Let me needlessly add to the cacophonic panic.
Yes, football people bleeding ‘Ol Glory’s RW&B, you should be panicked, in the present. But a high, free-floating anxiety as to American soccer should’ve been an ongoing project for you, starting a long time ago on a crappy, anthill bombed pasture-as-pitch far, far away; the “fields” upon which you played as a youth, or, perhaps more recently, soccer-mommed and/or dadded.
The USMNT, the national team program, and its cheerleaders need to quit with the excuses. Going into this qualifying window I didn’t assume we’d do well, mostly because our player pool is too large, diffuse, and lacks cohesion and familiarity. We fielded two different teams over the summer — squads “A” and “C” — winning those tournaments with them. And we were (uneasily) happy. However, two games into World Cup qualifying and it’s obvious: the team isn’t yet a team. I wouldn’t say there’s an I in it, but there’s definitely a meh.
The smug, daft, and the tragically hopeful thought we’d cruise through these CONCACAF octagonal's opening matches. Alas, despite not being able to complete three consecutive passes in the second half against El Salvador because it was loud and scary there, and failing to cover a player standing wide open enough to do a The Hills Are Alive twirl in front of the goal during a Canadian counter attack, qualifying for Qatar is now an uphill battle and I see no markers identifying a program or players that can rise to it. Not if I’m being honest.
Thoughts and prayers and being all golly-gee hopeful, complete with the de rigueur positive hashtags, won’t cut it. Instead of out-footballing our opponents as we’d hoped to do we are finding that we must grit our teeth and dig in to be competitive. The Spirit of ’76 era used to have that grit. Maybe today’s players are better man-for-man than those of that era, but I’m not seeing that needed grit. The problems with the USMNT explored in Steven Mandis’s book have been laid bare yet again. And while the US may produce some competitive individual players here and there over the decades, I’m not convinced this country is structurally capable of producing a serious men’s program. I would prefer to be proved wrong, but I’m 95% sure I’m not.
No, I’m no expert, nor am I much of a sporting patriot. I’m just a garden variety fanatic of the game I grew up playing who quit seriously playing right before college, choosing not to lean into the sport by saying “hold my beer” but opting for the less challenging and more enjoyable “give me a beer”. With those bone fides — which include coaching a healthy amount of kids rec soccer requiring only the “give me a beer” football CV—the problem from my learned perspective is that we’ve got too many football experts, coaches, and trainers talking calmly and, to my ear, making excuses, while the rest of the legitimate football world already had its national team pools winnowed down to 35 players compared to our 50+ by late spring, getting tighter, getting familiar; while the rest of the football world continues to boil teams up from within their century old systems, players who mostly play professionally within their country of citizenship (heard of La Masia? Ajax Academy? We don’t have one of those. The US will never have one of those because we’re…the US. Original Football is not in our national-cultural DNA. You can try to inject it artificially into the system with a needle, but then you get something grotesque like the timelorn creatures born into Jurassic Park. It just ain’t natural, and it won’t go well.) As a burgeoning football culture, we look and sound the part: We’ve got the dudes with hair styled in soccer fades mic’d up in highwater, tapered pant cuff suits sans socks sitting in TV studios and we’ve got a lot of soccer media talkers with podcasts jawing and fawning over this program the day before El Salvador but who are now left speechless, and a Twitter mob lighting its torches and sharpening its pitchforks for Berhalter if we lose to Honduras on Wednesday. At Olímpico Metropolitano. Which will also be scary vis a vis Nashville.
But and so meanwhile, Mexico wins a game on the road without their coach and down key players….
As a football culture, we’ve got to quit whining and making excuses and get much more realistic about the men’s side. We don’t yet have the goods, not as a national program, and probably never will. It’s not in the national DNA.
Don’t believe that? When’s the last time you saw kids playing soccer in the street in this country? In front yards? How’s that small town Kansas high school team doing this year? Oh, that’s right: there isn’t one.
Regardless, I’ll probably be watching the guys run around out there for twelve more matches for the fun of the game and its spectacle — for that’s all it is, he says soothingly.