Understanding Failures

If you hadn’t heard about the U.S.’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, it was definitely shocking news to say the least. Qualifying from CONCACAF with a team that US Soccer has should be pretty simple, right? Well, they proved us wrong, which leads to this topic: What went wrong? And could this be a potential trend?

Blame it on the managerial staff?

It’s easy to blame it on the likes of Bruce Arena, who to be honest, did a lot better than people probably expected given he was put in charge midway into the qualifying campaign. The game against Trinidad was atrocious though: The tactics, the lineup, the misplays, the lack of urgency. They were all amiss. But that’s only just one game. People will go back to saying “Jurgen was a better manager,” but his tactics and use of players were poor as well. I think we need to look at the bigger picture.

Looking closer at the USMNT squad…

People will target MLS as a reason and that using players out of your domestic league is bad, following it up by showing Iceland as an example with zero from their Icelandic league. But Spain and Germany, the last two World Cup winners, had plenty of players from their domestic leagues on their rosters:

It’s not necessarily the leagues themselves as the quality of the leagues that are of concern.

When you look at the USMNT squad’s numbers, it’s rather terrifying. While yes, they did have a lot of players from the MLS (17 of them to be exact), 13 of them were 30 years or old, which is staggering for a team that wants to be among the top tier teams and leagues in the world. For reference, a lot of soccer analysts consider 23 or 24 or under to be a “young player.” In the case of the US, there were a total of five that were considered young players on the roster: DeAndre Yedlin, Bobby Wood, Paul Arriola, Kellyn Acosta, and Christian Pulisic. Compare this to France’s roster, where there were six who were 30 or over and 12 that were 24 or under.

Why youth?

If you haven’t known by now, I’m a huge fan of French football. From Ligue 1 to Les Bleus, it’s something I love talking about. A lot of it has to do with the development of the youth there. I’ve briefly mentioned about it before with OL and seen it with other teams like Nice, Monaco, Le Havre, for example. Every year, a website called “French Football Weekly” does something called “Le 50,” which covers the top 50 young players to watch. A lot of them being French players. And not necessarily on the big clubs like OL, PSG, and Monaco. But there’s been this constant pipeline of talent that comes through year after year after year.

It’s not so much the aging players, as the thought of the youth that’s incoming for the US. The fact that only five were of enough quality to be able to make it onto the squad to take on Panama and Trinidad and Tobago is what is of concern. The prospect that there aren’t young players good enough to replace an aging Tim Howard or Clint Dempsey says something. What does it mean for the future of US soccer?

Youth is an integral part of any professional or national soccer team. The game has gotten stronger, faster, and smarter. Just like it’s harder to teach an old dog new tricks, it’s more challenging to adapt an older player to an evolving game. That’s why there’s been so much more emphasis on youth. While we primarily hear about Messi vs. Ronaldo, who are in their 30s now, it’s the young players like Isco, Marco Ascensio, Kylian Mbappe, and the like that are making an impact. The game is evolving. You need players that can adapt quickly, else you fall behind. Youth helps combat this. But this is where the US national team has struggled.

What’s constricting us from finding young talent and are they valid arguments?

The “pay-to-play” model is definitely a concern. It’s been spreading like wildfire across social media. To play soccer in the United States is a struggle because of costs. To be on a club team and get recognized for your talents requires a lot of money. There isn’t a real solution to curb costs and as a result, sometimes, such talent won’t be found. But that means that talent is out there. It just has to be found and recognized outside of the club level.

Then you hear the arguments of “Build more academies!” Well, there have been and there’s been some success. However, they’re also expensive and outside of maybe MLS teams, it’s hard to just build them. They cost a lot of money and requires investors. And a lot of the time, such investments don’t see much fruit until later, which some people don’t have such patience for. And there are some academies that are also of the “pay-to-play” model, which goes back to an ongoing problem.

A potential fix

So what do you do to fix this problem? Paul Tenorio brought up better coaching education. What does better coaching do? Brings up better talent, for certain. By having more coaching available, it makes it so that you can develop more talent and increase your talent pool. But more than just that. They also can identify that talent as well, which is crucial. The more eyes that are around to find these players that aren’t playing at club levels, the better. And I think that’s an issue. We’re so blinded by only looking at the club level, that we don’t find some of other high caliber talent because of uncontrollable consequences like low income, location, or such nor give such talent the ability to showcase their skills to teams and national level scouts. And that’s a shame.

In 2016, Iceland made it to Euro 2016, despite their small population of around 330,000. They were the smallest country to ever make it, though people credited them having some fortune (such as the expansion of the tournament). The Guardian did coverage of it last year when the tournament started, but credited it a lot to their coaching . They proved their system and plan wasn’t a fluke when they automatically qualified for the 2018 World Cup from their group, which included Croatia and Turkey. But what did it start with? Improving their coaching staff by getting them their UEFA B licenses and making them more readily available for the youth. It’s worked.

Will things ever change?

Possibly. There were some good things to come from the Trinidad & Tobago game. Despite there being only five players that were 24 or under, they all managed to find some way into the game, impact or not. They did get the trust of Arena to try to get a result. The U-20 team did make it to the U-20 World Cup last year, getting to the quarterfinals before losing to eventual finalists Venezuela. The U-17 national team begins their U-17 World Cup campaign tomorrow in India against Colombia.

Youth can be a crapshoot sometimes, that’s for sure. Julian Green  hasn’t really made much of an impact since 2014. Freddy Adu, who was suppose to be the next big star for the USMNT, hasn’t even come close to that. It’s hard. But you can beat that by (1) getting better coaching staff to teach them better technique or (2) creating that huge talent pool in the first place rather than just limiting to just a few players. That comes with development. That comes with better coaching. Considering that the United States has a population of over 330 million people, you have a lot of diverse backgrounds and experiences in terms of soccer at the youth level. You need to be able to utilize that, by finding and nurturing those players.

It’s a wake-up call for US Soccer and the USSF. They’ll need to make adjustments to accommodate for not only some of the failures in this World Cup qualifying, but for the future and development of soccer in the United States as a whole.

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