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Is American soccer doomed or is it all Chicken Little?

Saturday 14th October 2017
After a disastrous qualifying campaign ended in failure, professional and social media are going all Chicken Little on the American game.

If you're American, you were probably more concerned about Donald Trump sticking the executive knife in Obamacare. If you live anywhere else in the world, you probably focused on more traditional footballing nations. So, if you missed it, the United States lost its final qualifying match to bottom-table side Trinidad. For the first time in eight cycles, Murica will not be going to the 2018 World Cup. Oh, and Bruce Arena has stepped down as USMNT manager.

In the aftermath, critics are treating the news as the death knell for Major League Soccer, grassroots development of the sport, and just about everything else. It is not. The sky is not falling on US soccer.
ESPNFC's Gab Marcotti conducted an insightful autopsy of the body. Even though everything Marcotti wrote is deadly accurate despite being penned from a distance, even though he didn't carry his argument as far as he might, soccer in the United States is not dead. That's just the diagnosis for the country's hopes in the current World Cup cycle.

Supporters are angry, yes. Many are vociferously disgusted with the team's direction. As are England fans. More to the point, as are Dutch supporters. After making it to the final in South Africa, then the semis in Brazil, where l'Oranje piled on a shell-shocked host side to claim third place in the tournament, the scions of Cruyff, Van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard, and Kluivert have failed to qualify for the last two major tournaments. This is a country whose style revolutionised the game. It forever changed the footballing world, stretching beyond its own borders to mould the greatest generation Catalonian football has ever seen. Its fans are unhappy, certainly. They are not about to walk away from the game, however. Neither are their American counterparts.

In fact, it's indicative of football's progress stateside that there is this much hue and cry over the national team's failure. The pain runs as deep as when the men's basketball team crashed and burned in the 2004 Olympics. People who a generation before laughed at the notion of soccer as a passion, people who claimed it was dull, pointless, and slow, are up in arms. That's a good thing.
Customer dissatisfaction is one thing profit-minded businessmen don't enjoy. They want repeat business to keep the turnstiles cranking and the coffers filled. The powers that be should finally be motivated to move beyond the status quo, to explore new options.

This isn't condemnation for the veteran players many fans rail against. That wouldn't be necessary even if I completely agreed with the youth and speed camp. Tim Howard, Nick Rimando, and Brad Guzan are 38, 38, and 33 respectively. The next cycle would have introduced a new generation of goalkeepers. Similarly, Clint Dempsey (34), Graham Zusi (31), Geoff Cameron (32), and especially the inexplicably favoured Chris Wondolowski (34) should all be retired. Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones had already been phased out. Captain Michael Bradley will be 34 when the Qatar tournament rolls around. The 2022 team is going to be filled with new, younger faces simply because time waits for no athlete. The only detriment to not appearing in Russia is that the fresh faces who have already made an impression, namely Christian Pulisic and Jordan Morris, won't gain any experience on the biggest stage.

No, the important question now is who will shape the new USMNT? Who will teach all that skill and athleticism how to be footballers? Because that is the Achilles heel for US soccer. It has powerful athletes. It has athletes blessed with speed. Plain and simple, it has athletes. Save for one, it does not have footballers.
Once upon a time, a young New Jersey kid named Giuseppe Rossi notoriously spurned the USMNT to play for Italy. He waved goodbye to Lady Liberty for a career in the Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A. Injury wrecked that career. Recently, he expressed regret for his decision because, even when he was healthy, Rossi was only ever a fringe player in the Azzurri squad.

Yet, he made the decision because he wanted to be a footballer. He couldn't have been that in MLS or the USMNT. Even under Jurgen Klinsmann, the focus was on developing athletic ability. Rossi's greatest attribute was his poacher's instinct. He'd have become another Wondolowski, an outlier, a Plan B.

Christian Pulisic has partially followed in Rossi's footsteps. A second Jersey boy who left the US behind as a teenager, this time to make his mark with the technically adept Bundesliga's most innovative club, Borussia Dortmund. Make no mistake, Pulisic hemorrhages athletic ability. More importantly, though, he has a football mind and has cultivated it at the Westfalonstadion.
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That was self evident in Trinidad, mid-week. With the US squad disintegrating around him, down 2-0 when a result should have been straightforward, he dragged the team back into the match. His goal brought the US within one. Unfortunately, unless you appreciate the need for an occasional lesson in humility, an equaliser couldn't be found. Meanwhile, Panama won its match on a goal that should have been disallowed. Still, that was only fair play after the United States had snuffed the Canal Men's hopes four years earlier with a late leveler that put Mexico into the fourth qualifying place.

Pulisic is both an athlete and a footballer, qualities the best modern players must possess. He will continue to develop each trait while with Dortmund. BvB's program is built to produce such talents.

MLS has an Argentine manager with solid European and World Cup experience. Gerardo Martino has built an exciting, competitive side from scratch in Atlanta. Tata would be an ideal choice to implement a cultural change within the USMNT.

Of course, said cultural change involves leaving racism behind. Hiring Martino would be a bold choice in the current political climate. Donald Trump may be focused on health care this week but just seven days ago he was railing against minority NFL players who were protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. Next week, he may well remember his promise to build a wall to keep Latinos supposedly intent on stealing American jobs south of the Rio Grande. In such an environment, would US soccer be willing to give its most important job, for the first time, to a Spanish-speaking, South American boss?

Given the team's problems are a deficient football nous and imagination, one has to wonder.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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