On Oct. 10, 2017, the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) was defeated by Trinidad and Tobago, failing to get the single point required to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The USMNT has fallen from the upper echelon of the soccer world, nearly at the peak. It got lazy and forgot to look where they were stepping and fell into a freefall.
This was a major setback, but the ground was many miles below. There was plenty of time to deploy the parachute and steer back onto the mountain.
The U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) never pulled the chute. Its moves instead represented a swan dive toward the bottom, hoping to be cushioned by a big pile of cash resting on the concrete below.
Most federations would have been in scramble mode to prevent further damage, desperately grabbing for the rope. The USSF flipped 180 degrees, pointed both arms toward the ground and exclaimed, “Bring it on!”
It denied interviews to two highly respected managers in the international soccer community for its vacant job.
Tata Martino, fresh off guiding Atlanta United to the championship in MLS, reportedly wanted the job. The USSF did not speak to him allegedly because he doesn’t speak fluent English, a requirement the federation had for the job.
As if Christian Pulisic struggled at Borussia Dortmund because he did not speak German.
Julen Lopetegui, mere months removed from finishing a near-perfect UEFA World Cup qualifying campaign with Spain, wanted the job. The USSF did not hear him out.
The manager the USSF did hire? Someone who they waited an entire year for, until his contract with the prestigious and world-class Columbus Crew finished? Why, that would be Gregg Berhalter, who just so happens to have no international managerial experience.
His brother is also Jay Berhalter, the current CFO and presumed next CEO of the USSF. Surely just a crazy coincidence.
And speaking of management, the USSF had a presidential election so concealed and murky it put Bush vs. Gore to shame. After overstaying his welcome and letting the federation run lethargic, Sunil Gulati stepped down as president of the USSF.
In a field of former players talking big change and putting the investment of the national teams first, the voters — who, by the way, no one knows who they are or how they got there — elected Carlos Cordeiro, the right-hand man to Gulati, signalling the continuance of the establishment and acceptance of failure.
For all the executive negligence, the on-the-field negligence is much worse.
Michael Bradley has not played a complete game since 2014. Jozy Altidore cannot score the big one. Gyasi Zardes, to put it lightly, should not be anywhere near the national team conversation.
No player epitomizes this negligence like Omar Gonzalez.
When Gonzalez’s hall of fame-worthy own goal put the U.S. down a goal in the 17th minute in that fateful match against Trinidad and Tobago, it should have meant the end of an international career for the aging center back. Instead, he was in the squad for the Gold Cup last summer and even captained the team against Panama.
If Gonzalez were in any other top-50 federation in the world, he would never wear the badge again.
But perhaps that is the stark reality of the USMNT: A team that made the knockout stages in three of the four World Cups prior to 2018 is not a top-50 federation in the world anymore.
Because a top-50 federation would have pulled the parachute in a heartbeat, cleaned house on the soccer side and rebuilt itself through youth.
The Netherlands made the final and semifinals of consecutive World Cups, but missed out in 2018. It ditched all its aging relics on the pitch, hired a respected manager with a track record in Ronald Koeman, who in turn handed the team over to young players like Matthijs De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong. It just spent 2019 on a march to the UEFA Nations League Final and is a favorite to win this year’s European Championships.
While the USMNT does not have players of that quality, there is still a plethora of young talent available.
Tyler Adams will play a key role in a Red Bull Leipzig side vying for the Bundesliga title.
Pulisic has shown flashes of brilliance at Chelsea, a young team on a positive climb back to trophy contention.
Josh Sargent will soon cement his role as Werder Bremen’s first-choice striker. Zach Steffen has the second most saves in the Bundesliga with Dusseldorf. Gio Reyna just broke Pulisic’s own record, becoming the youngest American to debut in Germany’s top league after playing 18 minutes for Borussia Dortmund a few weeks ago.
But for now, the USSF is ignoring these cords, instead opting to hold on tight to the heavy boulders of Zardes, Altidore and friends.
The federation believes that it can ride the MLS anchor and its own ignorance to a safe landing on its $400 million revenue. The parachute was never an option to them.
Kevin Erlendsson is the Assistant Director of Sports at Bulls Media. Follow him on Twitter, @KErlendsson