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A Plea to U.S. Soccer: The Failed Rebuild of the USMNT

usmnt rebuild

OPINION – For long time fans, U.S. Soccer history starts in 1990 or 1994 when the United states returned to the World Cup after 40 years and then hosted the following World Cup. It was a triumphant return by the Yanks to the world stage. Most fans only know that the team reached the Semi-finals in the first ever World Cup in Uruguay and achieved their best ever finish as a historical fact. 1994 marks the real emergence of the team to mainstream culture as the nation hosted the largest sporting tournament on the planet. In the modern era, U.S. Soccer’s USMNT rebuild has largely failed, but there is hope.

A Plea to U.S. Soccer: The Failed Rebuild of the USMNT

Setting the Stage: A Brief History Lesson

It was at this point, that soccer gained real mainstream awareness. The lead up to the World Cup included plans for a new league that would become MLS in 1996 giving fans and players an avenue into professional soccer in the States. From there, new fans have been joining the ranks every year.

From 1994, we jump forward to the 2002 World Cup cycle. In 1998, following a successful MLS coaching stint, Bruce Arena was named the manger. More recent fans will surely know that name as he comes in to this story later in a much different capacity. Coming from the dominant D.C. United franchise, Arena was the hot coaching name in U.S. Soccer and in 2002, he managed the team to an infamous result. Although the team was knocked out in the last 8, everyone knows they were robbed by one of the most egregious calls in team history. Down 1-0 to a strong German side, the Yanks had a goal cleared off the line by the outstretched arm of a German defender. If only we knew what might have been.

2006 saw a disappointing Group Stage exit and the end of Arena’s tenure as manager. It wasn’t a good time for U.S. Soccer, but there was a silver lining. This was the start of the Bocanegra, Onyewu, and Cherundolo trio on defense. With those men anchoring the back line, we could stay in games. Bob Bradley was given the reigns and had a successful run as manager. His highlight moment was taking a 2-0 lead into halftime of the 2009 Confederations Cup.

A second half collapse saw the team miss out on their first major piece of hardware, but it marked a major turning point for the program. Despite all the highs coming in, Bradley only managed to lead the team out of the Group Stage in the 2010 World Cup despite having such a solid and experienced core to work with. The team followed that up with a successful Gold Cup run that saw them take a 2-0 lead in the final only to lose 4-2 in the end. That game marked the end of Bradley’s tenure and clearly showed that U.S. Soccer needed a change of mentality for the team.

The Modern Era: Improving an Established Team

1990-2010 marked 20 years of World Cup play for the Yanks. There were highs and lows, but the team was one of those underdogs that could compete with the best in the world on their day and really gave opponents fits. Everything was going in the right direction, but something was missing in the program. On top of missing some fundamental elements, many of the core players from the 2006 and 2010 World Cup cycles were nearing the end of their international careers.

U.S. Soccer identified two key areas for improvement: Establishing a Style and Player Development. Playing the scrappy underdog role had worked well enough, but continuing that role was not going to be enough to improve the team. You can only ride the underdog wave so far before you must become a powerhouse yourself. To become that powerhouse, it was determined that a steady pipeline of players prepared to play a set system was the way to go.

There was one man for the job, Jurgen Klinsmann. Coming from the German program, he was the perfect candidate to replicate what he had done for Germany here. He rebuilt the German program in just two years and took a side with low expectations to a third-place finish in 2006. He resigned his position in 2008 and his successor managed to win multiple trophies including a World Cup in 2014.

Klinsmann looked like the right man for the job with USMNT. His refusal to accept established players as outright starters was a welcome shake up on roster that needed an overhaul. Every player was competing for a job and all talents, especially foreign based players, were looked at. The classic flat 4-4-2 was being replaced with a more modern 4-2-3-1 system and players were being called in that fit the roles rather than taking the best players and making them fit together. The rebuild was underway. There were many positive results against European teams and the process seemed to be progressing well.

The progress wasn’t without criticism though. In the lead up to the World Cup, Klinsmann announced that the fresh from sabbatical Landon Donovan would not be included in the squad. The U.S. hero was seen by many fans as a vital part of the future success of the team, but the coach wouldn’t have it. The 2014 World Cup saw the Yanks advance out of the Group of Death only to be eliminated by Belgium in the round of 16. Given the rebuild and the odds, it was a successful run despite the early exit. Many fans speculated if the team would have fared differently with Donovan on the roster.

Things went downhill quickly after the World Cup. 2015 marked the worst finish by the U.S. in the Gold Cup since 2000. The team also failed to make the Confederations Cup in 2017. Klinsmann’s side lost both opening games in World Cup qualifying before he was relieved of his duties. Bruce Arena was brought in to try and salvage the qualifying campaign but fell short of the goal with a tragic loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

What Went Wrong?

It’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint exactly why the program has failed to take the next step. The performance in the 2014 World Cup stands out as a huge positive for Jurgen Klinsmann’s era. He rebuilt the squad in 3 years and put together a highly competitive side despite the turnover from the previous cycle. There was a belief that his team could overcome the odds and achieve great things. His call ups were controversial as he showed a preference to German-American players, but overall the team was successful.

Injuries plagued this team through the 2010s as well. Many prominent and promising talents had careers cut short or derailed by injuries. Stu Holden suffered several major injuries including two tackles against him that broke his leg as well as an ACL tear. He was never able to stay healthy long enough to establish a solid career following 2010. Carlie Davies was involved as a passenger in a drunk diving incident. It was miraculous that he as able to return to the game two years later, but he was never able to overcome the long term affects.

Eddie Johnson was a forward that was getting a reputation as a super sub and scoring threat, but was permanently sidelined due to a heart condition. Josh Gatt, Joe Gyau, Aaron Johanson, and others have all suffered injuries that stalled out their national team careers. Given the need to rebuild and the unavailability of so many young talents, it’s easy to point a lot of blame here.

On top of injuries, a host of American players decided to leave Europe for MLS during the Klinsmann era. It’s easy to understand an aging Clint Dempsey’s desire to return and play in MLS, but when he was followed by Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley Alejandro Bedoya, Maurice Edu, and Mix Diskerud, Klinsmann began to get worried. He believed to compete at the highest level at the international level, you need as many players as possible playing at the highest club level possible. Players leaving more competitive European leagues for MLS was seen as a setback to him. Klinsmann’s worry appears justified in hindsight after watching the team fail to qualify for the World Cup and a recent resurgence with more young players than ever playing for UEFA Champions League Clubs.

We can keep trying to pinpoint a reason why the team declined, but an often overlooked idea is that the talent pool may not have been there. A lot of players were sidelined with injuries, and many gave up their roles in Europe, but the MLS based talents weren’t there to fill the void and push them out. The 2010-18 core of players just didn’t measure up.

The strongest and most consistent center back pairing of that generation was Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler. The MLS standouts had the most natural chemistry but were still only serviceable at best. The lack of elite talent became more noticeable during the 2018 qualifying cycle, we had two standout players in the prime of their career. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were the two names from that generation, and they stood alone. If they had had Holden, Davies, and Johnson with them, who knows what may have happened.

When looking back over the roster, it’s easy to find names that made sense when initially called in, but it’s also easy to see why all those players faded before they made a huge contribution. The 2014 World Cup side was a mix of veterans and young talents that impressed fans despite having a lackluster defensive performance. That experience should have been the catalyst to propel to the next stage, but that wasn’t meant to be.

What Does that Mean for the USMNT Rebuild Today

Greg Berhalter was named full time manager after the dust settled from our 2018 World Cup absence. His knowledge of MLS, his success with the Columbus Crew, and his relationship with U.S. Soccer made him an appealing candidate for the federation, if not with fans. There were several high profile coaches available, but U.S. Soccer wanted Berhalter.

Berhalter’s tenure has been successful so far. He’s developing young talent, bringing in more new names, and won two trophies already with the Gold Cup and Nations League wins this year. The team’s depth has been battle tested and stood strong, but despite the success there are already calls for his head. The team is three games in to World Cup Qualifying and started with two draws that had fans up in arms and rightly so. The production they expected wasn’t there and it was disappointing to see the team struggling after winning two trophies in the previous 6 months. A second half win in their third game may have saved Berhalter’s job for the time being, but the lackluster first half was more ammunition for hardcore critics.

One Fan’s View

There’s a lot to digest from past 30 year of U.S. Soccer. There have been ups and downs to go with legendary moments. No one will forget the handball on the line against Germany, Donovan’s late winner against Algeria, or Wondo skiing a ball over the bar versus Belgium while Tim Howard recorded a World Cup record 15 saves to keep the team in the game. Through all the highs and lows, fans have memories to last lifetime, but we still want more including winning the World Cup.

The most glaring issue I can see comes from U.S. Soccer and how they have failed to manage expectations while trying to change the perception of the team among fans. The organization wanted to stop being the perennial underdogs which requires being the best team in our region, but we cannot be the best team in the region if we cannot be our Mexican rivals consistently. This has led to some mixed messaging as U.S. Soccer touts us as rivals to Mexico one week and then watches us struggle against weaker teams in the region.

A secondary issue stems from this rivalry to be the best in the region while rebuilding the team. There are two mutually exclusive ideas at work. We need to cement our place as the best team which means winning now, but we cannot rebuild and find youth without experiencing some growing pains. Those growing pains generally mean taking some losses and developing youth and depth which means we will remain second best to Mexico.

As an organization, U.S. Soccer has never fully embraced the idea of rebuilding, yet so many other powerhouse nations have had to and been successful at it. Germany had a resurgence under Klinsmann after struggling as soccer power. Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup but stormed back to the win the 2020 European Cup. It’s almost as if U.S. Soccer is afraid that sacrificing short term results for long term success is taboo.

Rather than cutting our losses and getting the kids more experience, we’ve sacrificed player development to maintain our place in the region. Fans from 2002 and 2010 have seen some of the biggest highs in U.S. Soccer history. 2010 saw massive growth among fans and the Donovan goal against Algeria is the stuff legends are made of. It’s becoming more and more apparent that U.S. Soccer doesn’t want to suffer the lows and risk alienating fans with an inferior product while taking the necessary steps to grow the team.

It’s 2021 and media buzz around the team today is still talking about building an identity and developing the youth. It’s the same narrative fans were sold in 2011 surrounding the Klinsmann hire. It’s been 10 years and we’re still on the first step of the rebuild process. There is no U.S. Identity as a soccer nation. That was thrown out in 2011 when we chose not to embrace the perennial underdog role any longer. If we have any identity at all, it’s the good-ole-boys club at the top trying to milk the most money they can from an inferior product. The 2018 World Cup Qualifying disaster, and even the start of 2022 qualifying can easily be summed up as a team that is lesser than the sum of its parts.

Maybe U.S. Soccer should have considered all of this, and the lack of depth in the player pool, in the 2014 and 2018 World Cup cycles. If they could have fully embraced the idea of the rebuild, accepted the growing pains that come with it, and been up front with fans on what was going on, maybe there would be less doom and gloom surrounding the team. Giving full support to a manger and trusting the process would have gone a long way with everyone.

Klinsmann was hired to do the job, but he wasn’t allowed to fully see it through. He was saddled with rebuilding the team while keep level with Mexico. Missing a World Cup is never easy, but there are times where you need to turn the roster over to the kids and just let them experience trial by fire. See who comes out shining brightest and build from there and maybe they earn a World Cup appearance. If they fail to qualify, at least they’re ready and hungry for the next one and more capable leaders for the team.

