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Interview: Phil West has a plan for the USMNT to win the World Cup

An interview with our very own Mr. West.

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When the 2018 World Cup kicks off this summer, the red, white, and blue of the American flag will not be represented by any team on the field. We all know what happened; there are probably people out there who still can’t bear to even mention that game. The thinkpieces and podcasts and reactionary quotes from coaches past are still rolling out. But in the midst of all that, Phil West has put together a book called I Believe That We Will Win: The Path to a US Men’s World Cup Victory. We wanted to talk to Phil about this book because, well, he’s a Stars & Stripes FC writer-at-large who’s made good. And the book itself is a pretty good place for both newer and more established USMNT fans to jump in, digest, and take some time to think about what they want for the future and how to get there.

Phil is a writer based out of Austin who is currently doing a lot of work for MLS, but he has of course written for Stars & Stripes, as well as Howler and The Short Fuse. He previously wrote The United States of Soccer, which came out in November 2016 and detailed the first 20 years of MLS. After that book, Phil said that his publisher wanted him to write another book, wondering what it would take for the US men to win a World Cup. “And it was interesting because this was happening obviously at the start of the Hex,” Phil said via a phone call. “In fact my book release party in New York was a viewing party for the [November 15] US game in Costa Rica, the four-nothing game.” He laughed. “That kind of turns things a little bit sour as you can imagine.”

Still, Phil continued to assemble the pieces he thought he needed for a book about how the United States MNT, with its own particular challenges and strengths, could make it all the way in a World Cup. The book has a short history of American qualifying, including the 40-year gap from 1950 to 1990 when the United States was absent from the World Cup. There’s chapters on MLS, MLS academies, US Soccer’s development academy, developing Latino players, and the seeds of hope planted at the U-20 and U-23 level. There was just one thing.

“Obviously I’ve been writing from the perspective that the US was going to qualify for the World Cup and would be able to springboard getting there in 2018,” Phil said, a bit ruefully. Instead, that game happened, that October 10, 2017 game against Trinidad & Tobago, the game that Shall Not Be Named. Phil’s introduction is titled “How American Soccer Got its Own Day of Infamy.”

“I had to re-task a lot of things that I’d written in the book,” said Phil. “Things that I thought were going to be obviously positives to build on turned into a reexamination of where we were.”

Where Phil thinks we are right now is that there could be good times for the US just two World Cups away. “The thesis of the book is essentially that we put a lot of things in place to succeed,” he said, “But I think within this current cycle, this [loss] was kind of the end product of some things that we weren’t doing as well maybe eight to 10 years ago. I think that we are on the better course right now but I think we’re going to really see that flourish in 2026 where you know [Christian] Pulisic and [Weston] McKennie and players like that will be at their peak and then hopefully combine with the US hosting the World Cup. I think that that’s going to be a breakout World Cup for the US.”

2022 might be a year where the United States can show they’re a round of 16 or quarterfinals team, but Phil thinks that’s too soon. “If there’s any kind of silver lining to what happened,” he said, “It’s that we’re not going to take World Cup qualification for granted again and there’ll really be this kind of long term effort to help establish achieving qualifying in 2022.”

As for the positives Phil mentioned, he thinks the development academy has been helpful and MLS academies are coming into their own. In the book he talks about young players going abroad like Pulisic, McKennie, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Emerson Hyndman. But there is an element of realism to all the talk, a sense that this will definitely be a grind over time. When I asked him about the things he really wants to change, they were structural elements like eliminating financial barriers in youth soccer and improving the ratio of coaches to players. “Thinking about 2026 and beyond, you have players who are 10, 12, 14 [years old] who may be called upon for that theoretically to win a World Cup,” he pointed out. “I do think there are things that have to happen now at that level.”

For the fans who might have only recently gotten interested, or fans who found themselves looking for deeper answers after the shock of getting tossed out of qualification, Phil has written this book for you. If you’re the type of person who wakes up and has soccer news open on their browser’s homepage, some of the stuff in this book might retread familiar waters. But there’s something here for everyone, whether it’s learning more about the building blocks that brought us to this moment in USMNT history, or simply reassuring disillusioned longtime fans.

“The US definitely has the chance to win a World Cup sometime in this century and maybe as early as 2026,” Phil said. “It may seem right now like things are bleak and that we have no hope of doing so, especially given the European and South American powerhouses, but there is a path, and there is a path that we’ve actually started going down. But it won’t necessarily be automatic, it won’t necessarily be something that is given to us, but we do have the ability to, as it were, jump our place in line and be triumphant.”

I Believe That We Will Win will be available for purchase on May 8.