U.S. soc­cer to take more hits off field after World Cup qual­i­fy­ing knock­out

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - BY STEVEN GOFF

The fail­ure of the U.S. men’s national soc­cer team to qual­ify for the World Cup — a feat it had ac­com­plished with­out con­sid­er­able trou­ble for two decades — will have se­vere im­pli­ca­tions for those in­volved in the botched cam­paign and a sport that has gained a grow­ing foothold on the Amer­i­can sports land­scape.

Need­ing only a draw Tues­day to se­cure a place in soc­cer’s qua­dren­nial cham­pi­onship next sum­mer in Rus­sia, the U.S. squad fell be­hind the last-place team from Trinidad and Tobago by two goals in the first half and lost, 2-1.

After qual­i­fy­ing for seven con­sec­u­tive World Cups since 1990, the United States will have to wait un­til the 2022 event at the ear­li­est to re­turn to the sport’s grand­est stage. The cost of its ab­sence will al­most cer­tainly in­clude changes at the top of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, in­clud­ing its coach and per­haps its pres­i­dent. It also will af­fect the U.S. Soc­cer Fed­er­a­tion’s bot­tom line, from in­come lost for par­tic­i­pat­ing in the tour­na­ment, huge ex­pected rat­ings hits for tele­vi­sion broad­cast part­ners and in­creased dif­fi­culty in lur­ing spon­sors for the team.

In the mo­ments after the de­feat, the im­pact of the fail­ure hit the U.S. del­ega-

tion like a Mike Tyson round­house.

Su­nil Gu­lati, pres­i­dent of the Chicago-based USSF, slumped in a chair in the front row of a me­dia con­fer­ence room, lack­ing ex­pres­sion as Bruce Arena, the Hall of Fame coach sum­moned last win­ter to res­cue a trou­bled cam­paign, tried ex­plain­ing what had gone so ter­ri­bly wrong.

“There’s no ex­cuses for us not qual­i­fy­ing for the World Cup,” Arena said.

Play­ers said this was the worst mo­ment of their pro­fes­sional lives.

“With time — a lot of time — [the team will] be ready to move on in a strong way,” cap­tain Michael Bradley said, “but this one isn’t going away any­time soon.”

Hum­ble gains

The United States was one of seven coun­tries to have played in ev­ery World Cup since 1990, join­ing lu­mi­nar­ies such as Ger­many, Brazil and Italy. Com­pet­ing in a mid­dling soc­cer re­gion of North and Cen­tral Amer­ica and the Caribbean, the Amer­i­cans were again heav­ily fa­vored to earn one of the three au­to­matic berths — or, at the very least, get into a play­off.

The USSF was pre­par­ing an in­ten­sive buildup to the World Cup next spring, with train­ing camps, matches and mar­ket­ing cam­paigns. Of­fi­cials had vis­ited Rus­sia sev­eral times in the past year to se­cure a high-end prac­tice fa­cil­ity and ho­tels in St. Peters­burg be­fore other coun­tries could beat them to it.

In­stead, Panama, a first-time qual­i­fier, will join Mex­ico and Costa Rica in Rus­sia, while Hon­duras will bat­tle Aus­tralia next month for an ad­di­tional ticket.

The Amer­i­cans fin­ished fifth with a 3-4-3 record, by far their worst show­ing since CONCACAF, the regional gov­ern­ing body, im­ple­mented a six-na­tion fi­nal qual­i­fy­ing round for the 1998 World Cup cy­cle. Tues­day’s de­ci­sive loss came be­fore only a few thou­sand peo­ple in a town out­side the cap­i­tal of a Caribbean is­land na­tion with a pop­u­la­tion about the same as New Hamp­shire’s (1.3 mil­lion).

“If you look at the in­ter­est and pageantry over the last sev­eral World Cups, it felt like Amer­i­cans were re­ally em­brac­ing our national team and look­ing for­ward to it,” said David Carter, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Mar­shall Sports Busi­ness In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. “There was this mo­men­tum that made you feel as though this move­ment was on the verge of re­ally ar­riv­ing.”

While the U.S. women are the most dec­o­rated pro­gram in the world, pi­o­neer­ing fe­male soc­cer in a glob­ally male-dom­i­nated sport and win­ning three World Cup tro­phies and four Olympic gold medals, the men have made hum­ble gains in a more es­tab­lished field.

Though they re­main far be­hind the pow­er­houses of the game, the men had be­come a re­li­ably strong team in the re­gion, one that could com­pete with honor, if not ma­jor vic­to­ries, on the world stage as well. They ad­vanced to the quar­ter­fi­nals of the 2002 World Cup and, in the past two tour­na­ments, got to the round of 16. In 2014, they es­caped the so-called “Group of Death,” which in­cluded Cris­tiano Ron­aldo’s Por­tu­gal team.

With a well-es­tab­lished do­mes­tic league (Ma­jor League Soc­cer) and top young tal­ent such as Chris­tian Pulisic thriv­ing over­seas, the United States was primed to take an­other step in its quest to com­pete for a world ti­tle within a decade.

With this qual­i­fy­ing fail­ure, how­ever, changes are al­most cer­tain. Arena’s con­tract was sched­uled to ex­pire after the World Cup, but now he seems likely to leave ear­lier. On Tues­day, he de­clined to com­ment on his fu­ture.

