USMNT Eliminated from 2018 World Cup Contention: How Did We Get Here?

It’s been 31 years since the last time the U.S Men’s National Team did not qualify for the FIFA World Cup. Over these past 31 years, we’ve seen many leaps forward from what the National Team once was, but since becoming a regular in the World Cup have only advanced past the Round of Sixteen once. Essentially, it’s been 31 years of mediocrity from a country that expects its athletic teams to be on par with the rest of the world.

2002 was the only year the USMNT advanced past the Round of Sixteen and into the Quarterfinals where they were beaten by eventual runners-up Germany. The future was extremely bright for the U.S. Men, they had budding young stars in Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley to pair with veterans like Claudio Reyna. The team seemingly beefed up their squad for the 2006 World Cup, by adding solid defensemen in Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo to the backend and midfielder Clint Dempsey to wing Donovan. That squad didn’t even make it out of group play. The disappointment led to Head Coach Bruce Arena’s termination as USMNT head man at the end of 2006.

Enter Bob Bradley. In 2007, Bradley took over the men’s program and infused excitement across the country for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The team still had the core nucleus of talent that included Donovan, Beasley, Bocanegro, Cherundolo, and Dempsey that Bradley added to with the likes young, speedy Jozy Altidore and Bradley’s own son Michael. With the emergence of a legitimate Goal Keeper in Tim Howard, the USMNT looked to be a legitimate threat to break past the Round of Sixteen again. In group play, things started well. The U.S. earned draws with both Germany and Slovenia in the first two games and went on to beat Algeria to advance to the knockout stage against Ghana. In what was the most watched association football match in American television history, Ghana broke American hearts and dreams with a goal in extra time to defeat the USMNT and move on to the Quarterfinals.

Bradley was signed to an extension through 2014 after the 2010 World Cup but was relieved of his duties in 2011 after another disappointing loss, this time to Mexico in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup Finals. Early speculation feels as that it was this move, that the struggles we see on the pitch for the USMNT today stem from. The powers that be at the US Soccer Federation pegged former Germany head-man Jurgen Klinsmann to replace Bradley who had originally been assumed as their first choice for the job after 2006. Allegedly Klinsmann was supposed to manage the 2010 World Cup cycle and then Bradley takes over for the 2014 cycle. In hindsight, sticking with Bradley altogether may have been a better option.

Klinsmann’s tenure as USMNT manager a roller coaster at best. The team didn’t record a win in Klinsmann’s first five appearances, but then went on record historic wins in friendlies against world-power Italy and then beating Mexico at Azteca Stadium for the first time ever. In 2013, the team won its fifth-ever Gold Cup title. Later in the year, they secured their 2014 World Cup bid with a 2-0 victory over Mexico. The birth earned Klinsmann a contract extension through the next World Cup.

Then the turmoil started. First Klinsmann cut USA-legend Landon Donovan from the final 2014 World Cup roster, inciting shock and anger among US fans. During the 2014 World Cup, USA survived the “group of death” that featured eventual-champion Germany, Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, and 2010 heart-breaker Ghana. However, the USMNT’s play wasn’t all too spectacular and only advanced to the Round of Sixteen on goal differential. In the Round of Sixteen, USA took on Belgium in another dream-shattering match. Tim Howard put the weight of the country on his shoulders for 90 minutes, but the Belgians were able to squeak two by the goalkeeper in extra time to end the American hopes. Another disappointing end for the national squad.

With the popularity of the USMNT at an all-time national high, Klinsmann’s job was in no jeopardy at all after the 2014 World Cup loss, especially fresh off sighing that new extension. But then the inconsistency and poor play began. A fourth-place showing in the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup where they were eliminated by Jamaica marked the team’s worst finish in the tournament since 2000. The team then missed out on the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup after losing to Mexico 3-2 in the Rose Bowl during the 2015 CONCACAF Cup Playoff. At the Copa America, the USMNT recovered to finish fourth, their best finish since 1995. However, the final blow for Klinsmann came after the first two games of the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup. The USMNT lost back-to-back games to Mexico and Costa Rica to put the 2018 World Cup at serious risk. Klinsmann was immediately replaced as manager and relieved of his duties.

The USSF tabbed familiar face Bruce Arena to try and bring the USA back into World Cup qualification contention. Arena was able to turn things around drawing results in qualification matches against Honduras (6-0), Panama (1-1), Trinidad and Tobago (2-0), and Mexico (1-1). This past July, USA won its sixth CONCACAF Gold Cup defeating Jamaica in the finals 2-1. On the face of it, the team had done exactly what it needed to secure a bid for the 2018 World Cup. They had a 93% chance to earn a bid, all they had to do was win or tie against Trinidad and Tobago or either Honduras and Panama lose. In the biggest game of the qualifying cycle, the USA came out flat and uninspired against a team that had nothing to play for and lost embarrassingly. To make matters worse, both Honduras and Panama pulled off upsets against Mexico and Costa Rica, respectively, to eliminate the USMNT from 2018 World Cup consideration.

There are no excuses for this team anymore. The thought that the USA invests so much more into other sports, whereas countries like Brazil, Germany, and Spain are focusing solely on soccer, therefore the USA can’t compete is completely bogus. The Women’s team certainly isn’t having any problems. If anything, the gap between those soccer-powers and the USA should be closing as interest in basketball in those countries grow and the number of parents in the USA directing their children to soccer instead of football grow. The USSF seems to be the fundamental issue here. Had they let Bob Bradley sort out some of the issues after the 2011 CONFACA Gold Cup Final, perhaps the USMNT wouldn’t be in their current situation. On the outside, looking in.

It’s time to clean house at the USSF. There needs to be a better vision, better focus, and better clarity at the top. The program needs to be moving in one direction, forward. For the past decade, it feels as if the team has been pulled in too many different directions, but ultimately running in place. End that confusion. Reshuffle the deck, and reform the USSF. It’s a critical junction in history for the fate of the USMNT. How they handle these next couple months will determine how relevant this team will be in the coming years.

 

 

Post by: RONGY

 

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