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Dread and Optimism in North Carolina

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Have we figured out what we’re doing yet?

Portugal vs USA - International Friendly Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

If soccer is making it in the US, that audience has vaporized for the Men’s National Team. Some of that may be due to marketing, but in general, one response from USMNT fans to US Soccer has been to tune out, as they did last January when barely more than 10,000 supporters attended the match against Bosnia & Herzegovina in Carson, California and the TV broadcast drew half of the viewing audience compared to a year ago. Another response could be summed up as this, on repeat - ad nauseam:

Dread

The USMNT is preparing to take on Paraguay in a game in which they will be looking for their first goal in 2018 under less than confidence-inspiring circumstances, starting with the size of the venue. The team is playing in a stadium that seats around 10,000 fans in the same international break when Mexico has drawn nearly 69,000 in Levi’s Stadium outside of San Francisco and Peru drew a rowdy crowd in Miami. Meanwhile, there are more popular venues in MLS that USSF could leverage to make this game feel like more of an event. This seems like a stunningly unambitious choice given that Atlanta United is drawing 40,000-70,000 fans a game, Sporting Kansas City celebrated their 100th straight sell out last season, and the Portland Timbers have a wait list for season ticket holders. Even Nashville SC drew nearly 20,000 fans and Cincinnati has been able to draw over 30,000 fans since joining USL.

If fans aren’t flocking to watch the USMNT, there’s also a lack of interest in helping lead the federation. So far, no leading candidates have emerged for the General Manager roles that were created at the end of Sunil Gulati’s tenure as USSF president. Earlier this month, Grant Wahl reported that, “multiple sources [say] the job is being seen as unattractive by many of the people who were originally intended to be targets for it. Those sources say the GM job as it’s designed isn’t nearly powerful enough and doesn’t have any control over youth development.”

While that is pitiful enough a statement about the lack of foresight and planning when it came to how the position was thought of when it was created, Wahl included this kicker: “Two sources went so far as to say they think U.S. Soccer created the position to show an angry fanbase it was doing something different when in fact they don’t think the federation really wants to make wholesale changes despite missing the 2018 World Cup.” If that is the case, it seems like the position was created with politics in mind ahead of a contentious and high-stakes USSF presidential election rather than as an office that is empowered to address the problems that led to the USMNT missing the World Cup and other issues related to the federation and sport in the US.

What is the federation doing? Partly it seems like USSF is an organization that wants to put its head down and try to get through the World Cup this summer hoping nobody notices they don’t have a plan for addressing the problems soccer faces in the US and is putting all their bets on winning the bid to host the tournament in 2026. There’s some risk that the United Bid could lose to Morocco and the gambit that the fans will come back eventually will take another step back if that happens.

So, what are fans left with? So far, empty promises, un-filled general manager positions, interim American Manager Dave Sarachan, and warnings that the US may be on the brink of missing out on hosting another World Cup.

Optimism

Yet, there’s also this friendly with a youthful roster of players who are full of promise and who are largely turning their backs on MLS in favor of playing in Europe or Mexico. Timothy Weah is getting a lot of hype after making his debut for Paris Saint-Germain and seems like a player with a hugely positive outlook. Playing in Europe, Shaq Moore and Antonee Robinson could be an outside back pairing for the future. Midfielder Tyler Adams is bossing games in international club competition and a hot shot striker with a unique skill set is on the brink of a 20 goal season in the Dutch second division.

While WakeMed Soccer Park is small compared to some venues the team could play in, that could be good for the players. A game played in a low pressure environment against a decent but not world beating opponent should give them confidence and allow them to play their best. The young players who have been called in, if they actually play, will have an ideal chance to show what they can do on the international stage. Despite missing the World Cup, this is perhaps the first time in years that there is any degree of optimism around players on the USMNT not named Christian Pulisic and the flickers of ambition around the roster are just enough to stay warm following this long winter of discontent.

Also one of the best looking US kits to be released in years will debut (play the gif to at least the 22nd second):

The USMNT may have a long way to go before they have a real chance of winning the World Cup more than one game in the World Cup, and USSF has even more work than the players to address the problems around the sport in the country, but a young squad and a fresh start is a good first step on the field at least.