Last Word: What’s Next for the USMNT Rebuild

It’s easy to see a bright future with all the young stars getting quality minutes in Europe, but it’s easy to have your hopes dashed as injuries mount, attitudes flare, and results go the wrong way. Despite earning an acceptable 5 points from the first three qualifying matches, fans are furious over the how.

First and foremost, the team needs a strong identity that has been lacking since the early days of the Klinsmann era. When he took over there was hope and belief in the process he was laying out. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot more than we have today. Part of this identity needs to include a consistent system of play. Klinsmann brought a more technical 4-2-3-1 in with him. Our players didn’t fit in to it very well, but he found players that were willing to make it work. Berhalter and the kids have seen the most success playing a 4-3-3 and it appears our talent pool is full of talents to fit that system. U.S. Soccer is not known for producing center forwards, but we produce quality wingers and workhorse midfielders. They all have a place in a 4-3-3.

Second the team needs an outright leader with a big personality and commanding presence. We had Cherundolo under Bradley and then Dempsey was the next man up under Klinsmann despite not wearing the armband. Bradley was the last true leader on the team as the longest vet and a general no-nonsense approach. An interesting name to throw out from the current squad is Kellyn Acosta. His antics leading up to penalty kicks have resulted in two failed conversions. He brings much needed attitude and gamesmanship not seen since Dempsey’s departure. He could be a figure the team could rally around even if he’s not the regular starter at his position. Acosta brings a distinctly American feel to what is otherwise a very lackluster team in terms of attitude.

Finally, the team needs U.S. Soccer to stop getting in their own way. Just check social media following a loss to find the hot takes about what is screwed up. All of those perceptions and more plague the federation as a whole. They give the appearance of being rudderless and reactionary while trying to maintain too much control over the team. If a coach is tasked to build an identity and rebuild the program, let him do it.

It’s a mystery where this team would be if Klinsmann wasn’t saddled with the burden of keeping up appearances as a dominant force in the region and allowed to do what needed to be done, let some older players go, and work on the core for later down the road. He ruffled feathers in Germany and he was doing it here, but sometimes that’s what is required and it needs to be allowed to happen unchecked. Changing mentality in an organization like this generally requires removing the holdovers from the old system.

This team was never given the opportunity to rebuild when it needed it most and when it made the most sense. Our lack of a core in the 2014 and 2018 cycles was the perfect time to retool this team. Get the growing pains out of the way when you’re lacking a group of players in their prime that are headlining the team. Focus on the next generation getting significant experience and minutes so they can lead future generations on the field. They were awarded the rebuild when they failed to qualify for the World Cup.

Better late than never, but it should have been started much earlier. Instead of having a squad full of young 20-somethings we could have a more experience squad of mid to late 20-somethings helping the new guys acclimate. It’s a scary situation for USMNT right now. Our team leaders have average around 30 caps each, our most veteran center-back is struggling to gel with any potential partners, and our goal scoring dries up with one or two key injuries.

Despite all the negativity, there is tons of hope to be had. Depth players are stepping up in big moments and fighting for their right to remain with the first team. Brenden Aaronson has left his mark in two straight games and Ricardo Pepi showed up with an all-world performance in his first appearance. This is what the team needs. Let the kids play, don’t overcomplicate the system, and recognize that there will be struggles. It’s too late to change the past, but let’s make sure we get it right going forward.

The men’s team hit rock bottom in 2017, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Hopefully up may means qualifying for the World Cup in 2022, but at the very least we need an identity and some consistency to let the kids flourish. There are too many talents in this generation to let it go to waste. Winning the World Cup in Qatar will be a tall order but given how this generation is positioned at the club level, the focus of all of U.S. Soccer, including fans, should be on making sure the team is ready to host in 2026 when all our “young hopefuls” will be in their primes with 5-6 years of play together.

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