Grant Wahl answers your questions on the U.S. men's national team's future, U.S. Soccer election, MLS playoffs, Columbus Crew's potential move and much more.
You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers. Let’s dive into the Planet Fútbol Mailbag!
Winner of MLS Cup?
The MLS playoffs begin on Wednesday night, and the fashionable pick is to go with The Field against runaway favorite Toronto. I get that. In the 15 years since MLS went from three-game playoff series to the crapshoot home-and-home, just two Supporters' Shield winners have gone on to win the MLS Cup final. But this Toronto team is no ordinary Supporters' Shield winner. It set an MLS record with 69 points in the regular season and has been far and away the best team in the league. The memory of last year’s final loss at home to Seattle is still fresh in TFC’s minds, and the Reds have the depth, experience and chemistry to seal the deal. You can take The Field. I’ll take Toronto.
Who is the best U.S.-eligible player in the MLS playoffs who's never been capped?
I’m going to go with Tyler Adams of the New York Red Bulls. Would be great to see him get his first cap in Portugal next month (though that would likely mean the Red Bulls are out of the playoffs).
So, how much is it that you know about Minnesota United?
Suggestions on who to root for next year at World Cup after my beloved USMNT failed to qualify? I'm thinking Iceland. What a wonderful underdog story.
Here are my suggestions on teams USMNT fans could choose to root for:
ICELAND. Everyone’s favorite team from Euro 2016 has qualified for its first World Cup—and could actually do some damage. Plus that clap thing they do with their fans is cool. If you decide not to go to Russia for the tournament, the most fun idea would be to watch games at public gatherings in Iceland (population: 330,000). Twenty-two hours of sun, great weather, festive Icelanders and lots and lots of Einstök. Sign me up!
PANAMA. Another country that has reached the World Cup finals for the first time. Yes, they can be thuggish, but they’re underdogs, and they’ve got a lot of familiar MLS names: Román Torres, Armando Cooper, Fidel Escobar, Michael Murillo, Aníbal Godoy and Adolfo Machado.
COSTA RICA. I’m still surprised the Ticos don’t get more love as the Little Underdog That Could. Think about it: Costa Rica won its World Cup 2014 group ahead of three former champions (Uruguay, Italy, England) and got to the quarterfinals. The Ticos outscored the U.S. 6-0 in two Hexagonal games and did more than any team to prevent the U.S. from qualifying. Plus they have a lot of MLS guys we know well: Christian Bolaños, Kendall Waston, Francisco Calvo, Johan Venegas, David Guzmán, Roy Miller, Ronald Matarrita, Rodney Wallace and Marco Ureña.
EGYPT. Bob Bradley’s old team has qualified for its first World Cup since 1990. And while Egypt’s dictatorship government is the opposite of cuddly, it’s impossible not to like players like Mohamed Salah of Liverpool.
ARGENTINA or PORTUGAL. Nobody would call these guys underdogs, but it would be nice to see Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo win a World Cup and be fully able to enter the Best Player of All Time debate without any caveats.
PERU. These guys still have some work to do in a home-and-home playoff with New Zealand, but if they make it to Russia it will be Peru’s first World Cup since 1982. There aren’t too many plucky underdogs from South America, but this would be one of them. Coach Ricardo Gareca has done a tremendous job in the brutal South American qualifying tournament, where Peru survived and kept out Chile and Paraguay.
SENEGAL. Africa is a great source of fan favorites, and while Senegal has yet to seal a berth, it’s on track to qualify for its first World Cup since 2002 (when the country upset defending champ France in the tournament opener and went all the way to the quarterfinals).
MEXICO. Yes, I know they’re the USMNT’s biggest rivals. But the Mexican men’s national team is the most popular soccer team in the United States, and you could have a blast watching El Tri play at watering holes all over the U.S. next summer. Plus Mexico has a lot of appealing personalities on the team these days, like Chicharito Hernández, Andrés Guardado, Carlos Vela, the Dos Santos brothers, Chucky Lozano and Miguel Layún.
There are three top U.S. players—Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Heather O’Reilly—among the 18 Common Goal pledgers yet not a single U.S. male player. Does this surprise you?
@BenWSMiller (communications advisor for Common Goal)
For those who don’t know, Common Goal is a program in which top soccer players are pledging to donate at least 1% of their salary toward “high-impact soccer charities around the world.” Juan Mata was the first player to make the pledge, and several other figures have followed, including the three USWNT players, Mats Hummels, Giorgio Chiellini, Vero Boquete and Julian Nagelsmann. I’d love to see some USMNT players join the group. Maybe the USWNT players can help convince them?
If you had to pick a USMNT starting 11 from players only playing in Europe, who makes the cut?
Assuming everyone is healthy:
Goalkeeper: Ethan Horvath.
Defenders: DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson.
Midfielders: Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic, Kenny Saief.
Forward: Bobby Wood.
Will we see the trend reverse and more USMNT players head back to Europe after the 2018 WC failure?
Maybe. I don’t see any current big-name U.S. players who are in MLS heading back to Europe. But I do think we’ll see more examples like Weston McKennie, who came up through the Dallas academy before deciding to sign with Schalke in Germany.
What mixture of young players and veterans is the USMNT roster likely to include for Portugal? Any chance only young players are called up?
I’m not expecting any players who will still be involved in the MLS playoffs will get the call. I’d like to see as many promising young players as possible, though there might be a few older European-based players.
Your thoughts on Stefan Frei's future with USMNT, especially given regime change.
