After the United States men's national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Bleacher Report surveyed American soccer experts to plot out a solution.
Here's a truth: If the United States doesn't score an unlucky own goal. Or give up a stupendous rip from distance. Or Clint Dempsey's late shot doesn't ping off the post and instead equalizes against Trinidad and Tobago. Or Honduras doesn't upset Mexico after going behind twice. Or Panama doesn't get an 88th-minute winner against Costa Rica. Or if the U.S. claws a single point more out of its sorry qualifying campaign and reaches the World Cup in Russia next summer, then the ongoing inquisition never happens.
But all of those things conspired to go against the U.S., resulting in a statistically highly improbable elimination. ESPN's metric gave all of this a 7 percent likelihood.
Here's another truth. If the U.S. had qualified, the underlying issues in the men's national team program that made the road to Russia such a slog—a long path on which the Americans never did reach their destination—would have been just as real. In fact, we probably would have gone longer without realizing that, while American soccer has progressed enormously, much of it still needs to be shored up.
So, unsatisfied with moping about going almost eight years without an American appearance at a World Cup, Bleacher Report called up five experts from all segments of the U.S. soccer community and asked them to come up with a plan to fix the program.
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1. Realize that this is an opportunity
Kyle Martino, former U.S. men's national teamer, Major League Soccer player and current NBC soccer analyst: "In a very difficult silver lining search, you would say that qualifying for this World Cup would have again papered over some cracks, and underneath the surface, things would continue to weaken and deteriorate. Absent serious soul-searching and critique and analysis of where we are weak as a soccer country and where U.S. Soccer [is], failing to qualify for this World Cup will only be the second-worst thing that happened in this year."
2. Get real
Herculez Gomez, former USMNT, MLS and Liga MX player and current ESPN soccer analyst: "Who are we as a footballing nation to demand more? Does three cycles really mean that much? Up until recently, we were struggling in CONCACAF Gold Cups. We don't necessarily tear it up in the World Cups. If you go back to the last three World Cups, in group play, you haven't won more than once. There's so much we haven't done that makes me kind of ask the question, 'Who are we to expect these things?' Sometimes we think we're better than we are because as Americans, we're used to being better than the majority of people around the world in a lot of sports."
3. Don't make assumptions
Benny Feilhaber, current national team and MLS player and a late substitute in the fateful loss to Trinidad and Tobago: "The whole time, my point of view was, 'We're not playing well, we're playing poorly. We're not doing the things that we used to be good at that made us a tough team to play against. But … there's no way we're missing the World Cup.' My mentality was, 'We're going to get it done. We're better than the Panamas of the world, the Hondurases.' It's almost embarrassing the way we were getting it done in the first place, but we were going to get it done in the end. I think that was the mentality of everyone on the team."
4. Accept the occasional failure on the upward ascent
Feilhaber: "I still see soccer as a growing sport in the U.S. We're improving. American players are improving. U.S. Soccer is improving. Even though we missed out on the World Cup, which is the biggest thing to look at, it's almost a bump in the road, so to speak—one step back for two steps forward. Those things are going to happen. We'd like to think it would never happen to us. But it shows you we're not as far ahead as we think. But we’re still progressively getting better."
5. Solve soccer's class issue
Martino: "We're a country of 330 million, but in terms of pipeline and how big our net is for finding talent, we're a small country. A study showed that of all the sports in our country, the lowest participation rate among the lowest income class is in soccer. And it's because it's a rich kid's game. It's remarkable how much it costs kids to get into the system. Pay-for-play needs to be addressed."
6. Create entry points for the underserved demographics
Gomez: "Not having some sort of mechanism where it's accessible not only to middle- and upper-middle class suburban kids, but to demographics that are grossly underrepresented, that's a big detriment to the sport. Such a big country, you should be able to—with the resources we have at hand—for lack of a better term, breed better players. But who knows what would have become of my professional career [without a benefactor paying my travel soccer fees] given the opportunities that a kid without resources wouldn't have had. In other countries, there are more demographics represented, whether that's social class or race."
7. Address our cultural competitive disadvantage
Feilhaber, who was born in Brazil: "There's just more of an incentive to be a good baseball player, a good basketball player, a good football player than there is for a soccer player. And there's just so much other competition in terms of what else people can be here. They can be professional athletes in other sports. They can make money by going to college and make money as a doctor or lawyer. In third-world countries, you're not necessarily going to be able to do that—a lot of kids won't have the means to do that. And in other first-world countries, there's no other sport to compete with soccer. Those are all big issues. What are you going to do? Take your kid out of school and bet on him becoming the best soccer player ever?"
