Christian Pulisic is tackled by Shane Sandy in the USA’s 1-2 loss to Trinidad & Tobago (Denver Post)
For the first time since 1986, the United States will not be participating in the World Cup. Coming off of a shock 2-1 defeat at Port of Spain to Trinidad & Tobago, both Panama and Honduras earned upset victories over Costa Rica and Mexico, respectively, to leapfrog the Yankees in the CONCACAF Hexagonal.
While crazed emotions finally settle along with the crushed hopes of American supporters, it’s now necessary to take a step back and see just how the USMNT managed to miss the most prestigious soccer event in the world.
Missed Opportunities and Uncertainty
After placements for the Hex were finalized, the U.S. found itself pitted against five formidable opponents: Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Trinidad & Tobago. The first of five World Cup Qualifying breaks fell in the second week of November 2016 with the USMNT facing Mexico at home and Costa Rica in San Jose.
With the Hex being a home-and-away round robin, getting results at home is paramount for any nation with World Cup aspirations. Then-head coach Jurgen Klinsmann knew this when facing Mexico, yet the USMNT dropped the opener 1-2 after a late winner in the 89’.
The squad followed up this result with a 0-4 thumping in San Jose, Costa Rica. This result led to the firing of Klinsmann, the five-year coach that led the Yanks out of the ‘Group of Death’ in the 2014 World Cup.
With many fans calling for massive change (“more MLS players!” “fewer MLS players!” “hire Landon Donovan!” “fire Sunil Gulati!”), the USMNT returned to the same old team by rehiring longtime manager Bruce Arena. This was met with mixed feelings as the team was in dire need of points in the Hex.
Arena opened his tenure for the U.S. by leading the Stars and Stripes to a 6-0 victory over Honduras and blowing the Hex wide open. Followed up by a road draw in Panama City, the USMNT were right back in the thick of things regarding WCQ. A Christian Pulisic brace against Trinidad & Tobago and a much-needed road draw in Mexico City left the U.S. in great position before the summer break.
The Gold Cup victory boosted morale for the team and gave them some silverware for the first time since 2013. After Jordan Morris’s late winner over Jamaica, the USMNT had four crucial matches remaining. With the toughest ties out of the way, the team seemed poised to make the World Cup with relative ease.
September 2017’s WCQ matchweek may have been the worst by the USMNT since September 2001’s matchweek. In the second-to-last set of fixtures, the Yanks lost 0-2 at home in a dismal showing against an undermanned Costa Rica side. This was followed up by Bobby Wood salvaging a point in San Pedro Sula against Honduras.
With worry growing for the USA, Arena announced the squad for the final two fixtures. Fabian Johnson was omitted due to a lack of fitness and Paul Arriola would get more minutes than many supporters felt comfortable with, but it was a squad more than capable of finishing out the campaign and secure a World Cup berth.
In perhaps the most dominant display of U.S. soccer in recent memory, youngsters Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood combined with season veterans Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley for a 4-0 destruction of Panama in Orlando. This was just what the USMNT needed after a poor set of games in September and it its spot was all but booked for Russia in 2018.
Coming into Tuesday in third place with 12 points, the U.S. held a commanding lead in goal differential over both Panama and Honduras, nations with 10 points each. Facing the undisputed weakest team in Hex, all the team needed was a draw.
Beginning the match with an unfortunate own goal was bad news, but nothing insurmountable. However, a screamer by Alvin Jones brought the score to 0-2 by halftime and the Yankees were up against a wall.
Ultimately, though, Honduras and Panama both needed victories against two teams the USMNT hadn’t been able to top, so American supporters were still comfortable.
Pulisic scored a brilliant goal to get one back for the team and it seemed the team was back on track for good. However, news broke that Honduras had just taken the lead over Mexico and that Panama had equalized against Costa Rica.
As the U.S. scrambled to get an equalizer for itself, Panama somehow managed a late goal at home to take the lead. Peppering the box with crosses, set pieces and shots, the U.S. now needed a goal to keep its World Cup hopes alive.
Nothing came and the final whistle blew. Fans and players alike hoped for help from Mexico or Costa Rica, but nothing was in the cards. The United States lost much more than a match that Tuesday night.
In the Hex, there is no margin for error. Nothing is certain until all 900 minutes have been played. The USMNT is missing the World Cup due to six dropped points at home, plain and simple.
The MLS Has Improved the Quality of CONCACAF More than the Quality of the USMNT
In the final international break, spanning Oct. 6 – 10, the United States Men’s National Team garnered 1,114 minutes out of MLS players. These “domestic” minutes amounted to two goals and three assists of the five goals and four assists the Yanks totaled in the matchweek.
To be entirely fair, 360 of these minutes came from goalkeeper Tim Howard and center back Matt Besler, but the team’s remaining 754 came from positions of goalscoring or assisting opportunity.
Of course, a player’s worth is not judged entirely on scoring or directly assisting a chance, but those converted chances are the only way to win matches. Striker Jozy Altidore of Toronto FC played 161 of 180 possible minutes, scored twice and assisted once, but both of his goals were handed to him.
Christian Pulisic, the 19 year-old wonderkid playing for Borussia Dortmund in Germany’s Bundesliga, served up a spectacular ground cross for Altidore to tap into the net. The type of tap-in that Chris Wondolowski could make.
