Sports Nut

Star-Spangled Bummer

Who’s to blame for the U.S. men’s soccer team’s failure to qualify the World Cup?

Michael Bradley and Christian Pulisic of the United States men’s national team react to their loss on Tuesday in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago.

Ashley Allen/Getty Images

The final failure of the United States men’s national soccer team’s long, dark World Cup qualifying campaign of the soul is one of vocabulary. Disaster doesn’t seem to cut it. Catastrophe? Calamity? Cataclysm? What do you get when you go past double-plus-un-good?

As Argentina can attest, international soccer is a roller coaster of peaks and valleys. The Friday-to-Tuesday swing for the U.S. was more akin to stepping out of an airplane with one of those Acme parachutes that is actually an anvil. Hope they remembered to wave at Lionel Messi and Co. on the way down.

Everything that went right in the dominant 4–0 win against Panama on Friday came crashing down spectacularly in Tuesday’s 2–1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago. The Pulisic-Altidore-Wood triumvirate that devastated Panama’s backline played like they were stuck in quicksand, with none of the burst or cleverness that marked their interchanges in Orlando on Friday.

Manager Bruce Arena’s decision to play Michael Bradley as the only center midfielder, a position akin to the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke, blew up in his face when Trinidad’s Alvin Jones found a patch of space the size of Tobago with which to line up the 30-yard-bomb that ended up being the game-winner. Everyone was bad, except maybe Clint Dempsey, who Soca Warriors keeper Adrian Foncette seemed determined to prevent from passing Landon Donovan as the team’s all-time scorer.

The convenient thing about a failure this massive is there’s little reason to be stingy with the opprobrium. Is it Arena’s fault? Definitely. His plan Tuesday wasn’t just incorrect but actively wrong. Shall we blame the team’s veteran leaders and its young up-and-comers? Sure, why not. This wasn’t the first game during which nine out of the 11 players went AWOL, and at a certain point you have to start benching players due to their mean performances rather than starting them and hoping you get the best versions. How about the development pipeline drying up? That’s why the team was pretty much all veterans and up-and-comers, with no players who are in their primes to bridge the generations. And what of the referees in Panama, who helped seal the United States’ fate by awarding the first Panamanian goal even though it never crossed the line? Let’s blame them, too. Jürgen Klinsmann? Of course. Always. He started it. Rafa Marquez? Fox Sports? Trump and Putin? Sure. Whatever. Why not?

This failure is so big, with so many layers, that it will confirm nearly any theory that anyone might possibly have about what’s wrong with U.S. soccer: that Michael Bradley is garbage, that Klinsmann should have been given more time, that Arena should have called the U-17 team back from their World Cup in India and started the teens instead. When you’re dealing with a result that shatters everything you thought you knew—the U.S. doesn’t have a divine right to go to every World Cup but the U.S. definitely should go to every World Cup—you can reasonably blame the outcome on anything and everything. There’s a reason U.S. soccer fans have already taken to comparing Oct. 10, 2017, to Nov. 8, 2016.

The short- and long-term ramifications for the sport’s national governing body and for the sport in America as a whole will take time to figure out. Safe to say U.S. Soccer will be looking for a new head coach, perhaps a new federation president, and between six and nine starters. (You can stay, Christian Pulisic.) But those hoping for a total reboot probably shouldn’t hold their breath. And those predicting a massive drop in the number of fans of the sport in this country will likely be left waiting, too. There are few things that make a fan base close ranks faster like a crisis to be weathered. There will be a reckoning, and then the push for Qatar in 2022 will begin in earnest. Weston McKennie’s playing a lot for Schalke. Tyler Adams looks good for the New York Red Bulls. The U-17 team is 2–0 in its group and features more guys named Chris than an Avengers movie.

Next summer is when the other shoe will drop, when the pain and disappointment of not being there will roar back. For those looking for some relief, may I suggest Iceland? That nation of 335,000 just qualified for its first World Cup. This nation of 323 million will be staying home for the first time since 1986. That’s … something worse than a catastrophe.