for reform from the inside, but his election underscored that there is no great zeal to shake things up inside the sport’s trenches.
That will trickle down as other key roles get filled. The names we’re hearing for the potential men’s national team general manager job – Claudio Reyna and Earnie Stewart, for example – are all long-time insiders of the program.
Which is all to say that in order for things to truly change, for real reform to come of this failure, new ideas will have to be introduced. There’s plenty of time for that to happen yet. But the rumored names don’t suggest that it will anytime soon.
Henry Bushnell: I think that’s spot-on, Leander. There are theoretical positives here. That’s why people initially argued the qualifying failure would be a good thing. Those are the same people who were calling for widespread reform before Trinidad, and who are still calling for widespread reform.
But as you said, not enough people that matter are listening to them. And the system is structured to keep those people in power. So I’m not sure any of the theoretical positives are coming (or will come) to fruition. The election itself might not have mattered much. The message it sent – that there will be no revolution; no fundamental, sweeping changes – does matter.
On the negative end, there are certainly some quantifiable consequences. Soccer United Marketing will lose over $10 million. USSF will lose millions as well. Its accounts show it made over $100 million in the financial year covering the 2014 men’s World Cup, compared to $76.6 million the year before. Those are all dollars that could be reinvested in the sport. Instead, they’ve evaporated.
I’m more fascinated, though, by the unquantifiable consequences that Doug mentioned. I wrote this in the immediate aftermath on Oct. 10: “To think that a young boy flirting with the sport could go from age 6 to age 14 without watching a U.S. men’s national team at a World Cup is slightly distressing.” Because as Doug mentioned, that’s how dreams are born. Both men’s and women’s national team players have spoken about how they were inspired by the 1994 and 1999 World Cups on U.S. soil. Now that World Cups are such massive TV events, every tournament can have that effect, no matter where it’s held.
Now … do we think there’s any chance it still will have that effect, because an American kid is just as likely to look up to Lionel Messi as he is to look up to Pulisic? Or is there something about an American looking up to an American, as opposed to an Argentine or German or Spaniard, that makes the U.S.’ absence damaging? And is there any way to quantify how damaging?
Leander Schaerlaeckens: To your first point. I actually wonder if the arrival of what might well be a golden Pulisic-McKennie-Adams-Weah(-Sargent?-Carter-Vickers?-Palmer-Brown?-Olosunde?-Robinson?-Parks?) generation could paper over the deeper issues anew. There’s already a fairly prevalent argument positing that the emergence of those talents disproves any notion that we’re doing something wrong. Never mind that every one of those guys but for Adams is spending, or has spent, most of his formative years as far away from the American club game as he can get himself.
To the second: I’m actually not much of a believer in this idea that American kids still need to be inspired to play soccer and that they now won’t be. For one, there’s more than one World Cup during a childhood. But, chiefly, young girls needed to be shown there was a path in the 1990s. Just as Pulisic perhaps still needed a Landon Donovan to show him it was possible to excel on the world stage back in 2010.
But the game is so prevalent now, and Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo so omnipresent, that there is no need for an American star to idolize. Enough U.S.-born players have made a mark on the highest levels of soccer on the men’s side that no real stigma remains and a proof of concept is well established. If Pulisic is such a transcendent, inspirational figure, great. His absence from the World Cup, however, will not dissuade any young American from thinking he can get there, I don’t think.
And so you can’t quantify this effect because it’s entirely anecdotal. Not least because oftentimes athletes assign emotions to their younger selves after the fact to fit into a convenient narrative.
Henry Bushnell: I feel smarter after reading that. Seriously. Really well put.
Doug McIntyre: I actually agree with Leander for once, too.
And I think his point speaks to a larger one: While not qualifying for the World Cup was a tragedy, in soccer terms, for American soccer, life has gone on.
That’s actually one of my biggest takeaways from the failure. I think back to November of 2000, when the U.S. was 30 minutes away from being eliminated from the 2002 World Cup over a year before it began for not beating – and get this – Barbados. Eighteen months later, that same team narrowly lost to Germany in a quarterfinal in South Korea.
Had things gone differently on that bumpy field on that tiny Caribbean island, I shudder to think where soccer in the United States would be today. MLS would have folded on the spot. That’s a fact. It nearly did anyway a year later, after the events of 9/11, when MLS shuttered its two Florida teams and was just barely ticking over as a 10-club operation thanks, basically, to one deep-pocketed owner in Philip Anschutz.
That MLS was not only able to sustain a blow like the one delivered last October but that it continues to thrive – I can’t help but marvel every time I watch Atlanta United or LAFC – is a testament to how the sport has exploded in the U.S. and Canada over the last two decades. That can’t be taken for granted, however. U.S. Soccer should know that better than anyone. It’s on the federation, as the sport’s governing body in the United States, to take a hard look at itself and then do everything possible to ensure that what happened to the USMNT in 2017 doesn’t happen again.
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