Bruce Arena is the first casualty of America’s Great Leap Backward in the world of soccer.
Perhaps the most successful coach in U.S. history departed as national team coach Friday while taking responsibility for the country’s failure to reach the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“When I took the job last November, I knew there was a great challenge ahead, probably more than most people could appreciate,” he said in a statement. “Everyone involved in the program gave everything they had for the last 11 months and, in the end, we came up short. No excuses.”
Now, if the Earthquakes get lucky, they can hire Arena, 66, to take over their flagging program as soon as the season ends.
All joking aside, Arena’s resignation won’t cure America’s soccer problem. Just as firing Bob Bradley didn’t in 2011.
We don’t have a coaching problem. It’s much bigger than that. After two decades with a growing domestic pro league, the United States remains a middling soccer country. To wit: The Americans got stunned by Trinidad and Tobago 2-1 this week to finish fifth out of six teams in the final qualifying round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region known as CONCACAF.
Panama and perhaps even Honduras will be heading to Russia with Mexico and Costa Rica. The Americans are relegated to the sideline for the first time since 1986. That alone could set the sport back as U.S. soccer officials used the excitement of the World Cup to drum up support for their programs.
Cracks have been forming for some time. After all, the Under-23 team has failed to advance to the past two Summer Olympics although qualifying games were played in the United States.
Sure, 19-year-old Christian Pulisic is a rising star of unquestionable quality. But he’s the first generational standout since Landon Donovan. It’s going to take a lot more bonafide field players for the United States to become a soccer power.
For starters, here are a few reasons why:
Popularity still not there
As much as Major League Soccer has grown dramatically since its inception in 1996, it remains a minor sport in the eyes of most Americans.
The players and sport still seem to be foreign to the entirety of the U.S. sports marketplace. For example, Danville native Chris Wondolowski can roam around the Bay Area unnoticed although he is on the verge of becoming the league’s all-time leading goal scorer as the star of the Earthquakes.
Fans tune in during the World Cup only to tune out when MLS gets back to action. It doesn’t help that MLS plays on a different schedule than the rest of the world’s leagues that run from August to May.
Has U.S. soccer adequately combed the diverse country to uncover all the talent out there? This has been an ongoing issue for decades with a development system favoring upper-middle class, mostly white, communities.
“The system is not working for the underserved community. It’s working for the white kids,” Doug Andreassen, chairman of US Soccer’s diversity task force, told the Guardian last year. Andreassen isn’t the only one wondering how much talent is lost to Sunday pick-up games traditionally played in Latino communities.
The families of these kids can’t afford the high-cost of club development teams. They are the fall-through-the-cracks talent the Earthquakes should recruit as general manager Jesse Fioranelli builds up the youth academy. MLS teams could change the equation out of survival by mining these untapped fields.
A stacked system
Colleges don’t want to hear this. But the robust men’s college competition enables issue No. 2. Colleges by nature are elite institutions.
Jeremy Gunn at Stanford and Kevin Grimes at Cal have developed top-tier programs that annually send players to the professional ranks. But this is not the place to nurture under-the-radar talent from lower-income areas. It caters to the club system that has been good for upper-middle-class players.
Open to change?
Arena said after the defeat in Trinidad that wholesale changes aren’t needed. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who is up for re-election in February, agreed.
But with the United States, Canada and Mexico favored to win the bid to play host to the 2026 World Cup, something needs to happen to field a quality team on home soil. If leaders at the top refuse to acknowledge their system isn’t working then they’re part of the problem.
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