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Debacle Debrief: Inside U.S. Soccer, Stewart's Response to a Qualifying Failure

The U.S. U-23 men's national team's failure to qualify for the Olympics isn't American soccer's first big setback, but it is the first one to be assessed by U.S. Soccer's new technical setup.

It’s quite possible, if not probable, that the players who would’ve helped the USA finally qualify for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament were in Belfast, 5,000 miles away from the action.

It was the evening of March 28, and the senior U.S. national team had just beaten European opposition on European soil for the first time in nearly six years. The late-night celebration took place in one of those bland, beige hotel meeting rooms, where staff and players gathered to watch their U-23 compatriots face Honduras in Guadalajara. The winner in Mexico would qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, the draw for which was held on Wednesday morning.

Fifteen of the players on the senior squad that defeated Northern Ireland that day—a result that helped vault the USA into FIFA’s top 20 for the first time since 2014—were Olympic eligible (and that doesn’t include the likes of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Timothy Weah, who weren’t in camp). Yet thanks to FIFA regulations that limit access to players for junior events, the only contribution they could make toward the Olympic cause was to watch on a pull-down screen and hope. And they went to bed disappointed. Their colleagues in Guadalajara were second-best all evening, just as they’d been second-best for most of Concacaf’s qualifying tournament.

The senior U.S. men have failed to qualify for one of the past eight World Cups, and it took an almost incomprehensible array of bad decisions to make that happen. The U.S. U-20s have failed to qualify for one of the past dozen U-20 World Cups. The U.S. U-17s have missed out on one of the 18 all-time U-17 World Cups. American failure happens, but it’s been largely the exception at the regional level. Yet the U-23s have now missed out on three straight Olympic tournaments. What is it about that age group, or that event, that has so bedeviled U.S. Soccer?

Perhaps the answer this time is simple: The men who could’ve ended the streak and taken the USA to Tokyo just weren’t present. But there’s a counterpoint: By now, shouldn’t U.S. Soccer and MLS have produced more than 20 U-23 players who can beat Honduras? The timing and conditions surrounding Concacaf’s qualifying tournament certainly weren’t helpful. The U.S. men were still in preseason—many had gone three months without a competitive game—while their opponents were deep into their domestic campaigns. Combine that lack of match fitness with the heat and altitude of Guadalajara, and you have a recipe for poor passes, missed traps and heavy legs. But then again, maybe those are just excuses—feeble attempts to justify failure by those unwilling to do the hard work and face hard truths.

The Olympic elimination touched a nerve, perhaps unearthing some U.S.n soccer PTSD left over from the 2017 disaster in Couva. There was a lot of frustration. But this failure is different from that one, and from the two prior Olympic disappointments, in one crucial way. This time, U.S. Soccer has the full-time technical people in place to evaluate it and make possible changes.

U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart

There was no more engaged viewer last month than Earnie Stewart, U.S. Soccer’s sporting director. His position didn’t exist in 2017. Before Couva, the federation president was the driving force behind the hiring and firing of national team coaches, with a rubber stamp from the board of directors. Following World Cups, U.S. Soccer’s various departments would prepare reports and evaluations and share them with the rest of the federation. The national team’s coaches would critique the soccer performance. Conclusions or recommendations would emerge from that collective effort.

Those days are gone. U.S. Soccer has overhauled its technical structure since Couva and has hired soccer people to make soccer decisions, for better or worse. Stewart, who reports to CEO Will Wilson, is supported by two full-time general managers: Brian McBride on the men’s side and Kate Markgraf on the women’s. All three are decorated former players, and Stewart earned administrative experience at NAC Breda, AZ Alkmaar and the Philadelphia Union before moving to Chicago in the summer of 2018. The soccer side of U.S. Soccer now is in their hands, and they’re the ones charged with crafting the evaluation and response to an outcome like the one in Guadalajara.

There’s a routine in place. Stewart meets with the two GMs every week, and then with the two senior national team coaches, Gregg Berhalter and Vlatko Andonovski, every other week. In addition, Stewart heads the federation’s Internal Technical Board, which gathers twice a month to discuss big-picture topics. The ITB includes Stewart, the GMs, director of technical development Barry Pauwels and director of sport development Dan Russell. Pauwels, who is Belgian, joined the USSF as the director of coaching education in early 2018 and now oversees the federation’s big-picture technical plan and the implementation of principles of play across different age groups. Russell has been in Chicago since 2013 and is the administrative lead in charge of initiatives like coaching education, talent identification and referee development.

It’s that group, and not just the coaches, who are now responsible for camp and competition debriefs and soccer policy. Only Russell, who worked in coaching education back in 2017, was at the USSF before Couva. The ITB also occasionally reports into the Technical Development Committee, which is a subset of federation board members that keeps track of on-field developments. The board and federation president don’t make soccer decisions, but they can weigh in on a prospective hire (especially where salary is concerned) or dismiss Wilson, the CEO.

What happened in Guadalajara wasn’t U.S. soccer’s first setback. But it is the first to be evaluated and addressed by a modern, in-house technical structure. Stewart, who departed Mexico after the first two group-stage games, decided on this occasion to let the situation breathe a bit before diving in. He elected to have a detailed debrief with U-23 coach Jason Kreis and Berhalter on April 8, more than a week after the defeat to Honduras. The conclusions from that call would then be brought to the ITB.

U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart

“I don’t react to reactions. That doesn’t help me in my daily job, so I don’t do that for the most part. That’s a waste of time. But my first reaction is it’s disappointment,” Stewart said of the furor that followed the immediate aftermath of the loss. “In this case, first I made sure that everybody could have their moment for themselves. After that, we actually had the debrief and talked about those elements that could make it better for the future.

