- The U.S. men's national team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was a wake-up call to U.S. Soccer. A year later, has there been enough change and accountability in response?
TAMPA, Fla. — Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the worst day in U.S. Soccer history: The men’s national’s team’s 2-1 defeat to Trinidad and Tobago, which resulted in the U.S. failing to qualify for World Cup 2018. And so it seems fair to look back at what has happened over the past year and ask: Has enough changed at U.S. Soccer in response?
But instead of having this be an 80-word column—which is what we’d get by writing simply “yes” or “no,” the end—let’s break it down in some more detail. The obvious thing that hasn’t changed is that 12 months have passed and, shockingly, a new USMNT coach has yet to be hired. Even crazier, the new coach who’s the odds-on favorite to be chosen by the end of the year (the Columbus Crew’s Gregg Berhalter) would probably have accepted the job had it been offered to him—wait for it—11 months ago.
When you bring this up with people at U.S. Soccer, the word you hear in response (again and again and again) is process. And that’s what I want to discuss in more depth here.
Process—how you go about following a strategy, day by day, month by month, year by year—really does matter. And it’s true that while Jurgen Klinsmann had some promising big ideas during his five years in power, his short-term and medium-term process was a muddled mess of poor communication, quickly-dispensed initiatives, half-baked tactics (like that barely-practiced formation in the World Cup qualifying loss to Mexico in November 2016) and flaky new-age nonsense. (Remember the motivational speaker who tore up phonebooks with his bare hands?) Klinsmann had the process (and attention span) of a hummingbird.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that U.S. Soccer is responding to Klinsmann’s utter lack of process by lurching in the opposite direction and taking its current coach-hiring process to crazy extremes, time-wise. To hear U.S. Soccer explain it, there are perfectly logical reasons for the delay. First you had to elect a new federation president in February (Carlos Cordeiro). Then, with Cordeiro explaining he wasn’t a soccer expert, the board had to create the new position of MNT general manager to prevent a non-expert president from making the coaching hires as had largely been done in the past. Then, the CEO, Dan Flynn, had to begin the process of a GM search, which wasn’t completed until June with the announcement of Earnie Stewart—who himself wasn’t able to get out of his job in Philadelphia and start his new USSF gig until August 1.
Only then, Stewart would say, did he start his own lengthy process of deciding his “profile” for what he was looking for style-wise from the MNT and its new coach. And only once that was complete did Stewart, two months after starting the job, begin formally interviewing candidates, which literally only started last week, a year—a year!—after Doomsday in Couva.
Let’s be clear here: Process, in general terms, is good, whether it’s a coach communicating clearly with his players each day or a team doing the right things in games to create plenty of scoring chances or a general manager designing and executing a long-term strategy. But process without expediency is not O.K., nor is process without the requisite accountability.
Process without expediency—Flynn took too long to get a GM in place—meant that U.S. Soccer missed out on the window to interview some of the potential coaching candidates who had led other nations during the 2018 World Cup. Not even interviewing former Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio, for example, before he took the Paraguay job was executive malpractice.
What’s more, accountability in the U.S. Soccer Federation doesn’t happen often enough. Yes, Bruce Arena resigned as the MNT coach a few days after Doomsday, and yes, federation president Sunil Gulati opted not to run again, but both of those decisions were obvious and took longer than they should have.
When I talked in the past week to two accomplished American soccer people who work regularly with U.S. Soccer officials, one spoke relatively highly of Flynn and chief commercial and strategy officer Jay Berhalter (brother of Gregg), but added: “There are some dead average people there” in positions of power at the federation. The other said: “They never fire anyone. Even if someone isn’t very good at their job, they just let their contract run out.” (Sure enough, the federation announced this week that women’s youth technical director April Heinrichs wasn’t going to extend her contract at the end of the year.)
In April, when U.S. Soccer announced a big C-suite reorganization, the newly promoted chief sport development officer (Dutchman Nico Romeijn) and chief soccer officer (Ryan Mooney) were both longtime federation employees—hardly a signal that new blood was coming in on the soccer side after the biggest failure in U.S. Soccer history. Director of talent identification Tony Lepore also remains in his position after 12 years with the federation.
Sources say that Romeijn had a significant influence on the federation’s decision to push out the innovative Tom Byer before he could even get his development program, Soccer Starts At Home, off the ground. U.S. Soccer needs more outside-the-box thinkers like Byer, not fewer.
It’s true that there have been and will be concrete changes on the soccer side. Creating the positions of a men’s and women’s general manager should put the hiring of coaches in the hands of experts, which is a good thing, though there are still questions over how much power the GMs will really have. Stewart, for example, has no control over the men’s youth national teams. Meanwhile, former national team players Carlos Bocanegra and Angela Hucles were put in charge of a new technical development committee that will provide understanding of soccer decisions to the federation board in a more timely manner. Whether that change will be effective also remains to be seen.
We also await the choice of a men’s Under-23 coach who will lead the 2020 Olympic team—if it can avoid failing to qualify after two straight fiascoes over the past eight years. Maybe the Olympic coach will be Tab Ramos, who has been a successful U.S. Under-20 coach—reaching two straight world quarterfinals—but he may light out for MLS since it appears he’s not a serious candidate for the senior national team job.
After a contentious campaign involving eight candidates, Cordeiro won the federation presidency in February. He has a greater willingness to be inclusive and delegate authority than his predecessor, and he was one of the leaders of the bid (with Canada and Mexico) that won the right to host World Cup 2026. But outside the MNT search, the continuing inability of Cordeiro and the USSF board to sign off on a new NWSL commissioner 19 months after the departure of Jeff Plush defies belief.
In the end, the hiring of a new men’s national team coach will be a major change, and Stewart has said he hopes to have an announcement by Nov. 1. Inside U.S. Soccer, the feeling is that by the time World Cup 2022 rolls around—presumably with the U.S. in it—we won’t be thinking about the year-plus it took to hire a new MNT coach in 2018. That may be true.
On Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of Doomsday, U.S. Soccer will release a new marketing campaign called The Future is US. The federation’s choice of the date is not a coincidence. The idea is to help reinvigorate the fanbase by highlighting the young emerging talent that U.S. Soccer undeniably has—and tap into an optimism that some may see as distinctly American.
Has enough changed at U.S. Soccer in the past year? The answer will be measured largely by results, and at least partly, one hopes, by analysis of the process. Process with expediency, and process with accountability.