U.S. needs to re­assess pro­gram

Qual­i­fy­ing fi­asco ex­poses prob­lems in national sys­tem

The Signal - - SPORTS - Martin Rogers @Roger­sJourno

COUVA, TRINIDAD

There AND TOBAGO are many places to start look­ing for why the USA finds it­self un­in­vited to soc­cer’s global party, but a phan­tom goal in Panama is not among them.

Wednesday morn­ing saw the start of a long hang­over for the men’s national team, with the reper­cus­sions of the pre­vi­ous night’s de­press­ing elim­i­na­tion from the World Cup set to hurt for years.

It is easy in such times to get dis­tracted.

Panama, which along with Hon­duras leapfrogged over the Amer­i­cans over the course of a wild night of ac­tion, did not de­serve one of its goals as it beat Costa Rica. Gabriel Tor­res’ equal­iz­ing strike in the 52nd minute did not cross the line and should not have been given.

How­ever, sug­ges­tions in the hours after the game that the USA should seek a back­door en­try into the tour­na­ment by launch­ing a protest are lu­di­crous and un­help­ful. That’s soc­cer. Bad de­ci­sions hap­pen. Video tech­nol­ogy is needed, and it is com­ing. Tough luck.

What is needed is a deeper look at the U.S. pro­gram and how to ad­dress the short­com­ings.

THE COACH

Bruce Arena — for how much longer, who knows — in­sisted “noth­ing has to change,” that there needs to be no whole­sale over­haul of the sys­tem. Wrong. Ab­so­lutely wrong. How could it not be wrong?

The USA has failed to qual­ify for the tour­na­ment from the eas­i­est and most for­giv­ing con­fed­er­a­tion of all, CONCACAF.

Yes, CONCACAF has im­proved, but the fact that it af­fords three au­to­matic spots and one play­off place means there is a ton of wig­gle room. In Europe, Switzer­land won its first nine games in qual­i­fy­ing, lost its 10th, and now might miss out on the World Cup. For a while Tues­day, the USA was primed to get an au­to­matic spot based on three wins in 10 matches.

To get to the root of the prob­lem there first needs to be gen­eral

con­sen­sus that there is one.

THE PRES­I­DENT

U.S. Soc­cer Pres­i­dent Su­nil Gu­lati made a point Tues­day that if Clint Dempsey’s late ef­fort had gone in in­stead of hit­ting the post, the USA would have qual­i­fied and there would be no great in­quest.

He’s not en­tirely wrong, but he’s en­tirely miss­ing the point. Or points.

One is that the USA should never have been in po­si­tion where it was sus­cep­ti­ble to such small mar­gins.

An­other is that while the over­all state of the game in Amer­ica is far more buoy­ant than at any other time, the national team has some­how snapped its own streak of seven con­sec­u­tive World Cup ap­pear­ances.

And fi­nally, that even if the team had some­how crawled over the line, it clearly had fun­da­men­tal flaws.

Gu­lati was the man who set his stock in Jur­gen Klins­mann, whose reign ended a year ago with many of the play­ers hav­ing given up on him. It seemed like the right move at the time, but would a Klins­mann team, even with sev­eral of the group dis­lik­ing him in­tensely, have also missed out?

Gu­lati then went for the safest op­tion in Arena, which also seemed like a solid choice, es­pe­cially when Arena’s first game in charge re­sulted in a 6-0 thrash­ing of Hon­duras.

Yet the wheels fell off when op­po­nents worked out that the tac­ti­cal sys­tem be­ing em­ployed was ut­terly in­ef­fec­tive at break­ing teams down.

Arena had a re­mark­able legacy in Amer­i­can soc­cer, thanks to his ef­forts in tak­ing the team to its World Cup quar­ter­fi­nal fin­ish in 2002 and spear­head­ing the Los Angeles Galaxy dy­nasty in Ma­jor League Soc­cer.

That legacy has taken a hit, sig­nif­i­cant one.

THE ROS­TER

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Arena got caught be­tween two gen­er­a­tions. The only time there was any con­sis­tent at­tack­ing dur­ing the cam­paign, Chris­tian Pulisic was usu­ally at the core of it. At 19, he was asked to shoul­der most of the cre­ative re­spon­si­bil­ity on a team with some col­leagues nearly twice his age.

Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey have been in­cred­i­ble ser­vants to the national team but are al­most un­rec­og­niz­able now from their for­mer best. It was of­ten a mix of young and old, and it never re­ally worked with any kind of con­sis­tency.

The play­ers can in­sist all they want that there was no com­pla­cency after the Panama vic­tory Fri­day and head­ing to Trinidad and Tobago. That’s ei­ther un­truth­ful or, at best, naive.

Take a look at a re­play of the game, es­pe­cially the first half. The per­for­mance was too ca­sual and didn’t have the kind of ur­gency you need from a team fight­ing for its life.

Maybe the play­ers can be for­given for think­ing it would be easy to avoid de­feat, which was all that was needed. All the fans and most of the me­dia thought that same thing.

But pro­fes­sion­al­ism de­mands that the play­ers get their heads in the game when the opening whis­tle sounds, not when an un­der­dog op­po­nent has al­ready es­tab­lished a two-goal lead.

THE FANS

Which leaves the fi­nal po­ten­tial cul­prit to be dis­cussed.

Did sup­port­ers ex­pect too much? Did they not ex­pect enough?

Was there in­suf­fi­cient crit­i­cism after the aw­ful de­feat in Gu­atemala in the pre­vi­ous stage of qual­i­fy­ing, back when the Klins­mann regime was al­ready be­gin­ning to crum­ble?

Or are peo­ple un­re­al­is­tic in think­ing that the USA has a right to qual­ify for each World Cup when soc­cer re­mains, de­spite its progress and growth, out­side the top three sports in Amer­ica?

It is time for fresh ideas. It is time to try some things.

Young­sters are play­ing the game in Amer­ica, more of them and for longer and at a higher level than ever be­fore. Yet it is not fil­ter­ing through.

A cou­ple of years ago the dis­cus­sion was all about when Amer­ica would pro­duce a su­per­star the likes of Lionel Messi.

Over the next four years, it will be about whether the sys­tem can pro­duce a team that can reach, let alone be­long at, world level.

ASH­LEY ALLEN, GETTY IM­AGES

Star teenager Chris­tian Pulisic could not get the U.S. men’s national team into the World Cup.

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