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SSFC roundtable: What this USMNT loss means for the program

We begin to ask some questions and get the debate started.

United States Press Conference Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

While we at Stars & Stripes FC continue to process our feelings about the U.S. Men’s National Team not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, we passed around a few questions about the state of the program. Here’s what some of our contributors think of what went wrong, whether Sunil Gulati and Bruce Arena should quit, and what it all means for the USMNT beyond 2018.

Adnan Ilyas

Bruce Arena got his tactics completely wrong. He trotted out the same lineup we saw against Panama, presumably with the intent to replicate that overwhelming attack. It didn't work. Altidore, Wood, and Pulisic were completely isolated and disconnected from the rest of the team. The midfield was absent. Michael Bradley was essentially the only man there with Nagbe and Arriola essentially MIA. That meant we got physically dominated in the middle of the park, while forcing the likes of Altidore and Pulisic to drop deep and out of position in order to compensate. On top of that, both Besler and Gonzalez played too deep and hesitant, leaving gaps for T&T to exploit. Mentally, the U.S. played as if they had already qualified and had the luxury of checking out.

Arena should obviously resign immediately because he was hired solely to get the U.S. to the World Cup. Frankly, Gulati should also go. While Klinsmann was mostly fine through the 2014 World Cup (though it quickly became obvious that he was not going to revolutionize the whole system), he repeatedly put himself in positions where he should have been sacked. He should have been fired after the disastrous 2015 Gold Cup, after losing the CONCACAF playoff game against Mexico, and after losing against Guatemala in 2016. Gulati waited WAY too long to make a change and the USMNT stagnated because of it.

Looking forward, U.S. Soccer may not lose a dime, simply because most of their contracts are multi-year deals. But, this will still be bad for soccer investment. Clubs top to bottom are going to miss out on stagnated interest from fans. This will be particularly bad for lower league sides. Investment in infrastructure like public fields will be down, and it will not be easy to compensate. What can we do? Not a whole lot. But the best thing we can do is to pick up a ball and go play in the local park.

Jared Young

In this case I think the answer is simple: Trinidad and Tobago wanted the game more than the U.S. Why that happened is the tougher question. Perhaps, the U.S. rested on their supposed superior skill and didn’t think they had to get dirty? Perhaps, tactically they were playing too conservatively, worried about the speed of T&T? Maybe, they didn’t think T&T were capable of a perfect 40-yard strike. Overconfidence is the great equalizer in sports and the U.S. were susceptible on Tuesday.

Bruce Arena was going to be out after the World Cup anyway, so there is no need to delay the future at this point. Gulati’s need to go is a little more nuanced. He can certainly point to any number of terrific growth stories for U.S. Soccer during his tenure. From financial stability to academy development to National team victories (up to this point), he can craft a solid resume. But, the reality is he has significant blind spots that are becoming more and more apparent as his tenure evolves. Gulati, economist that he is, has continually followed the money, from Pay to Play models to MLS’s near monopoly, Gulati has ridden the profit train to his development story at the expense of a cohesive strategy from top to bottom. As we’re witnessing in Germany and Iceland, leadership needs a coherent, organized process to drive the player development funnel from youth to national team. That has not happened under Gulati and he’s been given enough time.

No doubt it’s going to slow down the growth of soccer in the United States. Less money will come in and the ability to resource player development will slow down. The U.S. will still get where they are going but it’s going to take longer. For people that care about the sport in America, that is hard to take, but we need to take this shock to the system to create better use of this country’s resources. Whether or not the leadership is here to do that remains the biggest question.

Zeke Ouellette

Yuck. Almost in a sickeningly fitting way, the U.S. lost while mirroring the issues that have plagued this team for the last year or so. For me, this defeat comes down to mental inconsistency. In the 10 Hex matches to qualify for the World Cup, the U.S. conceded the first goal to their opponent 5 times. Of those matches, the U.S. could only manage to pick up one point. Just think, one extra point was all they needed to at least qualify for the playoff against Australia. And yet, just like so many other times they’ve played during this cycle, the U.S. came out of the gates last night looking lethargic and soft. This isn’t the gritty U.S. team I grew up watching. In their quest to be so much like European juggernauts, the U.S. got wrapped up in itself and lost its essential element of mental toughness, which has always aided them through a grueling CONCACAF qualifying cycle.

I was beginning to like the Bruce train when we won the Gold Cup this summer. I thought the players he brought in at the end of the tournament to shape up the team’s play was a great managerial move. However, the wind was knocked out of his sails with the squad selections for these last four WCQs. Leaving Cameron on the bench for three straight games is a huge question mark. And not being willing to change out struggling players like Nagbe and Howard hurt the team in the long run. He hung on to some players for too long and didn’t display the young depth and energy the team has. These are all reasons as to why he should go. As for Sunil? A top down change seems appropriate, though I think the blame lies mostly on the coach and players for this one. Bruce had the resources and the expertise to win, he just failed to produce when it mattered.

