The U.S. Men’s National team is set to finish off World Cup qualifying Oct. 6 vs. Panama and Oct. 10 away to Trinidad & Tobago in a situation we’re not all too used to. The U.S. currently sits in third with a +4 goal differential over a Panama side with the same amount of points (5). While ESPN’s SBI still gives the Yanks a very good chance at qualifying for Russia, by this point we’re usually talking about being first or second, not the potential of missing out. Even if the U.S. manages to claim the fourth-place spot, we could be looking at a tough playoff match against Australia in an intercontinental playoff that would feature two usual World Cup attendees.
So, with the U.S. on the brink of missing out on its first World Cup since 1986, I thought it would be interesting to debate myself — because I’m clearly mental — on what it would mean if the U.S. misses out on 2018. But instead of going at this from a pro/con discussion, I’ve actually come to see that there are potential positives to either outcome. For the first part of the conversation, I’m going to look at what the positives are if we miss the World Cup.
The Executive Level Would Reset
It’s no secret that the United States Soccer Federation presidency is up for grabs next February at the annual general meeting in Orlando. Sunil Gulati faces his toughest test yet with contenders like Steve Gans and Eric Wynalda in what is already a tenuous situation for Gulati amidst USMNT struggles, the Klinsmann era failure, and the continual issues with the USWNT.
A missed World Cup would certainly doom Gulati and that may be exactly what the USSF needs. Gulati has done about as well as we could hope for. In his tenure, we’ve seen the NWSL flourish, the creation of the Development Academy, and many other positives to the soccer culture in this country. But it’s time for him to go. We need fresh blood that’s hungry for the position and U.S. Soccer, not something else.
Wynalda recently spoke out about Gulati’s grasp for power and I, for one, agree. I’m sure not many of you stayed up from 1 to 9 a.m. to watch the FIFA presidential vote, but I certainly did. And to say Gulati was working the room is an understatement. At times he was flying around the conference hall like Usain Bolt in the 100-meter dash, talking to various federation presidents, haggling for votes, and continuing what Wynalda — and myself — assume is for his eventual move to higher positions in football (I’m writing from London, so today it’s football).
I want a president focused on U.S. Soccer first, and not himself, and that tendency has reared its ugly head over the years. A missed World Cup just might be the tipping point we need to reset this level.
We Can Find the Right Coach
Hand in hand with the above goes the coaching staff. I like Bruce Arena, always have, but this would give us the opportunity to get a head start on recruiting some of the best in the world for this new opportunity. While all the other countries are currently competing, we get the opportunity to snag the best available while leagues aren’t in session. This is a major advantage and one I hope we take if the situation arises.
With an influx of young players coming through the ranks, having a coach come in with a fresh eye could be just what the U.S. needs as it looks forward to some of the best young talent to come out since that famous U-17 group of Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, and company. The future coach could come in and mold a system to the players coming through and not placating veterans past their prime.
I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to have your national team coach from your country and I think if the USSF is smart, it’ll look elsewhere, quickly, to go after the top candidate on the market.
Urgency is Created Again
This might be my top reason why the U.S. needs to miss the World Cup. If you’ve watched the last two matches, you’d see the USMNT looks like it’s walking around with the swagger of a Spain or Germany, despite not really earning that right. On the pitch, the Yanks look sluggish and disinterested to the point where their opponents look like the USMNT teams of old with fight and grit that made us who we are.
Are the Americans the best in CONCACAF? Debatable. Am I happy the team has some cockiness to it? Absolutely, but at the expense of results? No way in hell.
The U.S. has lost itself between coaching changes, Gold Cup success, and a natural complacency that comes with making the past seven World Cups with ease. We need that fight back, that known expectation that we have to work hard to get results, not this entitled bunch of babies going through the motions. Alexi Lalas may have been over the top, but I agree that something is lost in this team. A missed World Cup would bring that fire back.
Youth Gets Priority Moving Forward
As previously mentioned, the youth coming through is absolutely unbelievable. Names like Christian Pulisic, DeAndre Yedlin, Cameron Carter-Vickers, John Brooks, and the recent U-17 and U-20 national teams boast the best collection of talent we’ve seen. If you thought the golden boys of Donovan, Beasley, Clint Dempsey and co. were great, you haven’t seen anything yet.
A missed World Cup would put the priority of getting the youth ready for 2022 and Qatar. We could focus from the beginning of 2018 onward, solely on new faces and youth as we look to retool a failed national team.
That youth driven initiative could set the United States up for 2022 in a way that we haven’t seen in a very long time. It would be an exciting time for us soccer nerds who have been watching these youth players. Experience to a young group would be invaluable to a revamped side looking to rebound.
The Current Culture is Strong Enough to Survive
If this was 10 years ago, hell even five, this might be a different scenario. There’s going to be people that are going to argue — and could be right — that this couldn’t be a worse time to miss out as soccer is on an unbelievable high and the momentum can’t handle a setback.
But why can’t it survive? Last week, Atlanta had the highest attendance for an MLS match in history. Mind you, this was on a random Saturday, against a flailing Orlando City, in what was supposed to prove as nothing spectacular in a match.
The Gold Cup featured multiple locations hitting all-time highs in attendance. The USWNT continues to provide healthy crowds and records consistently. MLS actually has the third-highest average attendance, above both the NBA and MLB.
The U.S. viewership for the World Cup will barely falter, if at all. The USMNT set multiple records for the World Cup final and its match against Portugal. And with the melting pot here, it’s not as if people are just going to stop tuning in. If we give people a reason to watch, then the momentum can continue.
We are a soccer nation now. Our leagues are strong, the youth is strong, and we are strong enough to survive missing a World Cup.
In closing, the current landscape of the USMNT might do very well to have a total reset brought on by a missed World Cup. Whether it be the executives, coaches, or the need for youth integration, the U.S. may actually gain a very strong opportunity to revamp what I believe is a squad set up for its best finish ever in 2026. A missed World Cup may be the tough medicine we all need to take right now.