US Soccer: Languishing from lack of leadership
Trinidad & Tobago.
The sting hits after each one. Reliving the failures is more than an aggravation. Ask most Americans, soccer fans or otherwise, and the response has been the same. How could the USMNT lose to any of them? We spend too much money, too many resources, and are too great of a sporting nation to lose to any of those countries. Yes, there’s the “any given Sunday” that we may occasionally succumb to, but this is happening far too often. Worse than how often these losses mount, is the fashion in which each has occurred. Maybe it’s vanity. Maybe it’s blind over-confidence. Maybe we’re just not that good.
This past week US Soccer has had three agonizing defeats. The USMNT U-20 squad was bounced in the quarterfinals of their World Cup, losing to presumptive underdog Ecuador. This marks the third consecutive cycle in which Tab Ramos’ side has failed to advance past the quarterfinals. The loss came on the heels of a surprisingly positive comeback win against tournament favorites, France. In four days time, the narrative went from the U-20s turning the corner with a marquee and transformative win to just another failure. Then the senior team lost in friendlies to the aforementioned Jamaica and Venezuela in less than inspiring performances. Excuses can be made and analysis can be done, but that doesn’t solve the real problem that is at hand.
In a week’s time, the USMNT will have its first true test under Gregg Berhalter with the start of the Gold Cup. It’s a test that we are all preparing ourselves to fail. We know we could have studied better but at this point, it is it was it is, and we’ll just have to deal with the consequences. It’s going to be inexcusable; it could have been avoided, and yes, it’s going to hurt all over again. Maybe the recent losses to Jamaica and Venezuela will help lessen the blow. We’re no longer fooling ourselves with a false sense of hope, but are instead doing the worst thing imaginable and lowering our expectations. Our usual optimism, and maybe our hubris, has been dented and bruised to the point that we are becoming more and more apathetic collectively. Let me be clear that the failures this past week and the speculative Gold Cup struggles to come are not Berhalter’s fault to bear. We can debate his tactics and roster selections, but the problems go so far beyond what is under his control. Berhalter, or anyone else in his stead, needs time and resources to enact change.
A pattern of failure and falling short of expectations has formed a toxic environment in soccer circles with differing opinions on how to right the ship. We all know that a ship must be guided by its captain and in US Soccer we have an entire fleet that has been off course. These metaphorical ships include, but are not limited to domestic player development, US Soccer, the National Team coaching staff, and the National Team players themselves. Each has been in a state of flux when it comes to leadership, and I believe stability and a clear course at each level are paramount in reaching port.
At the youth development level, we have a broad pay-to-play network that has struggled to see a return on investment in terms of on field quality. I am of the opinion that this is deeply rooted in a lack of consistency and leadership when it comes to training methods, style, and overriding message. When it comes to player development we seemingly have no active captain and a flailing crew aboard several hundred dinghies at sea.
The governing body of the sport domestically, and the organization charged with wrangling those dinghies, is the United States Soccer Federation. The USSF presidency has transitioned from Sunil Gulati to Carlos Cordeiro, both of whom have inspired little confidence or trust in the majority of fans. Many speculate widespread foul play under their charge related directly to the American soccer pyramid. From Don Garber’s MLS right down to the bottom rungs of amateur soccer, something smells fishy. We have all debated ad nauseum whether we should be operating under an open or closed system, and as it stands this point of contention may be the centralized vortex of our problems. The USSF is an expensive yacht set on autopilot with the captain partying below deck. It should instead serve as a carrier, a centralized base for the rest of the fleet, with a due course.
Among the coaching ranks we have waded through the leadership of Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, Jurgen Klinsmann, Arena again, Dave Sarachan, and now Berhalter to try and guide the senior roster. Aside from scattered Gold Cup titles and the occasional advancement past World Cup group stages, our record and our identity has been pockmarked by early tournament exits, unacceptable defeats, and failure to qualify, as we all know. The captain of this frontline battleship is only as good as the crew he has on board. This ship has often headed into battle with not enough trained men and an insufficient battle plan.
That brings me to on-field leadership. In the past it was clear that Landon Donovan was the USMNT poster child and captain both on and off the field. Lauded as the greatest American soccer player of all time, he featured in every major tournament and was called upon to contribute in the pivotal moments over four World Cup cycles. He willed the USMNT to victory on numerous occasions. Regardless of results, Donovan was viewed as a beacon of hope of what an American soccer player could be. Fill a team with 11 players of his caliber and the USMNT would be world class. But we didn’t have 11 Donovan’s, we had just one. The team as a whole consistently fell short of expectations with the sum of its parts always being a tier or two below that of its competition.
You look at today’s roster and it feels like nothing has changed when it comes to the whole with a seemingly skill starved roster compared to the likes of France, Germany, or Spain. It is clear that players like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, and Weston McKennie are supposed to be our guiding light and can become generational talents, but can they be the next Landon Donovan? Why strive to be the next Donovan? Can they be the next Messi? The next Pele? Who has enough skill, personality, and willpower to take the helm and elevate the level of those around him? Do we really need to wait for another generation of talent to develop? I’m not sure the ship can take on that much water.
Perhaps the only thing keeping the ship afloat is the success of the USWNT. A shining light for several decades now, the USWNT has been reliably dominant. Three World Cup victories and continuous success have cemented the women’s side as a certified powerhouse. They enter the field this week as clear favorites in pursuit of a fourth World Cup. Still, there is a concerning air about the team. Jill Ellis, the mainstay head coach, has been called into question when evaluating both her tactics and roster selections leading up to the tournament. It’s odd to question her when the team has only one loss since the start of 2018, but alas, it’s a cruel sport. I’ve heard multiple pundits say anything short of a title could cost Ellis her post, a harsh fate all things considered. The players themselves are mired in a battle with the federation over equal pay and treatment to that of their male counterparts. It’s hard to not side with them and impossible to blame them for wanting that equality. If nothing else, they are beginning to be heard. The pressure is on as another title would go a long way in advancing their fight for equality. Anything less could prove costly and serve as a major setback for the women’s game both on and off the field.
I pride myself on being a realist. The reality of the situation is that US Soccer is a tier, or two, or three from where it should be on the global footballing pyramid. We can debate at length the solution to the problem. No matter your stance, I think we can all agree the answer is multifaceted and not a quick fix. At this point a bandaid won’t stop the bleeding, and even if it did, what would be the point? Soccer in America has teetered on the precipice of relevancy both from a competitive standpoint as well as from a market share standpoint. The American consumer can only bear so much cost, whether that be monetary or emotional, before there is nothing left in the tank. I know I’m not alone when I say I hope the powers that be can begin to find solutions to start realizing real progress and further advance the sport domestically. If they don’t do so quickly, I fear the ship may sink.
Follow Vaughn on Twitter: @vipollman