As the fall out from the most recent failure by the US Men to live up to expectations and have another class of third and fourth pick players reach the Olympics continues to be discussed, it’s time to perhaps scrutinize the narratives discussing it. Whose fault is it? The players, the coach, the federation, MLS, SUM, the media? Yes.
There is clearly plenty of blame to go around. For one thing, there’s US Soccer Federation which never learned the lessons from the failure to reach the 2018 World Cup and made real and meaningful reforms to how it goes about developing players for the USMNT. Whatever success the senior team is having now is thanks to younger, ambitious players setting their sights on playing at the highest level.
Meanwhile, larger media outlets that cover US Soccer do so uncritically at best and at worst parrot the talking points that the organization puts out doing free PR for it. For example, have you considered that it’s not the fault of USSF that its men’s team hasn’t qualified for the olympics in 16 years? The LA Times’ article Why FIFA blocks the U.S. men’s national team from playing for an Olympics spot has. Never mind that Mexico and Honduras found a way to qualify. As an esteemed member of the media, let me apologize for not doing hot enough takes to spur the team onto the Olympics once again.
Then there’s MLS. One common narrative about the league is that it promotes mediocrity. It goes something like this: mediocre teams can be profitable or at least lose the right amount of money for tax purposes, the league can ride the coat tails of its marketing deal with US Soccer to bring in revenue that it would otherwise need to generate by producing a better product, the players don’t have to fight for their roster spots, something something Bruce Arena, something something retirement league, and, of course, without promotion and relegation nobody has any incentive to innovate, develop players, or have any accountability for their results.
The MLS argument seems a little tough to give credence to. Of course it’s true that there’s plenty of mediocrity in the league, but 2⁄3 of most leagues are fairly uninspiring, have Big Sam managing a team, and have their share of players that aren’t that good but still get playing time for reasons. As for promotion and relegation, MLS should have it, but the correlation between national team success and the mechanism is tenuous. It isn’t like Paul Pogba wakes up every morning motivated to play well because Manchester United is going to face the drop. Most of the best national teams have players that are on the top teams in various leagues, or are on the same few superclubs. France did not win the World Cup because Stade de Reims got promoted in 2018. Promotion and relegation definitely adds motivation for teams, but as it relates to the national team is just an aesthetic idea rather than a proven one that creates results.
Maybe something that should be explored when it comes to MLS is that it’s failing to leverage the relationship it has to USSF more effectively. If the point of SUM is to make revenue through marketing the USMNT, it has a business interest in ensuring that the team reaches the Olympics and yet it can’t align its efforts. Clearly, the coaching and talent in MLS is at least good enough to win a semi-final in Olympic qualifying. It’s a significant failure that the best coach to lead the team was one who has watched the game pass him by over the last decade and couldn’t get its clubs, like Atlanta United, to release players for the tournament. SUM and MLS failed to leverage whatever control it does or does not have to make this happen. At the very least, Liga MX and the FMF have figured this out.
There is another possibility, youth international soccer doesn’t matter that much when it comes to the qualify of the senior national team. This doesn’t give any excuse for not beating Honduras, but clubs routinely do not release the best players to go to the youth World Cups or Olympic qualifying. The tournaments pit young players against others in the same age group, a situation that only really gauges how they perform against those their age, not players of different experience levels. maybe it was important when Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley got like 4th in the 1999 child World Cup. It seems like it’s a bigger deal for European players because it’s during their offseason so it actually is a showcase for them. These factors can be true along with the idea that the US should have qualified anyway.
In the end, there’s no excuse for the team to not make the Olympics. That said, it’s not exactly a referendum on the state of men’s soccer in the country. It says some interesting things about where it stands in the context of how a C team with an F coach played in the tournament, but is a far cry from representing the strides the men’s game has taken in a few short years.