I like Frei a lot as a goalkeeper. Without knowing who the non-interim USMNT coach will be—and we may not know until after the World Cup—it’s impossible to guess if he’ll be in the mix. What I would say is that Frei will be 32 years old next summer and 36 at World Cup 2022 in November-December ’22. I know goalkeepers can play at a high level well into their 30s, but I think Frei may be a bit too old given the current U.S. situation.
In the long run, do you the think the failure of USMNT to make the World Cup will be a positive to fixing the inherent problems? Or will we see more of the same?
That’s still the big question: Will American soccer respond to this utter fiasco by instituting the necessary changes in U.S. Soccer, MLS and the system as a whole? The fact that there’s an election for U.S. Soccer president in Feburary makes this a chaotic time for soccer in this country. How does everyone respond? Will the forces for smart change outweigh the forces of stasis or dumb, easy-answers change? It’s a really important time right now.
Are the players voting for U.S. Soccer president going for Sunil Gulati, or would a former player (Eric Wynalda, Landon Donovan or someone else) sway their bloc?
We’ll see. The U.S. Soccer Athletes Council has 20% of the vote in the election in February. The Council usually votes as a bloc but is not required to, so it could have a big impact on the election. I have spoken to some members who say they “want change.” Others may feel beholden to the establishment at MLS or U.S. Soccer (who can offer jobs or seats on committees). Others won’t feel beholden at all. Here are the current members of the Athletes Council: Chris Ahrens (chair), Angela Hucles (vice-chair), Carlos Bocanegra (vice-chair), Shannon Boxx, Brian Ching, Cindy Parlow Cone (advisor), Brad Guzan, Stuart Holden, Lauren Holiday, Lori Lindsey, Will John, Kate Markgraf, John O’Brien, Heather O’Reilly, Leslie Osborne, Nick Perera, Christie Rampone, Gavin Sibayan, Lindsay Tarpley, Aly Wagner.
If Sunil Gulati doesn’t run/loses U.S. Soccer presidential election, how would he stay formally involved in USSF?
The immediate past president of U.S. Soccer is on the board of directors in a non-voting role, so Gulati would be part of that. He also has a spot on the FIFA Council through 2021 (that pays him around $300,000 a year), and he is the chair of the bid committee to host World Cup 2026. Gulati does not need to be the U.S. Soccer president to stay on the FIFA Council or run the organizing committee for World Cup ’26. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada bid is heavily favored to win the right to host the tournament, which will become official next June 13 in Russia. (The only competition is Morocco.) Keep in mind, when Alan Rothenberg ran the organizing committee for World Cup 1994, he took it initially as an unpaid job. But after it became the most successful World Cup in history—which it still is, attendance-wise—Rothenberg was given a $7 million bonus. Given how successful a 48-team World Cup 2026 could be, current estimates are that the chair of the organizing committee could be up for a bonus of $30 million to $50 million.
You once ran for FIFA president. Why not for U.S. Soccer president?
Good question! I ran for FIFA president back in 2011, learned a lot and ended up achieving what I wanted to do. I had no chance to win, obviously, but I wanted to focus attention in a lot of countries on what a mess FIFA had become. But it’s one thing to run for FIFA president and another to run for U.S. Soccer president—and running for U.S. Soccer president would be a daily conflict with my current job as a journalist, a job that provides a salary (unlike the U.S. Soccer presidency).
How much does the failed 2018 WC campaign affect Bruce Arena's historical legacy? And along with a lackluster 2006 does it now outweigh the glory of 2002?
Here’s my opinion: Nobody can ever take away Arena’s run with the USMNT to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, the most impressive accomplishment ever for a U.S. men’s national team (for me). So that’s one for the record books. That said, Arena now has presided over two other World Cup cycles that will be remembered as failures. He’s also hurt by the fact that the USMNT had a lot more fans who lived through 2006 and ’17 but didn’t live through 2002 simply because they weren’t paying attention then. So it’s up to historians to put accomplishments and failures in the proper perspective.
Keep in mind that Arena’s career hasn’t just been about managing the national team. He has also been a preeminent coach in the history of NCAA men’s soccer (with five titles in 17 years at Virginia) and in MLS (with a record five MLS Cup titles in 12 years in the league).
What's your take on the #SaveTheCrew movement and its support around the league?
I’ve been impressed by the defiant response of Columbus Crew fans to the prospect of owner Anthony Precourt moving the team to Austin. But that’s not all. There’s a kinship between soccer supporters of different teams that you don’t see in other sports leagues. That’s why it has been inspiring to witness #SaveTheCrew efforts by the supporters groups of other pro teams in MLS and other U.S. leagues. Remember, MLS is single-entity, so the owners are all in business together. If owners in other cities outside Columbus see that there’s unity among the fans, they may consider putting pressure on Precourt and the league to stay put.
Clarify timing of the initial presser? Did Precourt schedule his press conference because the story was breaking or was it planned all along?
Multiple sources had told me that night that Precourt had already scheduled the teleconference for the next day before my story broke.
Will the USWNT ever get to kick it in the grass?
More than one USWNT player has voiced her displeasure with the fact that too many recent games have taken place on artificial turf—including last week's friendly in New Orleans. U.S. Soccer had agreed to do better on this front, but that hasn’t been the case of late, and the players have every right to be unhappy.
When is the Planet Fútbol podcast coming back?
Thanks for your patience on this. Short answer: Soon. Stay tuned.
What’s different in the skill sets that make a good club coach vs a good national team coach?
Funny you should ask. I address that very topic in the chapter on Roberto Martínez of my upcoming book. I spent time with Martínez during his stays at Everton and with Belgium. The contrasts and adjustments are fascinating.