8. Develop a plan for improving youth development
Martino: "I appreciate the unique challenge in mobilizing the soccer country from East Coast to West Coast. But I'm just not seeing any suggestions or attempts to do those things. Whether it's putting in five centers of excellence, spread out across the country, and making those free. Or it's putting that $100 million [in cash reserves] that's sitting somewhere in a U.S. Soccer account and creating a pipeline, starting from scouting to delivering kids to academies that they don't have to pay for. I don't see anyone even trying to say, 'This is a good idea and this is what it will cost. Can we do that?'"
9. Scout more expansively
Martino: "The players that litter the Ballon d'Or list every year, or that are winning World Cups or Copa Americas or the Champions League, a lot of these players are from the favelas and the cities and played on the street. Someone cast a net wide enough to catch them, and we don't do that here. No one is really talking about why and how you fix that because it's such a profitable thing to have a country club of soccer players."
10. Don't overlook the more rural areas
Carson Porter, executive director of the Wilmington Hammerheads, a youth soccer club in North Carolina that competes with 65 teams and 2,500 players: "We're on the coast. We're somewhat isolated. And my concern, and one of the fights that I'm fighting every day, is creating a pathway so that our players get just as much of an opportunity to be as good as they can possibly be as the kids in Dallas and Los Angeles and Chicago."
11. Forge a national playing identity
Gomez: "It starts at the top. A good team, a good club, a good national team, is run a certain way. The way the first team plays is the way the U20 team plays, the U17 team, the U15s, the U13s, and every rank would employ the same style, the same tactics, the same mantra. So if at any point you get bumped up, the player doesn't miss a beat. We're not like that in this culture. You know how Spain plays; you know what type of team Italy is; you know with England, what they are. I don't know what the U.S. is. I don't know what the DNA is. I don't know tactically how they're going to deploy themselves."
12. Improve coaching at the young ages
Martino: "My biggest concern is that the training that's not happening is the training without a coach. All of the kids that pick up a ball and get on a field or get on a blacktop, that's where the soccer world starts, and at some point, they're lost. And whether they're lost to another sport or lost because they hit a financial barrier, we're not getting past a certain threshold. Elite academies and coaching systems and curriculum and identities, and the first team to the Olympic team to the under-20s—all of that is important, but it has to start at the very beginning because there are kids all over this country picking up a ball, and not enough are picking up a soccer ball or staying with a soccer ball. It's the most important group that isn't."
Ray Reid, longtime men's soccer head coach at UConn: "You have to get more coaches and better coaches dealing with kids seven to eight years old and getting them into better environments, getting them away from the parent-coach. Even if it's just a bit of small-side, organized fun activities."
13. Encourage diversity in playing styles
Gomez: "Coaching in this country has been very subpar. We have this idea in certain sectors of the country that we can only play the game a certain way—an English style. If you're a young player coming through the ranks and you don't necessarily have the size or athleticism but maybe you have different things like technical ability that are valued in different types of soccer cultures, you're not valued [here]."
14. Select for hunger
Martino: "I'm the rich kid. It was just too easy for me. I didn't have enough heart and mental strength. I had the opportunity to go to Benfica, right before I went to the University of Virginia for my freshman year, and I didn't take that opportunity and I regret it to this day. And the reason I didn't take it was probably because it was going to be really hard. I didn't need soccer. I loved it and I wanted to be a professional soccer player. But if it didn't work out, it was going to be fine. That's not the right type of player permeating through your team. You don't want a team full of guys like me. I was mentally weak, which is why eventually my body collapsed and I didn't challenge myself to get to the next level."
15. Continue to push the academies to professionalize
Reid: "The academy stuff is better, but it's still not good enough. You're still not in all the academies getting the proper training. So you're in a better environment, but is the environment being maximized? Probably not."
16. Make the coaching certificates, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars when you include travel costs, more affordable
Gomez: "It's very difficult to come up through the certified coaching ranks. It's tedious, it's time-consuming, it's expensive. It's difficult for anybody who actually wants to go through the process. So you're probably losing a lot of bright soccer minds."
Porter: "There was a time when you went to a coaching week and 95 percent of the coaches that were there got a license. That's not the case anymore. There's an application fee; there's a professional and a youth pathway now. They've gotten much more specific and much more selective. And I think that's a good thing. But I also think that with selectivity and that resume that you need to go through those coaching courses, you still need to make it possible for all coaches. So that price point might be difficult for people to handle."
