SAN JOSE, Calif. – If the United States men’s national team emerges from its crucial set of World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama by successfully reviving its bid for Russia 2018, there will be plenty of plaudits to go around.
First, the turnaround would immediately validate U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati’s decision to replace head coach Jurgen Klinsmann with Bruce Arena and his much-needed pragmatic approach, although Gulati stuck with Klinsmann far too long.
Second, it would serve as instant redemption for the players, especially those who bore the brunt of criticism from consecutive losses to Mexico and Costa Rica that began the U.S.’s final round of CONACAF qualifying with such a surprising and resounding thud.
However, the biggest winner in this hypothetical would be the place where the new head coach previously plied his trade and where a good majority of the starting XI prepared for these pressure-packed games.
That’s right: Major League Soccer.
If the USMNT does indeed rise from its dead-last standing in the Hexagonal, MLS could collectively pound its chest in Ronaldo-like braggadocio and bask in the spotlight of being the biggest reason for the national team’s revival. Because, barring any major surprises, no American lineup in World Cup qualifying over the past decade and a half will be so dependent on MLS players.
Of the forward and midfield lines, all but Christian Pulisic could conceivably come from MLS. The entire backline figures to be filled with defenders from foreign leagues (Houston Dynamo left back DaMarcus Beasley is the MLS’er with the best chance of starting), but the back four, whoever they are, will surely be marshaled by an MLS goalkeeper, Tim Howard of the Colorado Rapids.
Injuries to winger/defender Fabian Johnson, forward Bobby Wood and right back DeAndre Yedlin have made it necessary for Arena to seek replacements domestically (he surprisingly opted not to call in suspended right back Timmy Chandler, who could play against Panama after his one-game ban). But if this MLS-laden lineup produces for the former Los Angeles Galaxy head coach and his former Galaxy assistants who followed him to the national team, the players’ performances will be a testament to the depth of the U.S. talent pool as well as the rapidly growing quality of MLS – something which Klinsmann publicly questioned with unflattering words that angered league commissioner Don Garber, even though the German had a habit of calling in more MLS players than his American predecessor, Bob Bradley.
Arena’s role would warrant sufficient praise as well. While it wouldn’t be the first time an MLS coach has guided the USA to World Cup qualifying success, it would be the first time any USMNT coach has attempted this great of an escape. The Americans had never before lost two straight to begin the Hex, and being able to navigate this new territory – under the most intense scrutiny this national team has ever seen – would be one more accomplishment in Arena’s unmatched U.S. coaching resume.
Having its most decorated head coach and top American players cast in such a positive light would be something of a dream for MLS. It’s the type of marketing coup the league had to have envisioned when it began to intertwine itself with the USMNT. An example of this hope was on display when Jordan Morris spurned the Bundesliga to sign with his hometown Seattle Sounders. To celebrate this coup, the league and the team did not treat the addition of the newest Sounder as any old signing; they merely called Morris the next big thing in American soccer.
Now, you’re probably wondering what about all the January camp friendlies, off-year Gold Cups and Copa America Centenario knockout-stage games that featured MLS-dominated U.S. lineups. You might even recall the time Chris Wondolowski scored a hat trick against Belize. But that’s exactly the point we’re trying to make here. Those games don’t matter anywhere near as much as a World Cup qualifier or World Cup match. Surely, the growing angst surrounding Friday’s seemingly must-win home game against Honduras is approaching World Cup anxiety levels.
“We know it’s not up to the coach, it’s not up to Bruce,” Geoff Cameron said after Wednesday’s training. “It’s up to the players to perform on Friday. And we know that. The pressure’s on our shoulders.”
USMNT players are a point of pride for MLS. But there’s always the possibility of the flip side happening, too. And if the U.S. falls flat on its face – again – against Honduras and Panama? Well …
How about that expansion Atlanta United?
Joe Lago is the editor of FC Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter @joelago.
More World Cup qualifying: