Gutted is the only way to describe how I feel right now. The denial and bargaining happened a year ago. The anger will come. Oddly, the acceptance happened in the first half of the loss to Trinidad and Tobago that eliminated the United States from World Cup qualification, as I saw the U.S. Men’s National Team walking for the nth time in a match they only needed to draw.
I can’t imagine the World Cup without an American team. Most of soccer’s fans in America can’t either. It’s been more than a generation since they failed to qualify. This hurts.
For those who rarely pay attention, it is not simply “lol the US lost to Trinidad.” People often vastly underestimate playing in CONCACAF away matches. Qualifying in CONCACAF is not easy; it is forgiving. And the region as a whole has improved (thanks in part to the growth of Major League Soccer). That said, it should never be so difficult that the United States fails to even tie the 99th-ranked team who had been eliminated from World Cup qualification already.
I lay the blame mostly at the feet of the U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati. He has been an admirable servant in that position for a decade. But his Ahabian pursuit of Jurgen Klinsmann that started in 2006 has caused issues since. It led to the awkward “interim” hiring of Bob Bradley in 2006 and that same manager’s poorly timed firing five years later.
Gulati ceded too much power and money to Klinsmann, such was his adoration. It caused him to keep Klinsmann at the helm long after Klinsmann lost the plot. I said earlier this month that it felt like a wasted four years. And, as Will Parchman notes, the United States has “missed a U17 World Cup, a U20 World Cup, two Olympics and a senior World Cup since 2011.” Not to mention two Confederations Cups. That’s all on Gulati.
Klinsmann and Bruce Arena shoulder plenty of blame. Among many, many other issues, neither were able to get consistent performances from this team.
Few players have excuses, either. Alexi Lalas’ rant after the Costa Rica loss in September was prescient: “You are a soccer generation that has been given everything; you are a soccer generation who’s on the verge of squandering everything.”
As I said in March and earlier this month, the United States has a shocking lack of depth in players between 20 and 30. But almost everyone in the current player pool has more potential and pedigree than anyone from the 2002 side that made it to the quarterfinals. As talented and proven as Christian Pulisic is, it’s also embarrassing that this team had to lean on a 19-year-old so hard in such a forgiving qualifying format.
I’ve always secretly feared that time when American soccer “arrives.” When we have world-class players. When we no longer have to fight for respect. When we’re no longer the underdog. I figured that would be when we’d fail to qualify. I knew it would happen eventually (well, at least until they expanded the World Cup to a thousand teams for 2026). I didn’t think it’d happen this soon.
Spare a thought for Fox Sports. They’re presenting their first World Cup, and they won’t enjoy the ratings bonanza of a U.S. team. Spare a bigger thought for Clint Dempsey. I fully believe he is the best ever player in a U.S. jersey. Perhaps not the most important—Landon Donovan clearly moved the needle more. But no one showed up more for the United States than Dempsey and it looked like he might end his career with a fourth World Cup.
The worst part about it, though: A good U.S. World Cup run, like in 2014, excites and unites the United States in a way that little else does in this fragmented cultural landscape. It’s something this country could use right now.