Arena, 66, had a sur­pris­ing re­sponse when asked what needs to change, say­ing: “There’s noth­ing wrong with what we’re do­ing. Cer­tainly, as our league grows, it ad­vances the national team pro­gram. We have some good young play­ers come up. Noth­ing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be fool­ish.”

Bot­tom-line con­cerns

With his de­par­ture, when­ever that may be, the USSF may have to find a third head coach in about a year. Arena, who over­saw dy­nas­ties at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia and D.C. United in the 1990s be­fore guid­ing the U.S. team to the 2002 and ’06 World Cups and cre­at­ing an­other MLS cham­pion in Los Angeles, was an emer­gency hire last win­ter. Jur­gen Klins­mann had lost his way with the pro­gram, cul­mi­nat­ing with two de­feats to be­gin the fi­nal round of qual­i­fy­ing, and was fired in late Novem­ber.

With about two years left on Klins­mann’s con­tract, the USSF was ob­li­gated to make a $6.2 mil­lion pay­out — an ex­tra­or­di­nary fig­ure for a non­profit op­er­a­tion with a thrifty rep­u­ta­tion.

Miss­ing the World Cup will af­fect the USSF’s bot­tom line in other ways. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, it col­lected $10.5 mil­lion — $1.5 mil­lion for par­tic­i­pat­ing and $9 mil­lion for ad­vanc­ing to the round of 16.

Play­ing in a World Cup also at­tracts spon­sors, and while the USSF is locked into long-term deals with many of them, the ab­sence of a U.S. team at the most pop­u­lar sport­ing event on the planet will make it dif­fi­cult to at­tract new part­ners.

In ad­di­tion, Carter said: “These types of con­tracts typ­i­cally have con­tin­gen­cies where the amount of money is scaled back. There may be some sort of cal­i­bra­tion that will take place so these part­ners are pay­ing some­thing com­men­su­rate with what they are truly get­ting, whether that’s on the high end or the low end, but this time that would ob­vi­ously be on the low end.”

FIFA will be dis­ap­pointed by the U.S. ab­sence as the Amer­i­can market is among the fi­nal great fron­tiers for the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Fur­ther­more, at the past two World Cups, U.S. sup­port­ers trav­eled by the thou­sands to the ex­pen­sive host coun­tries (South Africa and Brazil).

Fox Sports will also take a ma­jor hit after wrest­ing the World Cup rights from ESPN to carry the next three tour­na­ments at a cost of about a half-bil­lion dol­lars.

The com­pe­ti­tion will still ap­peal to a mass au­di­ence and draw strong rat­ings from mar­quee matches, but, as Fox Sports Pres­i­dent Eric Shanks told Sports Il­lus­trated re­cently, “for us it’s a dif­fer­ent tour­na­ment if the U.S. isn’t in it.”

In a state­ment Wednesday, Fox Sports said: “The World Cup is the great­est sport­ing event on Earth that changes the world for one month ev­ery four years, and Fox Sports re­mains stead­fast in our com­mit­ment of bringing the games to Amer­ica for the first time in 2018 and will con­tinue to sup­port the U.S. Soc­cer Fed­er­a­tion as they look ahead to the 2022 World Cup.”

Just two weeks ago, Fox Sports hosted a flashy party in New York to pro­mote its cov­er­age. Among the fea­tured guests were Arena and his Mex­i­can coun­ter­part, Juan Car­los Oso­rio. Mex­ico wrapped up a World Cup berth last month.

NBCUniver­sal’s Tele­mu­ndo owns the U.S. Span­ish TV rights and, with an au­di­ence fo­cused pri­mar­ily on Mex­ico and other Latin teams, won’t be af­fected by the U.S. team’s ab­sence as much as Fox Sports.

Aside from Arena’s likely exit, Gu­lati’s job is in jeop­ardy after lead­ing the charge to hire both Klins­mann and Arena. Gu­lati is up for re­elec­tion in Fe­bru­ary, and for the first time dur­ing his three­term, 12-year reign, he will face op­po­si­tion.

On Tues­day, Gu­lati echoed Arena’s odd com­ments about the di­rec­tion of the pro­gram.

“Whole­sale changes aren’t needed if the ball that hits off the post goes in,” he said of a late at­tempt against Trinidad and Tobago. “We will look at ev­ery­thing, ob­vi­ously. All of our pro­grams, both the national team and all the devel­op­ment stuff, but we’ve got a lot of pieces in place that we think are very good and are com­ing along.”

Aside from the World Cup short­com­ing, the U.S. men have failed to qual­ify for three of the past four Olympics. (Olympic soc­cer is a tour­na­ment for pri­mar­ily play­ers 23 and un­der.)

The lat­est dis­ap­point­ment is not ex­pected to af­fect a U.S.-led ef­fort to bring the 2026 World Cup to North Amer­ica for the first time since 1994. A com­bined bid by the United States, Mex­ico and Canada is heav­ily fa­vored to beat Morocco for host­ing rights when FIFA, soc­cer’s in­ter­na­tional gov­ern­ing body, votes next June.


Chris­tian Pulisic can’t hide from the U.S. miss­ing its first World Cup since 1986. The fail­ure is likely to af­fect spon­sor­ships and TV rat­ings.

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