By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 1, 2016) US Soccer Players – The US soccer scene has experienced an eventful few years of late, and probably has plenty more in store. Still, it’s hard to recall a week with more ups, downs, consternation and recrimination than the past seven days.
The USMNT avoided a World Cup qualifying disaster with a confident 4-0 thumping of Guatemala in Columbus, Ohio on Tuesday evening. That came four days after an historic upset loss at the hands of the same team in Guatemala City. Immediately afterwards, the U-23 squad stumbled to a 2-1 loss to Colombia in Frisco, Texas that killed their dreams of representing the United States in this summer’s Olympics.
On Wednesday the New York Daily News published an in-depth investigative report on the US Soccer Federation’s handling of the U.S. Women’s National Team, focusing on the murky financial relationship between the federation and Soccer United Marketing, the promotional arm of MLS that controls large swathes of the sport’s events and media-rights landscape.
Then, early Thursday morning, the WNT’s leading figures filed a wage discrimination complaint against USSF with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the federation’s pay structure for its top two national teams violates the Equal Pay Act. The move will likely trigger what could prove a sweeping, landmark federal investigation into the inner details of how much money US Soccer makes, where it comes from, and how it gets distributed.
Tongues would be wagging if any one of these occasions took place in a given week. Here we sit, inundated with all of them at once. The men’s squad has advanced to the point that any wobbles whatsoever on the road to Russia are greeted with shock and outrage – and the relentless success of their female counterparts amplifies the demands for global dominance in both genders.
A corollary to that growth is that back-to-back failures to reach the Summer Games’ men’s tournament are perceived as not just embarrassing, but a dangerous warning sign for the future of the program. Meanwhile, as more and more money and power flows to the federation in charge of all this, there are more questions about the manner in which both are handled.
There’s so much happening right now, and so much of it is so contentious and emotional, that it’s easy to miss the signs of progress that undergird all this drama.
American Soccer has never been bigger, and never been more fractured, conflicted, or miserable. It’s really something to see.
— Mark Fishkin (@MarkFishkin) March 31, 2016
Many fans were calling for Jurgen Klinsmann’s head – and still do – because a sizeable portion of soccer fans in this country have come to see World Cup participation as a minimum expectation for the USMNT. To be fair, this is a natural consequence of six consecutive successful qualifying campaigns. Aall the building work that went into that world-class streak was done with the specific hope that future generations of soccer people would grow not only in size, but sophistication. We’re supposed to want more by now.
Similarly, there’s irony in the fact that the US Soccer Federation’s years of work to nurture and safeguard the sport have succeeded to the point that its fundamental ways of doing things are now coming in for harsh scrutiny. Current president Sunil Gulati and his immediate predecessors have adeptly overseen the USSF’s dizzying climb from threadbare volunteer organization to multi-million-dollar commercial heavyweight over the past two decades. Yet, they now find themselves fighting fires of unprecedented heat and complexity.
Has US Soccer – and the game as a whole – outgrown a leadership structure based on the wisdom of a small, nimble brain trust? It took the US political system decades to outgrow the system of party insiders selecting presidential candidates in the proverbial “smoke-filled rooms,” and some observers wonder if a similar evolution is underway in soccer.
Such questions will probably not be answered for years to come. Now that back-to-back generations of U-23s have fallen short of the Olympics in humbling circumstances – and on home soil to boot – the federation’s technical staff, however, has far less time to show that they possess the right formula for making the needed advancements in player development. While the terms of his lucrative contract make it unlikely that Klinsmann’s era is ending any time soon, at this moment those two fiascos are awkward bookends to his time in charge.
In 2011 Caleb Porter assembled what many believed to be the most talented U-23 group in program history, only for CONCACAF also-rans Canada and El Salvador to cut off their road to London 2012. Now Andi Herzog – Klinsmann’s right-hand man – has proved unable to coax the best out of a group packed with professionals plying their trade both home and abroad.
For this columnist, it was the manner of defeat in the Colombia series that was more galling than the final result. Last Friday Herzog’s boys gutted out a classic American road result in steamy Barranquilla, opportunistically scoring early and weathering waves of pressure en route to a 1-1 first-leg draw. Yet they could muster no such grit on home soil, struggling to fulfill Herzog’s promise of more possession and proactive play as the Cafeteros bossed them in nearly every aspect of the game. Worst of all, the US U-23s’ lost any semblance of composure in the decisive second half, falling victim to the crafty Colombians’ mind games and finishing the game with nine men.
As American players turn pro and spend more time in high-level training environments at earlier and earlier ages, we tend to assume that each generation of players is more gifted and prepared than the last. Yet this week the U-23s looked less like senior national teamers in waiting and more like the overmatched college kids who were schooled at the 1990 World Cup, their nation’s first such experience in nearly half a century.
Who’s at fault here? There are too many variables to answer that with any sort of brevity here. However, between the U-23s falling short, the MNT’s recent stumbles, and the increasing angst towards the sport’s top US leaders, it may be time for fans and pundits to not only ponder the answers, but re-imagine the questions themselves.
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