With the United States out of World Cup 2006, it seems to be a good time for American soccer to take a long look at itself—and to decide exactly what kind of a program it wants to be in the future. The question, I think, goes something like this: are we serious about becoming a world-class football nation, and a legitimate threat to take home the biggest trophy in sports? Or are we content to keep playing the role of upstart and sometime spoiler, which we've occupied for most of the last two decades?
I should preface this piece by noting, for the sake of the casual fan, that the soccer-illiterate idiots at ESPN flagrantly overhyped the 2006 US team. Yes, the American squad had more talent this year than it did in 2002, but the "experts" conveniently overlooked a long list of flaws. First, the spine of the defense was composed of relative newcomers and aging veterans (like Eddie Pope and Claudio Reyna) who had grown older and slower since Korea. Second, no one on the American roster had been in the regular rotation for any of the major European clubs. Third, the team had very few players with experience in Germany, and had a history of poor performances on Continental soil. Finally (and most inexplicably ignored by all those idiots out there), the Americans were drawn against a perennial powerhouse (Italy), the number-two ranked team in the world (the Czech Republic), and a dangerously talented team with nothing to lose (Ghana).
That all adds up to two things. One: the US side wasn't world-class, even by the ridiculously low standards of the mainstream American media. Two: no one could have reasonably expected the Americans to advance to the Round of 16 this year—but that doesn't necessarily mean they regressed from 2002. Like March Madness and the MLB playoffs, the World Cup often turns on luck, namely where you play and who you play against. Four years ago, the US played before relatively friendly South Korean crowds against a weaker group, and advanced despite blowing a game against Poland. That's a sign of luck, not talent. This year the breaks went against Bruce Arena's team, and they still managed to make things interesting. The bottom line, I think, is that American soccer has continued to progress relative to the rest of the world. Germany 2006 wasn't great, but you can't compare it to the disappointment of France 1998.
Therefore, when I talk about American soccer sitting at a crossroads, I'm not suggesting a choice between being good and being bad. We're past that. Instead, we have a decision to make: are we okay with just being good, or do we want to be among the best in the world?
If we choose the second path, there's some business we have to take care of immediately. First, Arena can no longer be the coach of the national team. Period. He's had an outstanding tenure, to be sure, but his team came out flat against the Czechs and struggled again in the Ghana game. Even worse, he made a string of inexcusable coaching mistakes, like limiting Eddie Johnson's minutes despite a sagging offense and the forward's energetic performance in the opener. Were Arena coaching any of the big-name football nations—Brazil, England, Germany—he would have resigned immediately after the Cup or been summarily canned. Keeping him around would only show the world we aren't yet serious about soccer.
In a broader sense, the US team needs a change of direction in the next four years, and part of that has to involve expanded horizons. In finding a replacement for Arena, the American brass should look to the best available candidate, not just the best available American. No coach in US history has gotten more from his team than Bora Milutinovic, a Serbia native, in 1994. Like it or not, USA soccer doesn't have the domestic resources of a Brazil, an Italy, or a Spain, all of whom can get away with being nationalists when they hire managers. And heck, imported coaches are part of a new trend in the global game; even England went with a Swede—Sven Goran-Eriksson—after lackluster results under Brits like Terry Venables, Kevin Keegan, and Glenn Hoddle.
Another point: no one currently over the age of 31 should be allowed to suit up for the national team again. There are some good players in the old guard, but this team has to start building right now for the 2010 Cup, and none of the current veterans are talented enough to start for a serious international contender at 35 or over. Zach Thornton might cut it as a backup between the posts, and if you want to believe that Pablo Mastroeni will be able to contribute on the eve of his 34th birthday, fine—but no more Reyna (he retired; tell him no if he ever wants to come back); no more McBride; no more Eddie Lewis, Eddie Pope, or Frankie Hejduk. USA Soccer made a mistake by letting non-elite players from the last generation (think Earnie Stewart, Joe-Max Moore, and Cobi Jones) play forever instead of developing young talent on the field. They can't afford to do it again.
Finally, the Powers That Be have to do whatever it takes to get more of America's young talent playing (and succeeding) for the biggest clubs in the world. MLS might have to bite the bullet—don't even get me started on that league—but tough; the national team's success should be the number one goal for everyone even tangentially involved with American soccer. World-class sides don't have key players toiling for 2nd Division English squads (Bobby Convey), second-rate Dutch teams (John O'Brien), or—worst of all—mediocre MLS outfits (too many to count). Before they can even think about winning a World Cup, the Americans need their best players to taste elite competition in the English Premier League, the Italian Serie A, the Spanish Liga Primera, the Bundesliga (Germany), or with one of the bona fide Champions League teams from countries like France, Scotland, and Holland. Forget Landon Donovan washing out with Bayer Leverkeusen (Germany) and then scurrying back to the MLS with his tail between his legs; you've got to run with the best if you want to be the best, and we need our top players cutting their teeth against the world's finest if we're ever going to become a global soccer powerhouse.
And the stage is definitely set in 2010. The Cup will be held in South Africa, meaning no traditional favorite will be able to lay claim to homefield advantage. Brazil, Spain, Argentina, and England look to be very good next time around, but not so good that the American squad won't be able to compete. Four years from now, we'll have a strong core of players in their nominal primes (Donovan, DeMarcus Beasley, etc.) and another group of talented vets (O'Brien and Mastroeni, to name two) in their early 30s. Mix in a few rising young stars (Eddie Gaven, Freddy Adu), earn a favorable seeding in qualification play, and, with a little luck, the US team can be a legitimate contender—instead of a pipe dream concocted by ESPN marketing executives...