American soccer fans are dealing with unprecedented disappointment following the U.S. national team’s stunning World Cup qualifying failure Tuesday night in Trinidad. Now, as a result of that failure, the team itself faces an unprecedented drought.
With no World Cup trip in 2018 and no CONCACAF Gold Cup (presumably) until 2019, the USA faces a deflating 20 months without any meaningful, official competition. That means nothing but camps and friendlies for nearly two years. The last time the U.S. men went even a single calendar year without a competitive match was 1987, although that ignores the Olympic qualifiers that were contested (it wasn’t a U-23 competition back then). In 1986, the last time the USA missed the World Cup, the national team played just twice—against Canada across three February days in Miami.
Those were American soccer’s dark ages. There was no NASL (it folded in 1984) and no MLS (launched in ’96). The men were an afterthought and the women’s national team barely existed. Obviously, the sport is in a far different place now then it was 30 years ago. But that simply magnifies the extent of the qualifying debacle and the rarity of the road the national team now faces. It’s going to be long, and it’s going to be strange.
The key is to make it as productive as possible.
On Friday, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati is scheduled to speak to the media. Regardless of whether he announces coach Bruce Arena’s departure, it’s probably safe to assume the manager partly responsible for American soccer’s 2018 summer vacation won’t be on the job for long. It’s time to turn the page, whether that’s now or after the federation’s presidential election in February. Gulati hasn’t revealed whether he intends to run for a fourth term.
Arena spoke with The Washington Post on Thursday afternoon.
“Obviously, I have no interest in going on a four-year cycle right now,” he said, adding that he’s already chatted with Gulati and intends to so again. “I’ll do whatever is right. That is the approach I’m going to take.”
If Arena steps (or is pushed) aside soon, there are coaches already on the USSF payroll who can fill in. The most obvious candidate is Tab Ramos, who’s been the U-20 national team manager since 2011. If the U.S. senior side is about to get younger, it makes sense to use a coach familiar with those players—at least in the interim. Ramos also was a first-team assistant under Jurgen Klinsmann. U.S. U-17 coach John Hackworth, formerly of the Philadelphia Union, and U-19 coach Brad Friedel also have experience training pros of different ages.
The months before a World Cup are pretty barren if you’re not getting ready for the competition. There are only two FIFA international windows between now and kickoff in Russia—one next month, when the final qualifying playoffs will be contested, and one in late March. Nailing down November friendlies was put on hold as national teams awaited their World Cup fates. Had Panama’s Román Torres not scored in the 88th minute on Tuesday night, for example, the USA would be headed to Australia for a playoff. Instead, the Americans are free to help another country prepare for Russia.
Regardless of who's in charge, there’s really no reason to see the November friendlies as anything other than the start of the long road toward rebuilding the national team. It’s a FIFA window, so access to the full complement of potential players is available. The public appetite for a domestic friendly may be minimal. In addition, eight teams will be concluding MLS Cup quarterfinal series on Nov. 5, the day before the window opens. Some players will want to remain with their advancing clubs, others will be spent after a long season. The opportunity to bring in European-based players who Arena was unable to integrate during his tenure—whether they were overlooked or too young and inexperienced for a short-term assignment the manager believed required international seasoning—is an intriguing one.
Which brings us to the primary question facing the men who failed. Who sticks around and who is done? The USA hasn’t faced such a definitive chapter change in decades. Usually it was one group bleeding into the next as tournaments and qualifiers came year after year. Now there’s nothing until 2019, and qualifying for the 2022 World Cup likely won’t start until 2020. By then, Christian Pulisic will be a grizzled 22-year-old.
Whether Arena’s replacement targets the construction of a reasonably mature national team by 2019 or 2020, or whether the end goal really is competing to win in 2022, there’s time for a significant refresh. Those who have little or no chance of making it into the meat of the next Hexagonal likely will be pushed aside. That list starts with legends: Clint Dempsey, 34, and Tim Howard, who’s 38. There will be a significant segment of the U.S. fan base that wants to see Dempsey break Landon Donovan’s all-time scoring record (imagine if his shot off T&T's post had gone in and Dempsey's record-breaking goal sent the USA to Russia), and there’s time for that. Both Howard and Dempsey deserve to exit under better circumstances, but it’s hard to imagine either playing in 2019.
Other, less-decorated veterans also are close to the end of the line, if not at it, because of their age or because they’ve maxed out their international potential. In November or in January—if there’s a January camp—it wouldn’t make a ton of sense to see the likes of Nick Rimando, Omar Gonzalez, DaMarcus Beasley, Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya, Dax McCarty and Chris Wondolowski.
There’s a third set of vets who will remain useful during the transition but likely will be a bit past their peak by 2022. There’s no reason to say an immediate goodbye to Brad Guzan, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, Jozy Altidore, Jorge Villafaña and others of that ilk. They’re still good players with something to contribute (or prove), and they’ll be helpful both on the training field and in 2019-2020 once meaningful matches return. They all may have just wasted their last chance at a World Cup, however.
Players who are now 25 or under like Pulisic, DeAndre Yedlin, Bobby Wood, Paul Arriola, Kellyn Acosta, John Brooks, Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris are in place to become part of the long-term core throughout the next World Cup cycle.
If there’s going to be anything that excites U.S. fans during the misery of the next year, it’ll be the chance to see the next generation of senior internationals get a head start. That’s one reason why scheduling two November friendlies in Europe might make sense. Many of the men who might make a difference in Qatar in 2022 are now building up their resumes at clubs abroad. The time might as well be now to start investing in the international futures of midfielder Weston McKennie (Schalke 04), goalkeeper Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), defender Matt Miazga (Vitesse on loan from Chelsea), defender Cameron Carter-Vickers (Sheffield United on loan from Tottenham), midfielder Lynden Gooch (Sunderland), midfielder Emerson Hyndman (Bournemouth), midfielder Luca de la Torre (Fulham), forward Haji Wright (Schalke 04), forward Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen) and several others. And why not give 2014 World Cup round-of-16 goal scorer Julian Green another look? He’s cap-tied, after all.
There are MLS prospects as well who might be ready for an earlier-than-expected introduction to January camp. At this point, there’s no reason not to take a long look at goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas), defender Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake), defender Erik Palmer-Brown (Sporting Kansas City, though reportedly headed to Manchester City), midfielder Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls) and maybe even some of the current U-17 national team stars, like D.C. United's Chris Durkin and Atlanta United's Andrew Carleton.
Bring them in, give them a taste of wearing the colors, integrating with new teammates and dealing with the media. The federation may as well make it a priority to start the seasoning now, because by the time the big games roll around again, it'll take a new generation to tackle the stain of this week’s failure.