Bruce Arena could not get the job done as U.S. men’s national coach. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
A year ago tonight on Oct. 10, 2017, the United States missed out on reaching the 2018 World Cup by losing to Trinidad & Tobago. FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis urges U.S. soccer fans to never forget what transpired in Couva, Trinidad that night. Here is the first of several columns he wrote about the debacle. This column originally was posted Oct. 11, 2017.
Note: Lewis has attended eight World Cups and has written four books about the competition.
By Michael Lewis
Pick your adjective and you probably won’t be far off.
The U.S.’s absolute failure to reach the World Cup for the first time in more than a generation will have reverberations for years — off the field, on the pitch and even in the board room.
Think of it. The U.S., needing but a draw, could not walk out of the stadium with a point playing against the last-place side, Trinidad & Tobago, which already had been eliminated. The Soca Warriors, who did not have much to play for, played for pride and embarrassed the Americans.
This is the biggest failure in U.S. Soccer history, given the size and influence of this country in the world. It is time for a change at so many levels. It will be intriguing to see what heads will roll and who is willing to fall on their swords and others who will be forced out.
The blame game has started and rightfully so.
So, what went wrong during the CONCACAF Hex?
Let us count the ways.
CONCACAF was easy?
The CONCACAF Hexagonal is the most forgiving of all World Cup qualifying scenarios. Three of the six countries book automatic qualification to the World Cup and the fourth-place team participates in a special playoff. Given the resources and money it has and the 22-team league (Major League Soccer), the U.S. should be in the running for the lead with Mexico and Costa Rica, not struggling and losing two Hex matches at home.
No excuses, please
Yes, a day prior to the match there was a flood at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva, Trinidad. The field was far from the best in the world or for the World Cup. But please, please, do not use that as an excuse. The U.S. has played on some dodgy fields throughout Central America and the Caribbean through the decades.
Let’s face it, the team had a horrible game. No passion and no fight equaled no win. Quite frankly, it’s been two hours after the final whistle and I can’t believe this was the U.S. national team, which has a reputation of playing hard and never giving up. This team looked like a lost bunch in Trinidad.
The backline should have been charged for tickets because players were standing around and watching the action as any other spectator. The defense used to be the pride and joy of the team. Now, it’s a major liability, especially the center backs.
Many national team careers ended tonight. Whoever is named coach should start with a clean slate and get rid of players who are dead weight or haven’t playing to their potential. As for Tuesday night’s game, I can go down the list of disappointing performances — captain Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore to name a few. It’s time to bring in new generation of goalkeepers.
And oh yes, start building the team around Christian Pulisic. This should be his team, 19-years-old or not.
Jurgen Klinsmann ran the show at the start of the Hex and we all know what transpired: the first home loss to Mexico in generations, 2-1, on a Rafa Marquez goal (of all people) and then the disastrous 4-0 trouncing in Costa Rica. Yes, the U.S. always has problems doing anything right down there, but the team looked listless and he was given the boot.
Bruce Arena, the veteran of two World Cup journeys, was brought in as a Dr. Fix It. Not even Arena magic could propel the U.S. into soccer’s promised land. He tried, but obviously fell short. On Tuesday night, the team looked listless in its most important game. Did Bruce Arena prepare the team correctly for the game? Apparently not. He used the same Starting XI Tuesday night as he did in the 4-0 trouncing over Panama in Orlando, Fla. Friday night. As a veteran coach, he should have realized he was playing with fire not utilizing any fresh legs.
The RBA disaster
There was a reason why U.S. Soccer never played a qualifier in the metropolitan area. There are way too many nationalities in the vicinity to turn the stadium into a hostile arena. While many Red Bulls supporters bought tickets to the match. They sold it on the secondary market and some of them were Costa Rican fans. They should never ever host a WCQ at RBA again. Play CONCACAF Gold Cup matches there, international friendlies, but no qualifiers.
A major blunder as a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica denied the U.S. at least one valuable point.
The MLS role
When it was formed in 1993, one of Major League Soccer’s charges was to help develop players for the U.S. national team. It was in a few press releases in the early years of the league, but that has been pushed to the side. While MLS has given American players an opportunity to play, it also has given players from CONCACAF countries a chance to earn a living.
Back in the day, MLS had a restriction of four foreign players on the field at the same time. Now, every team begins each season with eight international player slots and they can be on the field at the same time. That certainly doesn’t help the developing and creating of American playmakers or goal-scorers. Kind of reminds me of the English Premier League, which has brought in many of the world’s top players, while many English players languish in the lower divisions. It has not helped develop England’s national team.
Remember, MLS is a business and it not necessarily in the business of developing American players, at least not as a high priority.
Change at the top
Regardless how the U.S. fared in qualifying or in Russia, Arena’s tenure was going to be a short one. So he already is out or will be out as coach.
U.S. Soccer should name a successor as soon as possible and the organization has a great candidate right under its nose — Tab Ramos, the U.S. Under-20 coach for the last two cycles who actually qualified the team for the U-20 World Cup.
Now, I know reaching the actual World Cup is much more difficult than the one at the U-20 level, but Ramos has been there and done that at the world’s biggest stage, performing in three World Cups as one of this country’s most creative players ever.
Change at the very top?
There is a presidential election scheduled for the next U.S. Soccer Annual General Meeting in Orlando, Fla. in February. Several candidates have emerged, and current president Sunil Gulati has not made his intentions known yet.
Gulati hired Klinsmann and fired Bob Bradley in 2011. He eventually gave Klinsi the axe in 2016 after that awful start to the Hex, but he and U.S. Soccer waited too late to make a decision and hence, the horrendous start to the Hex. Failing to reach Russia probably won’t help Gulati garner votes or support, but U.S. Soccer can surprise observers.
When a favored team doesn’t reach the World Cup, many federations bosses are either fired or quit. I don’t see that happening. I think Gulati will at least see out his term.
Whether or not Gulati decides to run for another term, it certainly will be an intriguing AGM, for sure.