“If I hear it correctly, the banter—and it goes back to three years ago and what happened [in Couva] and the, ‘What are they doing?’ and all that kind of stuff, I guess the expectations were still the same for this group—which is fine,” Stewart added. “That was the group that was there. That was the group that was available. And unfortunately, we didn’t perform up to par. And that’s what we spoke about on [April 8]. What are the things that we could’ve done? We looked at camps. We looked at programming. There were a couple opportunities—two players we could’ve brought in inside the FIFA window [at the end of the Olympic qualifying tournament]. Would that have been something we should’ve thought [more] about? But we made choices.”

They made choices in terms of the coaches who were appointed (the U-23 gig isn’t full-time, and Kreis has now returned to his job at Inter Miami) and in terms of the roster. There was criticism of Kreis’s team when it was released. Concerns that it lacked sufficient heft at the attacking midfielder and striker positions arguably were supported by the results. But Stewart told Sports Illustrated that, considering the refusal of European clubs to release players for Olympic qualifying (he revealed that Barcelona wouldn’t let Konrad de la Fuente go, even though he’s not part of their first team)—heck, Atlanta United even prevented three players from going to Guadalajara—they were content with the roster they had.

“They were rightfully there in that place and didn’t perform to the standard that there was. Even if we’d brought in [different players], they would’ve been in the same situation as well,” Stewart argued. “They’re also players that hadn’t played and hadn’t played games for a longer period of time. [Outsiders believe that] the players that are not there are always better than the players that are there and don’t qualify. … No, those players were the ones that were chosen to represent us and bring us to the Olympics and unfortunately it didn’t happen.”

USA U-23s lose to Honduras in Olympic qualifying

Having concluded that the individual players and manager weren’t the primary problem, insofar as they were the best available, Stewart and the USSF’s new technical setup are left to address the big-picture issues. After three Olympic misses in a row, the federation has to find a way to make those available players better. FIFA isn’t going to change its rules governing releases for youth competitions. Concacaf has offered no indication that it plans to move the tournament away from the early spring, and MLS certainly is in no mood to change to a winter schedule. Odds are that when the 2024 qualifying competition comes around, U.S. Soccer will be sending a squad of young MLS players just exiting their offseason. The challenge is to put them in position to overcome those obstacles. Those hurdles may be reasons. They may be excuses. But they’re probably not going away.

One way to address the issue is to make the U-23 team a more constant fixture. That would include a full-time, permanent coach and additional camps and games. U.S. Soccer tried to do some of that during the most recent Olympic cycle and staged a half dozen U-23 camps throughout 2019. The pandemic put a stop to that early last year, however. Stewart said continuity and familiarity are crucial at every age level, and he hinted he’ll be asking the federation to expand the budget to handle even more U-23 initiatives going forward.

“The programming that got put in place for U-23 was actually a step up from anything we had done in the past. Every FIFA window we would have the group together. That actually happened in the year leading up before COVID,” Stewart said.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over all these years, no matter if you’re in a club environment or you’re in youth national teams, you need platforms for talents to play as much as possible at the highest level that there is. Adding that programming is good and if you add programming, that means you’ll have full-time coaches that are always there.”

USA U-23 coach Jason Kreis

Kreis was named U-23 coach in March 2019, in time for the first U-23 camp of the cycle and just one year ahead of the originally scheduled Olympic qualifiers. Appointing one much earlier, and getting a prospective player pool up and running further in advance, sounds like something that might address some of the USA’s issues at the age group. But Stewart can’t just snap his fingers and make it happen, he said. There are budgets and competing priorities, and the board would have to decide that the U-23s and the Olympics, whose importance on the men’s side remains debatable, are worth the investment. At least there’s someone in Stewart’s position to advocate for change.

“All coaches should be full-time,” Stewart said. “I would say that is something internally that we need to discuss with U.S. Soccer, because my wishes are not the only wishes that there are. We have a lot to do when it comes to soccer in the United States and what we do for membership, and then what we do for programming as well. And that all has to fit. I’m a huge proponent of having full-time coaches in every position and having as much programming as possible.”

All Stewart can do now is plan for the future and try to put the next generation of Olympic hopefuls in position to reverse a troubling trend. He knows U.S. Soccer likely will have to rely solely on MLS players, and he knows those players—barring an MLS overhaul—probably will be less match-fit than their counterparts come qualification. The only way to overcome that is through chemistry and quality, and that is now the federation’s mission. The group sent to Guadalajara simply wasn’t good enough to handle that obvious adversity. 

It’s also true that a few years ago, there’s no way a selection of players in their early 20s would’ve been good enough to beat Northern Ireland in Belfast, or to find their way to a bunch of Europe’s leading clubs. The U.S. player pool is improving. That hotel meeting room was evidence. U.S. Soccer and MLS just haven't reached the point where they're producing enough players to do both. Stewart and his colleagues must now see if they can accelerate that process while maintaining focus on their top priority, which is developing players for the senior team. It’s an opportunity and responsibility that hasn’t been available at U.S. Soccer before, and their solutions will be a valid test of the federation’s new technical structure.

“The really good part is actually that we have a group of I’d say, 20 to 25 U-23 players that are performing at a really high level. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you want to look at it, they’re all in Europe and they would not be released,” he said. “I’d say the player pool from two years ago until today has gotten bigger, more players, younger players, so that part is positive. But it’s not that a player pool grows from whatever it was 2.5 to 3 years ago and now all of a sudden you have 50 or 60 that all have the same level. That’s not where we’re at.”

Stewart continued, “I think we can make a huge huge step in the United States because we have a lot. We really have a lot. But at the same time, I think there’s extra steps that we can take and once we take those steps, I’m sure in 5 to 10 years from now, we can actually talk about it that way.”

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