[OP-ED]: The worst day in the history of US soccer
Everything seemed to be finally right after blowing out Panama in Orlando, 4-0. Team USA only needed a tie on the road against a weak Trinidad and Tobago team that had won one of nine qualifying games in the final six-team tournament to secure at least a wild card spot for Russia 2018. In fact, even a loss could get the Americans in the World Cup if either Panama or Honduras did not win…
But disaster took place. The United States National Team had performed irregularly in the tournament, being in the edge several times and it finally failed to the depths. Two early scores by the home squad –the first one an own goal by US defender Omar Gonzalez opened a breach that was impossible to recover for the Americans despite the lonely goal recorded by Hershey’s Golden Boy Christian Pulisic at the start of the second half.
Many defined it as the worst day in the history of US soccer. And it was. It is also true that Panama was awarded a score that did not cross the goal line, but it is also true that the final score at Trinidad and Tobago reaffirmed the saying: “Things that do not start right do not finish right”.
The six-team qualifying tournament could not have started in a worse way for Team USA. The squad coached by Jurgen Klinsmann lost at home against Mexico, 2-1. The first win in American soil for the Mexicans in a qualifying contest since 1972 was not a good prelude for the United States. Then, Team USA was erased from the field at Costa Rica in a lopsided 4-0 loss that ended Klinsmann’s tenure as coach of the American squad. In a tournament to be forgotten the United States managed to account only for one point in home and away outings against the other two CONCACAF powerhouses: Mexico and Costa Rica.
Bruce Arena’s return to head the US bench was a balsam that lasted four games and extended to the Gold CUP in which the veteran coach led Team USA to the championship. We need to remember Mexico and Costa Rica did not have all of their top players, but the Americans won CONCACAF’s main tournament at the end. Arena, who led the US to its best result in a World Cup in the modern soccer era (quarterfinals in 2002) recovered the locker room and gave the fans hope again, especially after a great tie at Mexico, 1-1, in a game in which captain Michael Bradley scored a sensational goal.
Under Arena Team USA did not lose a game for more than nine months. Anyway, soccer has evolved in 15 years. The veteran coach did not find a regular starting lineup. The four defenders that started against Costa Rica in the seventh game were completely different than those who faced Panama in the ninth contest. Arena drew a 4-4-2 system, but did not make any adjustments, playing with two center midfielders in the same line that allowed opponents to find holes easily, generating dangerous counterattacks. The alarms started to warn everybody when two goals by Marco Ureña allowed Costa Rica to defeat Team USA in New Jersey. Things looked better though after Bobby Wood’s late goal resulted in a tie at Honduras, 1-1, and a very aggressive offensive scheme led the US to destroy Panama last week with excellent performances by Pulisic and JozyAltidore.
But when a tie at Trinidad and Tobago was enough, when Team USA needed to tighten things up, Arena came out with the same aggressive lineup used against Panama. The game plan left many open spaces for the home players and the Americans did not react…
Huge defeats generally open reflection periods that end up making good teams better. But not going to the World Cup for the first time since 1986 is devastating. What should change? First of all, the US soccer’s structure must include more people experienced in the game capable of making the right decisions when needed. Soccer has grown in America and there are many kids with huge potential playing now at our fields. The most talented kids should make the move to Europe where the development academies are stronger than in the MLS. More players should follow Pulisic’s footsteps like young Josh Sargent –Team USA Under 17 star- has just done signing for Germany’s WenderBremen. Finally I believe the helm of Team USA should be given to a coach with worldwide experience, who teaches the players to be competitive regardless of the environment. A Klinsmann-like coach, but with a not so big ego would be ideal for the US squad. There are solutions. The ideal man could be found. It is about conducting the right search, while trying to recover from the state of shock in which we all fall last Tuesday.