17. Create a viable pathway
Porter: "The one thing for me that we have to keep focusing on is the pathway. That's something that's getting better and needs to keep getting better. When they're excelling at a level, what's the next step to the next level? And the next step to the next level? This pathway sometimes can get confusing to parents who are involved in this process. The simpler the pathway, the better."
18. De-emphasize immediate profit in the youth game
Porter: "In North Carolina youth soccer, we have to be a non-profit organization. That doesn't solve the problem by any means, but it's a small piece. We spend every dollar that comes in. Where it starts is the revenue side of it. People scream, 'You can't pay to play!' But we have to be able to provide some form of a revenue stream or some sort of support to allow you to not pay to play. We want to make it as inexpensive as possible, but we don't have a revenue stream, that maybe other countries do, that allows for this. A player who moves on from a youth academy, that academy can potentially be funded by the player's success for years to come if you're in the European model. And so that's where we're struggling."
19. Educate parents about the relative unimportance of winning at the youth level
Porter: "We try to do everything we can to educate our parents. What's the first thing you ask? 'Did you win?' As clubs, and as soccer leaders, we have to talk about our game being very unique in our landscape because [unlike in soccer] when you play basketball, usually the best team wins."
20. Recognize that MLS' priority is MLS
Gomez: "If MLS focuses on its own player development, that's fine. But MLS' priority is to strengthen MLS, not to strengthen the U.S. national team. So if that's the case, there needs to be some sort of rule within MLS, NASL, USL that promotes domestic growth. Mexico used to have a rule that your team had to [play homegrown Mexican players for a minimum number of minutes] and if you didn't, your team would be docked points. Because of that rule, there were two under-17 World Cup champions from Mexico."
21. Understand that MLS improves the rest of CONCACAF as much, if not more than the USMNT
Martino: "MLS has been great for U.S. Soccer. But MLS has been just as good, if not better, for the guy who scored the winning goal for Panama. Guys that are getting opportunities and playing regularly in MLS are littered all over CONCACAF. They're the ones we're competing with in qualifying. We've sort of helped our competitors in a big way with Major League Soccer."
22. Embrace and implement promotion and relegation between the professional leagues
Martino: "The future is an open system. I feel it will make the league more compelling and competitive, which will help to develop the type of players who can handle the pressure on the international stage. It would also be a great differentiator in a crowded sports market, helping soccer to stick out in a way the other sports never will."
23. Force U.S. Soccer to become more transparent
Martino: "We should be privy to more of the nuances of the decisions. It should be more transparent, where if they are doing as good a job as they argue, then that would be all the more reason to open the blinds and show us what's being done."
24. Build a home-field advantage
Martino: "It's much easier for teams to come to the U.S. and play us than it is for us to play there. When the Costa Ricans come here, the stadium feels just as comfortable to them as to the U.S. players. That doesn't happen anywhere else."
25. Take advantage of the college system, an underexploited resource that no other country has, by bringing it in line with the rest of the sport
Reid: "We have to get away from the overtime rule. We have to get to a more FIFA-like concept of substitutions and, as best we can, stretch the [three-month] season out."
26. Finally do away with two-term national team head coaches
Feilhaber: "At this point in time, we should never miss a World Cup. We're a good enough team, we've got good enough players, and we play in a weak region. We play in a region where you're not playing Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia. We should easily be one of the top two—at worst, three—teams in CONCACAF. I do think there were some big problems, especially in the beginning of the cycle. We didn't have an identity. We struggled, and I think all the warning signs were there. It's also a difficult thing to give a coach a second four years on the job. It just gets stale, regardless of who the coach is. Players just respond better to new ideas, when they have to prove themselves again. There were warning signs there."
27. Write off the next few years of results to rebuild
Gomez: "If you think of what should happen, the next two years should be a wash. There should be an interim coach and nobody hired until after the World Cup. This time from now until the next competitive game the U.S. has should be looked at for developing players within the national team. So you can focus and create a nucleus of players to push the veterans out. But these players, for as good as they've been—legendary players within the program—they need to be the players to pass the torch and make sure the next generation comes in and is able to handle the pressures and learn what it takes to play at the level."
28. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater
Porter: "We've got to be really careful. This result is a dark cloud, but there's a lot of good going on in the youth programs right now. Obviously there’s a lot of disappointment. But when you have Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic and Timothy Weah and Erik Palmer-Brown and Cameron Carter-Vickers and some of these guys that hopefully will be in lineups and in camps in the next year, I think there's a lot of good going on."
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a sports communication lecturer at Marist College and a freelance sports writer. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.