Scuffed, Vol. 28: Post-post-mortem, and a new hope in India

Andrew Carleton, right. Tim Weah, second from right.

The avoidable and devastating failure last week to qualify for the World Cup has gifted us all with dozens of fresh prescriptions for what ails men’s soccer in America.

American coaches are too arrogant. The president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Sunil Gulati, must resign. The U.S. needs to play a more attractive brand of soccer. The best American players should stay in Europe in their prime. High-level training for coaches is too expensive and inaccessible. MLS teams should keep a quota of homegrown U.S. talent on their rosters but shouldn’t pay big money for 26-year-old USMNT stars. We must institute promotion-relegation in the MLS. We must hire a famous international manager. We must eliminate the phenomenon of pay-to-play in youth club soccer by…well, I don’t know.

Actually I don’t know about a lot of this stuff. The high cost of coaching licenses seems like a fixable problem, and I happen to agree that the best American players should stay in Europe and fight for playing time in the best leagues until they turn 30. I also think more people should read Tolstoy. But who’s going to force Michael Bradley to stay at Roma when Toronto offers to pay him $6.5 million a year?

The whole discussion is a bit haphazard, and while I know structural matters in American soccer must be attended to, today I want to focus on two points in this dark period of our footballing history.

First, what happened in Trinidad was not a macro failure, at least not primarily. It was a debacle that falls precisely on the heads of the players on the field and the manager, Bruce Arena. The tactics and lineup were egregious, and the team inexcusably bottled the match. Watch this video. It’s 60 seconds of jaw-droppingly low effort before Trinidad scored its second goal — all when the U.S. was down 1–0 in a game that would have qualified us for the World Cup had we tied the score! They should have been fighting like madmen. That they weren’t is on Arena, and them.

Arena’s gone, his legacy marred. An interim manager will be announced soon, probably Tab Ramos. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey are old enough that their international careers are effectively over. What about the other guys? Geoff Cameron didn’t get to play. Christian Pulisic and Matt Besler were fine, and Pulisic is the future. Paul Arriola, DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood hardly covered themselves in glory but they have good miles left in them. As for the rest, I don’t want to be punitive and ban Bradley, Nagbe, Altidore, Jorge Villafana and Omar Gonzalez from the squad, but it’s fair to demote them. They should start from the bottom and compete with everyone else for a spot when we play friendlies and when we get back to competitive soccer in — it pains me to type this — 2019.

My second point has to do with “everyone else,” because the future is bright. As this newsletter has said before, the U.S. men’s player pool was in a unique interregnum in recent months. We were stuck between an accomplished but softened old guard around or over the age of 30, and a thrilling cohort of players around the age of 20 who had just arrived in professional soccer and hadn’t yet displaced any of the veterans thanks to a combination of bad timing, the desperate nature of our qualifying campaign and Arena’s personal comfort with the old guard. In the middle was a “lost generation” of players around age 25 who basically don’t exist.

This problem ultimately spelled our doom, but it is already being addressed. Major League Soccer clubs are now required to have development academies. They and the larger youth development system in the U.S. are producing more talented players. Pulisic, 19, has already made a name for himself in elite soccer, but he’s not alone. Jonathan Gonzalez, 18, broke through at Monterrey late this summer and now starts every match at Michael Bradley’s position for the best club in Mexico. Watch this video of his performance on Saturday. He’s an alert, quick defensive midfielder who plays with intelligence and fire. He wins 50/50 balls, and knows what to do next. All of that would have been welcome last week in Trinidad. Weston McKennie, 19, has started three matches in central midfield for Schalke, a venerated German club that should compete for a Champion’s League spot. He’s a big personality, strong in the air, strong on the ball and a good passer. Probably the future USMNT captain. Ethan Horvath, 22, is the starting goalkeeper for Bruge, the best club in Belgium right now. Chelsea’s Matt Miazga, 22, starts at center back on loan with 4th-place Dutch club Vitesse and is reportedly being pursued by Dutch giants Ajax. Tottenham center back Cameron Carter-Vickers, 19, is having a successful loan spell at Sheffield United, which is two points off the top of the English Championship table, meaning they could be promoted to the Premier League next year. Striker Josh Sargent, 17, will join Werder Bremen in February. More on him later.

