Rough Cycle, Seed of Hope?

It was a brutal, painful and disgraceful loss to Trinidad and Tobago.  I didn’t want to write and I didn’t want to believe what I had just watched. Days before the blowout win against Panama I had told a good friend I was more nervous about Trinidad and Tobago. I predicted a 3-0 win over Panama and that we we would dominate likely with a first five minute goal. I couldn’t make a prediction for T&T, but even that sick feeling I had didn’t do anything to prepare me for the game. After a lengthy time to process and reflect as a huge fan of USMNT, I have sough out understanding and hope. I will try to share some of the both here.

The trouble began long ago, we started out of the 2014 cycle with several loses and very little to be excited about. Bobby Wood became a spark of hope in friendly wins against Netherlands and Germany, but there was little else to be excited about for our first year post an incredibly exciting World Cup group stage and near win against Belgium. Word that Tim Howard wanted to take a year off of US soccer in 2015 started us down a rough course.

Bobby Wood’s game winning goal against Holland:

The continued use of older players like Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, Chris Wondolowski and slew of MLS players began to create doubt in Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s plan of transforming our style of play into the attacking soccer we were promised. Brad Guzan seemed to be our only option in goal which was for many a huge disappointment along with the continued poor use and play of Michael Bradley. Many were calling for Fabian Johnson to get a shot in the midfield and moments of excitement in seeing Sebastian Klijstan playing well were cause for confusion when he was benched for no reason again. The fourth place finish in the 2015 Gold Cup was a real low point for a disappointing year and pressure began to mount for Jurgen Klinsmann.

The 2016 Copa America semi-final was another exciting run of soccer and while few new faces emerged, there was a nice run of play. Geoff Cameron and John Brooks were developing a nice pairing and Brooks was getting great attention abroad. DeAndre Yedlin had broken into Europe and was playing well in a US jersey. Christian Pulisic was starting to get international recognition and critical minutes for Dortmund and Bobby Wood was turning into a legitimately dangerous striker in Germany. The blowout to Argentina stunted that momentum though – a starting lineup that included those same poor player pool of including Guzan who’s indecisive weaknesses shone, Beckerman, Graham Zusi, Gyasi Zardes were not nearly fast enough or dangerous enough to even put together a single shot in the game. While getting far in the tournament was exciting, it never really felt like we were turning a corner as a team or that we could threaten to develop into a formidable team. Pulisic entered the game late and gave an immediate spark, but he was far too along against a powerhouse to be dangerous. This gap between his ability and the rest of the team was a constant for the next three years.

The year ended with a crushing loss to Mexico and a blowout defeat in Costa Rica putting an end to Jurgen Klinsmann’s era, a decision I agreed with at the time and stand by. Klinsmann didn’t have the answers. The Bruce Arena era started well as it brought belief again with winning and undefeated ways. It looked like he was going to put reasonable lineups and actually play players in their correct positions. Michael Bradley looked transformed back in time to his early post-Europe days where he looked confident and like a general on the field. As the crucial qualifying year churned on though, the lineups began to show cracks. Graham Zusi and DaMarcus Beasley kept showing up on defense – one player out of position and the other had already retired years before. The midfield couldn’t quite get right and players like Zardes coming off of a broken leg, Wondolowski and Rimando kept showing up. Arena went so far as to say he had no interest in planning for the future only to survive and make it to World Cup 2018. He then hitched his wagon to MLS almost removing European based players from the lineups outside of Pulisic and Wood and the cycle ended in a devastating, embarrassing loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

It took me a long time to emotionally be ready to write after that brutal loss. As I watch the landscape and reflect on the last four years I really only see Christian Pulisic as the lone legitimate bright spot out of the cycle. Wood and Yedlin emergence in Europe could be foundational players moving forward if they continue to develop for the next cycle and should be two of only a small handful of players that should be retained on the next roster. I think Paul Arriola and Kellyn Acosta are two others who should be considered and very little else from Bruce’s final lineup.

We don’t yet know the damage left in the wake of the loss for our youth movement’s future, but under Arena it’s unlikely many that deserve it would have been called up anyway. The popularity of the game likely takes a big hit as does the pursuit of the advertising opportunities and funding around the sport. Perhaps though, in the long run the loss will be the shake up we need from top to bottom.

The animosity and anger that exploded through the ranks of fans and pundits alike could transform the very nature of the approach to the game. We are seeing a lot of interest from Europe in the coaching job and hopefully that competition and drive brings out the best replacement coach that we can find. Almost every big name in US soccer has stepped forward and is considering a run at President for a role that has for cycles gone unchallenged. Super fans of the USMNT can only hope that starting with the election in 2018 for USSF President down to our next coach and even in the ranks of youth development we might get the real transformation that our little victories have falsely led us to believe were there. Our U17 team and U20 team’s successes as their prospective World Cups should also be recognized and hopefully many of these players get more international attention thanks to Pulisic, Wood and Yedlin’s effort through the last cycle. Bill Hamid has just announced his plan to move to Europe to try to take over as the future keeper for USMNT. In England Yedlin’s success is helping a movement and eyes are still on Lynden Gooch (Sunderland) and Matthew Olosunde (Manchester) among others trying to break into the Premier League. There are several young centrebacks including Matt Miagza (Chelsea), Erik Palmer-Brown (Manchester City) and Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham) that have real potential. We have midfielders and forward scattered across the Bundasliga including Weston McKinnie who has cracked the starting lineup at Schalke, Haji Wright and Josh Sargant was just signed by Werder Bremen. If our U17 team makes a deep run in the current World Cup there’s a good chance that players like Timothy Weah (PSG), Andrew Carleton (Atlanta United), Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC), and Chris Durkin (DC United) get a deeper look. Weah scored a hat trick last week and if PSG isn’t using him, there may be other clubs who take an interest in the young forward.

Timothy Weah’s impressive hat trick at the 2018 U17 World Cup:

There are 11 players and even 25 players that can proudly wear a US jersey and challenge top teams in the world. It’ll take a joint effort from youth development, to MLS and the academies, to youth team success for European club signings, relationships with Europe to get our players plugged in and used to a coach who calls in the right players and builds a system for them to succeed. They’re out there and we are a country that can develop and put those pieces together.

I’m a Red Sox fan who never though 2004 was going to happen, maybe that’s led me to be too optimistic, but as for me … I BELIEVE THAT WE CAN WIN!



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