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After Missing World Cup For First Time Since 1986, U.S. Soccer Needs Self-Identity Check

It still doesn’t seem real, but the unthinkable happened on Tuesday night.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia will go on without the United States Men’s National Team after the red, white and blue lost to Trinidad & Tobago and other dominoes fell.

To anyone reading this who thinks that sounds pretty normal, it’s not. The USMNT has not missed a World Cup since the 1986 edition, breaking a streak of seven-straight Cups attended. Bruce Arena’s team went down to Trinidad & Tobago feeling pretty confident. All the club needed was a draw or a win, and if it lost, the squad would still make it unless Panama beat Costa Rica and Honduras beat Mexico.

Not only were the Panama and Honduras wins unlikely, Trinidad & Tobago is the worst team in the CONCACAF qualifying table. After a dominating 4-0 performance at home against Panama on Saturday, most doubts that the U.S. would advance easily were ignored leading up to the game.

But it happened. The U.S. put in a lackluster performance while Panama and Honduras both won their games by a goal. The red, white and blue were going, going, gone.

After a disaster like this, it is most common to point to the coach or the effort by the players. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The U.S. soccer system has reached a low point, and everything has to be reevaluated. How is a country with 323 million people so behind the rest of the world in soccer?

Soccer obviously is not the premier sport in America, but one would think the sheer amount of people and resources our country has could field a team that could compete with the rest of the world every four years.

ESPN analyst and former USMNT player Taylor Twellman had this to say about the embarassment on Tuesday night:

Twellman is right. It’s time to evaluate everything. There is no reason that the U.S. should have any problems getting out of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying safely.

The problem is not the lack of athletes playing soccer — I have heard countless people say if America put its best athletes toward soccer instead of football/basketball, it would be the best in the world.

“Imagine if Lebron, or Gronk played soccer. We would be unstoppable”.

It’s not that simple. Lionel Messi, the best player in the world (arguably the best of all time) is 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs just 160 pounds. He is by no means the best athlete in the world, but his sheer talent and skills have been developing for his entire life, most notably at the prestigious youth academy at FC Barcelona.

Yes, if a lot of America’s best athletes were developed well at a young age to just play soccer, things could be better. But there is absolutely no reason that the USMNT can’t be successful either way.

The USMNT’s problems do not lie within the current players they are putting on the field. It is the country’s developmental system as a whole. In all American sports, the common path for most athletes is to perform for your high school team, get recruited to a college, and — if you’re good enough — get signed professionally. Unfortunately, this does not work in soccer.

The USMNT’s best player is 19-year-old Christian Pulisic, and he is on track to become the best American to play the game. It is no coincidence that he moved to Germany at age 16 to be developed by his current club Borussia Dortmund.

Young players in major soccer countries don’t play for their high schools. They play for local clubs.

They do that until they are noticed or try out for bigger clubs, and then get invited to be a part of that club’s youth academy. Similar to a Minor League Baseball situation in a way, players can work up the talent chain until they get a chance with the first team.

Some clubs have academies that are more prestigious than others: Liverpool, Dortmund and Ajax develop some of the best youths around. These clubs have scouts that recruit all over the world, which was how Pulisic was noticed. However, the important thing to take away is that young players in these countries are being taught by elite coaches at a young age on how to to best utilize their talent.

In America, soccer is the most popular youth sport. Why, then, doesn’t that translate into success at the international level?

The answer: Young players do not get developed as well in the states. They go on to play for their high schools against below-average competition, get recruited to NCAA schools, and go to the MLS. They do not get the early training they need to be elite. Yes, MLS clubs have their own academies. Yes, there are other development schools, like the IMG Academy, but it’s not enough. The entire system needs to follow suit, and these academies cost a pretty penny.

The MLS is certainly doing better than ever. The league’s teams, fans and revenue grow each year. However, it is still well behind the rest of the world. especially in terms of the promotion/relegation system. That system allows turnover in leagues and gives teams in lower divisions of professional soccer a lifeline to rise up in the system. For some reason, the MLS remains stubborn with this issue.

Soccer is not the biggest sport in America, nor will it ever be — but soccer in America is not dead because of Tuesday night, either.

The continued MLS growth is encouraging, and it looks as thought the U.S. has the best chance to host the 2026 World Cup. That being said, the U.S. Soccer Federation needs to change some things, or the USMNT will always live in mediocrity.

We also shouldn’t ignore the horrible effort put out by the players on Tuesday, or the mismanagement by the coaching staff. In fact, we would not be talking about any of this if the U.S. had scored an equalizer late in the game and qualified. However, that didn’t happen, and it’s time for the USSF to take a step back, and as Twellman put it, “look in the mirror.”

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