The final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, aka ‘The Hex’ was supposed to be a cake walk for the United States. A reaffirmation of their dominance over a weak region as they tried to finally realise their dream of being a major player in world football.
Before the final round started last November, the only nightmare football lovers in the U.S. of A were braced for was the prospect of a certain tough talking billionaire assuming presidency. But surely, the Americans, who haven’t finished less than first in the Hexagonal since 2006 would provide some solace. Surely, a country possessing one of the best young talents in the game today would book its flight to Russia next summer with time to spare.
But when the final whistle was blown on a wet, substandard pitch in the small Trinidadian town of Couva, the worst nightmare of all was realised. One that will take years to wake up out of after sleepwalking against an already eliminated Trinidad & Tobago reserve squad. Flat, lifeless and disturbingly lackadaisical, Bruce Arena’s men put in its most shambolic performance at its most crucial moment. World Cup newbies, Panama, and Honduras reaped the rewards of America’s historic downfall. Don’t get it twisted though, the seeds in this downfall were planted long before Tuesday night’s stunning debacle.
The United States never looked right from the get go in qualifying, dropping points in Trinidad and Guatemala in the semi-final round and barely escaping early embarrassment. Then once the final round started, a home loss to Mexico and a thrashing at Costa Rica further raised alarms for a team in obvious flux. Bringing back Arena – who did lead the U.S. to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup mind you – for a second spell in place of a floundering Jürgen Klinsmann following the Costa Rica beating looked to paper over the cracks. Unfortunately, they didn’t realise just how big those cracks were and now that they’ve finally cratered, its long-flawed problems have been exposed on a grander scale.
The fact highly-touted Borussia Dortmund youngster and their best player, Christian Pulisic, is surrounded by a squad still heavily reliant on an aging Tim Howard in goal and Jozy Altidore up top speaks to a major issue of player development. It’s not just the fact the U.S. is failing to properly bring up emerging talent capable of taking over in key roles, it’s the thinking behind it. Unlike most functional national football programs, the U.S. has a ‘pay to play’ system where youngsters have to pay to get the necessary training and coaching to learn the skills of the trade. This is a huge issue, particularly for the underprivileged communities, where a lot of aspiring footballers reside. It prevents diversity and discourages too many who have the right talents that need to be nurtured from participating.
They also fall behind from the mere fact many up-and-comers aged 18-22 aren’t able to develop naturally given their college commitments. This is a critical age group for skill development and understanding of the game. While getting an education is highly important, it takes away focus and learning time for players hoping to make that jump, stunting their evolution.
There has to be a better structure in place that ensures players aren’t being lost in the shuffle and aren’t falling behind the learning curve. With no U20 or U17 standouts, as well as failure to reach the last two summer Olympics, the structure for youth football is highly uninspiring. Not to mention, the system lacks enough quality coaches to help make this transition seamless. The fact the U.S. had to turn back to Arena, whose first stint in charge ended in 2006, proves their lack of coaching depth. It’s why they had to turn to Klinsmann before him. Despite flopping in his previous managerial stint at Bayern Munich, Klinsmann was the sexy pick because he’s German and did guide his native team to third place at the 2006 World Cup.
Klinsmann’s philosophies often clashed with what the U.S. were accustomed to. His style of play seemed out of reach for a set of players incapable of maximising it. Additionally, he often garnered criticism in the American media and former players for claiming more U.S. players needed to be playing in Europe. Say what you will about his failures, he was right. There aren’t enough of them playing in Europe, or at least enough that are ready to make the move there and succeed. Add to the aforementioned facts about development and coaching the fact that Major League Soccer, for all its undeniable progress, is not a proper breeding ground for talent looking to make that jump. The quality in the MLS is higher than ever before, but mostly thanks to the growing influx of foreign talent. For young American players, it’s really a wasteland that offers little to prepare them for greater levels of competition in the game.