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Two weeks later, and the scenario still boggles the mind.
Needing just a draw with last-place Trinidad and Tobago to assure a spot in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the United States Men’s National Team produced a colossal egg on foreign soil.
A 2-1 result that included an odious own goal for the Americans, coupled with the worst possible scenarios from the other simultaneous matches, meant that the USMNT would remain home from the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Since then, the USMNT qualified for seven straight World Cups, including the one hosted by the United States in 1996, as the interest and popularity of soccer increased nationally. No longer a running punch line internationally, the U.S. went from an infant on the world stage to a passionate side that embraced the role of giant killer. Four trips out of the group stage in seven appearances since 1990 sent a signal that the U.S. was ready for more. Perhaps a trip to the quarterfinals. Maybe, in some wild fantasy, the semifinals?
But that came to a stunning halt on Oct. 10 and the repercussions may be felt throughout the United States at all levels of soccer.
“I think it’s a huge setback for the program as a whole,” Wilson Christian Academy head soccer coach Don Samson said. “Even going forward, it’s hard to get youth players interested in soccer when they’re not seeing them at that scale, their own country represented. I’m shocked by it. Even as far as we’ve come, I think it’s a huge, huge, major setback.”
CONCACAF, the governing body in which the U.S. competes for World Cup berths, isn’t revered on an international level for its strength. Nevertheless, the perception has been that Mexico and the U.S. would secure, at the least, two of CONCACAF’s automatic bids to the World Cup each cycle.
CONCACAF GETS TOUGHER
Take it from Greenfield School head coach Randol Mendoza, who grew up in Honduras and watched his home national side scrap and claw for World Cup bids behind the usual CONCACAF powers. Failing to qualify from 1986-2006, Honduras made the field in 2010 and 2014 and will partake in an intercontinental playoff against Australia in November for a bid into the World Cup after finishing fourth in CONCACAF — one spot ahead of the U.S.
“We would always assume that Mexico and the United States were two teams that we knew for sure would qualify,” Mendoza said. “The CONCACAF (tournaments) in the last two World Cups have been getting harder and harder as far as the qualification process. The United States is unlucky as far as that last match day of qualification, but I don’t think there’s one thing you can pinpoint as to what went wrong. But a transition of a new coach (Jurgen Klinsmann to Bruce Arena) so late in the game definitely plays a part into it. And then, when one coach sees the players he needs to qualify could differ from the next coach that comes in, in this case, Bruce Arena, he may be looking at completely different players. So now, you disrupt the consistency of the team.”
As the future turns to stars such as Christian Pulisic, some of the veterans of previous World Cup runs such as Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore will more than likely see their time representing the U.S. on the game’s biggest stage come to a premature end. Indeed, a bitter pill to swallow for a group that, prior to the 2018 qualification cycle, had provided fans with thrilling memories to last a lifetime.
“Just the inability to get it done,” Samson assessed. “There’s been so much — such good things happening over the years — that not to qualify, it’s unreal.”
To no one’s surprise, Arena tendered his resignation shortly after the U.S. completed its failed qualifying bid. Samson stressed the need for a national team coach who can build a program and not just a fill-in for the sake of staffing the position.
“I think a mistake would be just to rush into somebody just to fill the void,” Samson said. “I think it’s got to be a program builder really, who’s got to come in for our country to really succeed long term and really establish the training, the development academies, everything from the ground up. We’ve got to look at everything, what works and what doesn’t. And improve.”
At the younger levels, Mendoza called on Major League Soccer franchises to do more to make the game accessible to players who lack the resources and means to receive specialized training at the club level. In turn, the club teams are more apt to expose those who can afford it to college opportunities and naturally, to professional options home and abroad.
Or in other words, the pay-to-play model.
“It seems like we’re adding an MLS team every year or other year,” Mendoza said. “And some of these MLS teams have the resources to maybe create more youth teams or create a youth system to try to bring players that maybe are underprivileged that may have the skills, but cannot afford the pay-to-play model and pay well over $2,000 to play club soccer. Most of the club soccer players end up going to a college system that they play for some of the best teams in college. Those are the ones that will come up to the MLS. But we tend to forget about the kids that can’t afford that pay-to-play model. So, some type of grassroots movement to where MLS teams are doing more for youth soccer in this country.”
Attached to Mendoza’s call for a grassroots movement is simply getting players to play soccer more outside of an organized setting. Growing up in Honduras, the Greenfield coach said that he didn’t play any form of organized soccer until he was nine to 10 years old. He filled the void by playing in the streets and neighborhoods with strangers. Through non-traditional settings in two-on-two or three-on-three games where the goal was nothing more than a pair of rocks or trash cans spaced apart, individual creativity was discovered independent of a coach in a sterile, structured setting.
“That can nurture that creativity that the United States is wanting,” he said. “But yet, we don’t do anything about making kids play or we don’t do anything about how do we teach these kids?”
NO DROP-OFF LOCALLY?
On a local level, Samson isn’t convinced that missing a World Cup will produce a major drop-off in soccer on the local level through the offerings of Wilson Parks and Recreation Department and Wilson Youth Soccer Association. But at the same time, as someone who didn’t play the game growing up, Samson was exposed to soccer by watching his country compete — and qualify — at the highest level.
At least eight years will now go by between World Cup appearances for the U.S., assuming it gains passage to the 2022 event in Qatar. Consequences, on some level, are inevitable.
“I remember being a kid who didn’t play soccer in ‘96 when the World Cup was around,” Samson said. “That got me interested. I watched the games, and that passion that can develop from it. I think some kids, quite possibly, miss out.”