It’ll be difficult for anyone to look past the experience the younger players like Pulisic, Miazga and Yedlin will lose as a result of missing this tournament. Going beyond next summer, U.S. Soccer has a chance to truly beef up its coaching educational system and development programs. The changes need to be systematic and appropriate. The example of Germany completely imploding during the 2000 Euros is a perfect blueprint for the United States to follow. Changes were made in throughout German football, and their 10-year plan, ranging from the DfB to the Bundesliga, structured their 2014 World Cup victory. Maybe even France’s 2010 World Cup debacle and restructuring could be utilized as a platform for the U.S. to build from. What matters here is that the leadership is willing to look themselves in the mirror and make the necessary changes. Now, does the U.S. have that type of leadership? I’m not the one to know. Only time will tell whether our demons lie deeper than we think.

Alex Showell

Bruce Arena’s tactics and lineup choices were questionable. The U.S. played too conservatively and Brad Guzan should have started over Tim Howard. Michael Bradley continues to be deployed too deep in midfield and he shouldn’t have been selected for the national team for over a year. There are rumors that Geoff Cameron was injured, but if he wasn’t he should have started. Yes, he was terrible against Costa Rica, but he remains our 2nd best center back. Essentially every player other than Pulisic was a massive disappointment. The USMNT has always played with heart and grit regardless of the team’s skill level, but last night this fighting spirit was gone. Last night, nobody looked like they’d bleed for the shirt.

Arena should resign due to his numerous tactical blunders and questionable roster decisions. He has done a poor job integrating young players into teams and has refused to evolve tactically. The U.S. needs someone who will inject fresh ideas into the program. As for Gulati, he had a good run but it’s time for a change. There were many positive developments under his reign, but the men’s results in the past few years have been unacceptable. He must be held responsible for the Klinsmann and Arena disasters, as well as the U-23’s failure to qualify for the past two Olympics. He chose to appoint Klinsmann and Arena and neither coach did well. Additionally, Gulati has done nothing to fix the clearly broken Pay to Play model. This loss should lead to young players such as Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams immediately being given opportunities with the senior team. Whoever is brought in as the next coach must name Pulisic captain. Bradley has been playing poorly for over a year and fails to inspire the team as he used to. Sure Pulisic is young and inexperienced, but he’s our best player and arguably the only one who played with any sort of intensity against T&T.

For the next few years, the loss will make it harder for the USMNT to attract dual-nationals such as Jonathan Gonzalez. As others have mentioned, U.S. Soccer needs to develop a thorough plan to improve youth coaching and player development. Looking at the German 10-year plan would be a good start.

Sean Curtis

What went wrong against Trinidad & Tobago was pretty simple: the USMNT didn’t want it as much as T&T. Was it silly to leave Michael Bradley alone in the middle when we only needed a lie? Sure. Were some of the tactics a little off? Sure. Bottom line, though, every single player in the starting XI for the USA would have been the star of the T&T team. With that much superior talent you should be able to win, unless you get outworked.

Arena and Gulati both need to go. Arena was brought it for one purpose: save qualification and get the USMNT to a World Cup. He failed. That means he should go. On top of that, he was likely going to be out as the head coach after the World Cup anyway. We might as well get our new coach now and give them five years to build their team. Gulati should be out because he has done what he needed to do. Gulati is a businessman, not a soccer expert. In the time that he has been in charge, MLS has grown along with U.S. Soccer to the point that it is very stable and neither is going to collapse anytime soon. We also have as much as $100 million in surplus within the American soccer system. That gets him an A+ as a business man. In the last six years, however, the U-17 and U-20 teams have missed a World Cup, the U-23s have missed two Olympics, the WNT had their worst-ever performance at the Olympics, and the MNT have missed a Confederations Cup and now a World Cup. That is too much soccer failure. It is time to get rid of Gulati now that the business is good and bring in a soccer expert to run the program.

The implications of not qualifying are still a bit of a mystery. Money is not likely to be that much of an issue (see the $100 million surplus), but we will still lose out on millions from not being in Russia. Really, there are two things that worry me about the future in regards to this. First, what are young athletes going to choose? Nothing is more inspiring to a 11-year-old than watching Landon Donovan score in the final minutes against Algeria in the World Cup. It may have just been that moment that inspired some hotshot young 11-year-old athlete (the age of Pulisic when that happened) to stick with soccer instead of choosing basketball, football, etc. We won’t get that next summer. The other worry is what the experience could have done for our young up-and-comers. Sure, Pulisic and company will (hopefully) be really good when 2022 comes around and get to lead the team. But, how much will having no World Cup experience effect the young leaders’ ability to lead in Qatar?

Donald Wine

There was no sense of urgency, and the team came out flat at the worst possible time. They just didn’t seem prepared and T&T were fired up to face them. No bones about it, we played terribly as a team and because of that, we will be sitting at home next June while the rest of the world celebrates a World Cup in Russia.

