The U.S. men’s national team is an embarrassment. Failing to qualify for the World Cup is one thing; failing to do so because the team failed to draw against Trinidad and Tobago — a country that has only qualified for the World Cup once in its history — is a complete farce.
Not only does the United States miss out on its first World Cup in 32 years, but the men’s team has single-handedly set back the sport in America by decades. After two straight cup exits in the round of 16 and a continental tournament championship, the USMNT was bringing buzz to soccer in the States.
The 2010 and 2014 World Cups brought newfound excitement to the sport. People started to follow Major League Soccer, as it featured many of the team’s stars. Furthermore, the league began to attract major European stars at the end of their careers — David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Kaka, to name a few. Soccer in the United States truly began to feel like it was moving toward a more internationally-minded product.
Yet, this feeling was nothing but a fleeting fallacy. Head Coach Bruce Arena is a former USMNT coach and an MLS fanboy — but only so far as the United States’ players go. It seems that the qualifications to play for the men’s team have changed from being good at soccer to being American-born, having played in the MLS and, most importantly, not being a dual citizen.
Squad selection became a severe issue under Arena’s predecessor, Jürgen Klinsmann, who took to playing German-American players because they were actually talented at soccer. Landon Donovan, Abby Wambach and even Tim Howard all came out slamming this policy, claiming that only Americans born in the United States should play for the U.S. national team.
It is a comically ridiculous concept that completely ignores what it means to be an American, and one can only hope that the entire U.S. Soccer Federation is now hanging its head in shame for relying on underdeveloped, utterly talentless players.
It seems that wonder kid and Pennsylvania native Christian Pulisic was only on the team because he is by far the best American player ever; the team featured at least 15 players who were homegrown American players, many of whom were far less talented than players left off. But, of course, since these quality players play in Germany or England, they are not the MLS stars over whom Arena so desperately fawns.
Indeed, Pulisic could have chosen to play for Croatia due to heritage and at one point actually applied to do so before deciding to play for his home country. Furthermore, it must be stressed that Pulisic is so skilled precisely because he left America to develop his talent. It is a strategy that paid off because he is now starting for Borussia Dortmund, one of the best and most prestigious German teams. One can only wonder now if he regrets ever pulling on the Stars and Stripes.
Rather than fill the squad with competency and talent, Arena and the organization fielded a team that was a step slow and a tier below the talent needed to qualify. This last point stings all the more because the United States failed to qualify in a group that featured Honduras, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago — the former two eventually finishing above the United States, with Panama qualifying and Honduras landing a playoff spot.
And that is perhaps the most salient point in all this: Blame Arena, blame the U.S. soccer board and blame the institution, but in the end, this loss — this 2-1 defecation on American soccer — is almost wholly on the players themselves.
They played with complacency, without desire and without a single shred of common sense. Pusilic’s second-half goal was a solo shot that seemed to give a glimmer of hope that belied the following minutes, all fraught with empty chances and a growing sense of entitlement.
The USMNT started to play like they deserved to win, not like they wanted to. Jozy Altidore tried to float reckless, fancy passes into the box. And, of course, Michael Bradley did everything wrong that someone could possibly do on a soccer pitch, as he has continued to do since being selected by his father for the team 11 years ago.
All of this criticism also glosses over one of the most embarrassing moments in U.S. soccer history: Omar Gonzalez’s own goal. In a half-hearted attempt to clear the ball, Gonzalez used his shin and deflected it into the back of America’s net. The deflection was so perfectly tragic that Howard had zero chance to recover and save it.
And much like Howard, the United States has almost zero chance to recover and save its image. We hope that the world media drags the United States through the dirt, as former USMNT player Taylor Twellman has done, and galvanizes change.
But at the same time, change is hardly expected. American entitlement plagues the entire soccer program. Just because the United States has the world’s best basketball program, best swimming team, best gymnastics team and a highly competitive baseball team does not mean that we are automatically excellent at soccer.
We are good at these sports because of the amount of money we pour into developing them. Look at baseball, where we watch 12-year-olds on ESPN whack a ball around, all thanks to the competitiveness of Little League.
And, yes, it is rather ironic that not being one of the 32 best teams in the world has spurred us, two Americans — including one naturalized one, like USMNT forward Dom Dwyer, who was not selected to play despite coming from England — to write 1,000 words of rage.
However, given the program’s history of repeatedly qualifying, losing to the 99th-ranked team in the world, in a game where even a draw would have been enough, is inexcusable. And now the United States will have to accept this absolute humiliation and make sweeping changes if it ever hopes to escape being a soccer punchline.
Paolo Santamaria and Vanessa Craige are seniors in the College and School of Foreign Service, respectively. “NOTHING BUT NET” appears every Friday.