Understanding why the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup -- an outsider's point of view
I'm an outsider when it comes to the U.S. men's national team. I watch them play in major tournaments, I watched a couple of games in the Hex, but beyond that, it's just highlights for me. That said, I have been doing this a long time and the inquest which is bound to follow the team's failure to qualify for Russia 2018 rings hugely familiar. Most big countries go through it -- and, yes, a top-30 FIFA ranking and seven consecutive World Cups makes you "big" -- whether it's after failing to qualify for a major tournament or after a first-round exit. Debate rages over the coach, the players, the federation, the systems, the media, the fans, youth development, referees and the competition format, sometimes all of the above. So, again, viewed from afar, here are some things to understand.
1. Understand that margins were very slim in the case of the 2017 CONCACAF Hex. If Blas Perez's goal for Panama gets disallowed -- as it should have been -- we're not having this conversation. Yet the team would be in exactly the same situation performance-wise, it's just the U.S. (depending on whether they drew or won) would have gone either to the World Cup playoffs in November or qualified straight to Russia next summer. We'd read about how they need to improve, talk about how important Christian Pulisic is to success and then, come the World Cup, it would all be forgotten and we'd focus on what actually happens in Russia.
That's both unhealthy and irrational. The U.S. performance -- let alone the state of the U.S. game -- wouldn't be any better or worse off because of a blown call from a referee.
2. Understand that winning three out of 10 games against this group of CONCACAF nations is really, really bad. Enough talk about how scary San Pedro de Sula is. Sure, they're gritty and committed and proud to be playing for their country. Most national teams, including the U.S., generally are. When two teams are gritty and committed other factors make all the difference. Like the quality of the players.
3. Understand that when looking for things to blame it definitely makes sense to talk about Major League Soccer expansion -- nearly doubling the size of the league by adding 10 teams in 11 years means that, unless you've suddenly become twice as good at producing talent, you're going to dilute quality -- promotion/relegation and pay for play, none of those things is going to produce short-term gains. It's not going to help come 2022.
4. Understand that while quality helps -- see point three -- it's not the reason the U.S. will be watching the World Cup on television. A world-class superstar will help you paper over cracks elsewhere, but it's kind of a moot point: the U.S. has never had one and still qualified. Besides, lack of quality isn't the issue when it comes to competing with Honduras or Trinidad. Trinidad's XI starters contained exactly one guy who plays in a league of MLS standard or above (Levi Garcia, who has played all of 49 minutes for AZ Alkmaar).
What about big bad Costa Rica, who beat you home and away? Keylor Navas, fine. He plays for Real Madrid. Celso Borges at Deportivo, ditto. Much like Bryan Oviedo, who is at Sunderland in the Championship. Christian Gamboa and Bryan Ruiz are experienced players of some quality, but also guys who have played zero minutes of club football since May. The rest are MLS guys or Costa Rica-based. This isn't to denigrate them. But MLS is where the vast majority of U.S. guys play. It's not as if the MLS folks who play for your CONCACAF rivals are substantially better than your crew.
You believe in markets, right? Most players are going to the best possible team and getting the best possible wages they can? The market of football talents determining who gets to play for Real Madrid and who gets stuck at W Connection? These rosters tell you something. They tell you that man-for-man, pound-for-pound, these players were talented enough as individuals to advance.
5. Understand that if talent wasn't the issue in the Hex, it has to be something else. If your rivals -- with players who are inferior or equal to you -- surpass you, it's probably down to one or more of the following: mentality, coaching or cohesion.
Put differently, the US didn't get knocked by better players. They got knocked out by players who played better. There's a difference.
6. Understand that what works elsewhere might not work for you. By all means, study other countries and what they've done, try to import best practice, but don't start to believe there's a magic formula. The oft-cited German "reboot" after 2000 is held up as some kind Holy Grail. What works in a wealthy country of 80 million with an entrenched footballing culture that has been dominant for most of its history -- save for that blip at the turn of the millennium -- might not necessarily work in the U.S. Maybe it was the German reboot that did it. Maybe it was regression to the mean. Either way it won't necessarily work for you.
7. Understand that in many cases the folks in charge are well aware of the issues and the potential solutions. It's not lost on anybody that there's a missing generation in the U.S. team. (When five players on a 23-man roster are aged between 23 and 27 -- and one of them, Jozy Altidore, made his national team debut a decade ago, meaning he was a precocious outlier -- it means something went wrong development-wise along the way.)
Nor do the folks in charge have MLS tunnel vision, believing that it's the best possible incubator for the national side. Steve Nicol, among others, has pointed to the risks involved when too rapid expansion brings with it dilution. Nor are they ignorant to the fact that pay-for-play is a problem. "We have to get to a point in the U.S. where, when you are a good young player interested in the game, the first thing you get handed isn't an invoice for several thousand dollars." Who said that? Why, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, two years ago.
The issue here is what steps they're taking to acknowledge the problems and then addressing them.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.