Here in Major League Soccer, talented players are bubbling up in an improving league. Tyler Adams, 18, has blossomed into a dominant right wingback for New York Red Bulls. Watch this video. No goals come of it, but he makes three key passes in about 45 seconds. Adams is rumored to be headed to Europe, hopefully as soon as the January transfer window. Justen Glad, 20, is one of the best center backs in MLS for Real Salt Lake. He should get a USMNT call-up soon and European interest should follow, if it isn’t there already. Brandon Vincent, 23, who plays left back for the Chicago Fire, is turning heads in a position of need. Another center back, Erik Palmer-Brown, 20, has been getting minutes for Sporting K.C. and signed a deal with Manchester City, which will probably loan him out next year.

The U.S. will play a friendly against Portugal on Nov. 14. Leave out Sargent and Palmer-Brown (they aren’t starting professional soccer games right now) and call up the rest of the names above. We could field a lineup like this, running the 4–3–3 that’s become the hallmark of U.S. youth teams. The average age would be 21:

Meanwhile, the age group below the one largely represented in that lineup looks at least as promising, and it’s a credit to the MLS academies. The U-17s are playing in the World Cup in India, right now. Of the starting XI we played in our last match, seven came from MLS clubs.

The team came into this tournament with high expectations. Sargent (not an MLS product) already has a professional contract and is considered one of the best youth goalscorers in the world. Other players of note are Atlanta United’s Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin, D.C. United’s Chris Durkin and Paris St. Germain’s Tim Weah (a native of New York and son of A.C. Milan legend George Weah). The boys won twice in the group stage but struggled to find a rhythm and finished third. That was just enough to advance to the Round of 16 against Paraguay, who won their group, and expectations were calibrated downward before Monday’s matchup. We were the underdog.

But something magical happened, and his name is Andrew Carleton. Slotted in as a play-maker behind Sargent, the little homeschooler from Powder Springs, Ga., put on a show. He was tricky, strong on the ball and full of intent, spraying passes all over. Watch this video. It captures his performance well. The pass down the wing to set up the first goal is a thing of beauty. Watch it twice, please. He strikes the ball first-time with the outside of his boot and it curls on the ground into the path of Ayo Akinola, who squares to Weah for a tap-in. And it was just the beginining for Carleton. His strength and clever backheel sprang the attack that led to Weah’s second goal. Carleton, assisted by Sargent, buried the third goal and then Carleton assisted on the last two goals, clinically. The U.S. beat Paraguay 5–0, to everyone’s surprise. Official highlights here.

Sargent had his best game of the tournament — a goal, an assist and flashes of good hold-up play. He looked rusty in the group stage and seemed to be shaking that off. Weah scored a hat trick (I’m still not convinced by him even though that second goal was a screamer). Durkin and Goslin (and James Sands) quietly laid the foundation for all that magic. They’ve been strong, smart and reliable all tournament.

Next up is a quarterfinal match against England on Saturday (9:30 a.m. CT, FS2). We’ll be missing Goslin on yellow card accumulation and I think that spells trouble, given how much work he does defensively and his assuredness on the ball. The Total Soccer Show did a good job of explaining Goslin’s value. If we can pull off a victory, though, it’ll match our nation’s best ever finish in this tournament, and scouts are there. Surely Carleton attracted interest from Europe with his Monday masterclass. Durkin, who’s been wonderful all tournament, has got to be on some radars too.

Historically, only two or three U-17 players ever pans out for the national team, so who knows what will happen with any of these young men. But remember, we have five years until another World Cup with an American team in it. These guys will be 22. There’s every reason to pay attention.

Scuffed is a weekly soccer newsletter focused on the U.S. Men’s National Team, and the players who could one day make it better. You can sign up here.