Bobby Shou Wood, the 24 year-old striker from Honolulu, is also playing in the German Bundesliga, getting consistent minutes for Hamburg. He made a run into the box against Panama and was subsequently dragged down, resulting in a penalty kick. Jozy Altidore secured his second goal of the night from the spot – a brace by no real creation of his own.
The other three goals of the matchweek came from those two young, Bundesliga attackers. Pulisic scored against Panama after some fancy footwork and dribbling around the keeper, then got one back for the U.S. early in the second half against Trinidad & Tobago. Wood slotted his goal into the bottom left corner from 12 yards out to finish off Panama.
Source of USMNT Goals in CONCACAF Hexagonal
* Sebastian Lletget scored once, but played a total of 18 mins before leaving with injury
MLS players for other CONCACAF nations seem to enjoy half the playing time compared to the U.S., yet convert just as many chances through these players.
On the final day, Houston Dynamo frontmen Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis both scored to propel Honduras to the fourth spot in the Hex while Seattle Sounders defender Roman Torres scored a late goal to push Panama into the World Cup.
Why, on the biggest of stages, are MLS players not playing as well for the United States as they are for other CONCACAF nations?
The United States is relying on a combination of MLS and international players to bolster an attack that scored the most goals in the CONCACAF Hexagonal. That by no means is a bad thing; the history of U.S. soccer is marred with uncertainty of how to use players succeeding in the MLS.
Statistics of MLS Players in Top Five CONCACAF Nations’ Last Two Matches
|United States||Costa Rica||Panama||Honduras||Mexico|
|5 Total Goals||2 Total Goals||2 Total Goals||4 Total Goals||5 Total Goals|
|1,114 MLS Minutes||692 MLS Minutes||675 MLS Minutes||539 MLS Minutes||61 MLS Minutes|
|2 MLS Goals||2 MLS Goals||1 MLS Goal||2 MLS Goals||0 MLS Goals|
|3 MLS Assists||0 MLS Assists||1 MLS Assist||1 MLS Assist||0 MLS Assists|
Major League Soccer in the USA has been on the rise in popularity, especially as of late, but many ask if it’s reaping the intended rewards. Other nations (e.g. England, Germany, Italy, Spain) harbor impressive domestic leagues with both national and international players in competition with one another.
However, the goals speak for themselves. The two youngsters playing in Germany netted half of the team’s goals during the qualifying campaign with four coming in the final two matches. Three of them were, in fact, set up by MLS men, but both of Pulisic’s goals came via his own talent and are nearly solo goals.
Why can the United States not emulate this success? Is the MLS more of a CONCACAF booster than a USMNT stepping stone?
In the past three seasons, three players stand out as success stories in the MLS: Italian forward Sebastian Giovinco, Spanish maestro David Villa and Venezuelan newcomer Josef Martinez. These players have become the faces of the league, yet none play for the United States.
The best national players for the Yanks in the MLS over the years are Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and, more recently Jordan Morris and Darlington Nagbe. The first three enjoyed successes overseas before returning home to play in the MLS while Morris and Nagbe are really just getting their competitive USMNT careers started.
Players that started in the MLS and earned their way onto the most recent U.S. squad include Matt Besler, Dax McCarty and Graham Zusi, but they tend to be heading into the downturn of their careers and become less useful soon after being called up.
Unfortunately for the USMNT, young and ready MLS players are a rarity for the squad and players like Pulisic, Wood and DeAndre Yedlin that jump at the chance to play overseas have fared far better and will enjoy longer, more influential careers with the team.
Bruce Arena, after finishing what has to be considered the most sickening 90 minutes in recent memory for the U.S. Soccer Federation, seemed eager to keep things just the way they are. The way he downplayed the fact that the USMNT will be at home during a World Cup for the first time since before Michael Bradley was born is a perfect example of the complacency the USSF has fallen into.
A mere three years removed from nationwide excitement for a team that advanced from a group with Cristiano Ronaldo, World Cup foe Ghana and eventual champion Germany, the federation is ready to swallow a bitter pill and simply call missing the World Cup a ‘blemish’.
Forget three years ago, last July there was joy for a young, inspiring team winning the Gold Cup and Clint Dempsey tying Landon Donovan on the all-time scoring sheet.
Forget three months ago, last Friday the team looked like a sleeper pick for a World Cup run after thrashing Panama behind the unification of new faces and season vets.
The United States Men’s National Team knows exactly how it got here, but it needs to quickly figure out the next step in a long course of action ahead. A successful World Cup campaign, Gold Cup triumph and single-match success is the perfect blueprint for just what comes next.
Bruce Arena must go. Sunil Gulati must either understand that times are changing or go as well. An enormous window was missed and there will be repercussions felt for years to come. Dual-citizens will choose other nations in favor of more international opportunity, casual fans will have no team to rally around this summer and, perhaps most importantly, four years will be added to every player’s age before the team gets another shot at the World Cup again.
If the MLS is still the answer, there needs to be far more involvement in U-21 competition and development instead of hoping and praying Pulisic has a younger cousin that plays defender. There is plenty of young talent being churned out of the U.S., it just needs to be harnessed instead of letting it simmer in the MLS for years.
By the time 2022 rolls around, Dempsey, Bradley, Howard and many other mainstays may be gone. A new era of U.S. soccer is being ushered in and names like Pulisic, Wood and Yedlin will become the new norms before long. Maybe by then the team will finally get Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman to shut up.
Frustrating, disappointing and downright inexcusable as it may be, the future is still very much bright for the USMNT.