I truly fear a drop in interest in the MNT. Simply put, the casual fan gets excited for the games that mean something, and the USMNT will not have another meaningful game until the 2019 Gold Cup. That’s almost two full years before there’s something for fans to really support besides friendlies. Also, the main thing that will change is the makeup of the team. There are several players that will likely not make it through the next qualifying cycle: Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Nick Rimando, Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Geoff Cameron, DaMarcus Beasley, Chris Wondolowski, Brad Guzan, Benny Feilhaber, Dax McCarty, Alejandro Bedoya, Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez, and Michael Bradley. All of them are done or will likely be done by 2022. This means the future HAS to be now, and we must focus on developing the young talent to take over for this huge group of players over the next 4-5 years.

Phil West

Lots of people are second-guessing Arena going with the same lineup as he did against Panama in Orlando, but that lineup should have had the fitness to beat a T&T team that was without its two best players (Kenwyne Jones and Kevin Molino) and brought in its third best player (Joevin Jones) as a second-half sub. Simply put, we shouldn’t have been eliminated from a World Cup via an Alvin Jones wonderstrike.

Arena definitely should be out; his tenure as coach was based on getting the team to the 2018 World Cup, and he didn’t do that. Having him preside over friendlies with the same coterie of over-30 veterans he’s relied on throughout the Hex won’t serve the mission of getting the U.S. back into World Cup qualification. The next coach selected should be the one who presides over the next five years.

This fan base is in an ugly, surly mood, and may only be appeased by human sacrifices. With Gulati’s current term ending in February, his stepping down might effectively accomplish that, whereas his staying on for another term might needlessly heighten tensions and turn every subsequent misstep into fuel to the fire, in the way each poor result did late in the Klinsmann era.

I would hope that the USMNT no longer takes CONCACAF qualifying for granted. Getting to the 2022 World Cup now becomes a four-year project, and it should integrate the promising class of U-20s as well as the last two cycles of U-23 who were conspicuously underrepresented on the Hex rosters. In the short term, that means more Acosta, Arriola, Morris, Jonathan Gonzalez (if he’ll still have us) and Horvath, and less Altidore, Bradley, Dempsey, Omar Gonzalez and Howard. That’s not to say Altidore and Bradley in particular won’t ultimately have a role in getting the Yanks to Qatar—it is still really going to be Qatar after all this, isn’t it—but we know what they are at this stage, and we need to know what else we have.

Brian Kellogg

For some reason, in the biggest game in many years for the USMNT, we came out flat. I can’t seem to figure out why. Was it nerves? Maybe. Overconfidence? Possibly. Tactics? I don’t think so but an argument can be made there. Personnel? Geoff Cameron on the field would have been nice, and we could use a new left back. How about fear? More specifically dread. Once that own goal went in the emotions start to churn. Then the second goal made it worse - Oh my God we aren’t going to make the World Cup. We did get a bit unlucky too. That own goal has a 1/10,000 chance of going in. The long shot is hit perfectly but still should have been saved. The U.S. lost because they left it to the end and needed a result in the last match. Anything can happen in one match in a game of soccer, and it was proved again here.

I do not enjoy telling people that they should be fired. I’ve had to do it on too many occasions. However, sometimes it becomes necessary, and that is the case here. Bruce Arena should have resigned immediately after the game. It’s that simple. Since he hasn’t, Sunil Gulati needs to fire him. That leads me to Gulati himself. Before this match I was pro-Gulati for another term. His work at the international level in getting the U.S. joint World Cup bid over the line is tremendously important. The next election for USSF President is in February. Maybe Gulati stays on until then and then doesn’t seek re-election. However, the next head coach needs to be picked and the next president should be the one to do that. If not Gulati, would that be an interim president and would there still be elections in February? You don’t want an interim president to pick the next head coach either. So, maybe he just serves out his term and focuses on the World Cup bid. But picking the next head coach would still be a question mark in this scenario as you don’t want to outgoing president to have that power. Finally, I’m not impressed with Gulati’s primary opponent for USSF President, Steve Gans. He is garnering a lot of attention now for being an alternative but don’t be fooled as there are many other potential candidates that could fill the role better that will hopefully be stepping up once the dust clears.

The implications of an entirely new hierarchy at USSF could not be any bigger for the future of soccer in the United States. And it is necessary. I’ve been saying that the U.S. should have a technical director (general manager) and a head coach simultaneously in addition to a president. The job is too big for one person. Let the head coach do what they were hired for. The general manager can focus more on the infrastructure and the academies. The president can be involved with FIFA and other international matters. Oh, and the president of the USSF needs to be a paid position. How can it not be? The best candidates will be lost if they don’t get a paycheck.

What do you guys think? There’s been a lot of dissection of what went wrong and who should take the blame - where do we go from here?