Go ahead, Alexi Lalas, keep ranting. You, too, Taylor Twellman. As former members of the U.S. national team, you have every right to be angry.
U.S. Soccer should be ashamed of itself.
Iceland, a nation of 335,000 people, will play in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The United States, population 324 million, will not.
Anybody who cares about soccer in this country is justifiably crushed, livid and demanding major change after the U.S. team’s embarrassing 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday night — without question the biggest failure in U.S. Soccer history.
“Iceland is the size of Corpus Christi, Texas. They can figure it out. What are we doing?” Twellman, now an ESPN analyst, asked in an eight-minute rant that went viral. “Belgium played Bosnia on a cow pasture, but we can’t beat Trinidad with water on the field?”
Last month, Fox Sports commentator Lalas criticized several U.S. stars by name and issued a harsh challenge to the team: "Are you going to continue to be a bunch of soft, underperforming, tattooed millionaires? You are a soccer generation that has been given everything; you are a soccer generation who's on the verge of squandering everything.”
Turns out, his words were prescient.
There is no sugar-coating this one. U.S. Soccer claims to be all grown up now, brags about its league and its development academies, so it deserves the same skewering the world’s other teams would get if they got tossed from World Cup contention by a 99th-ranked team that was 0-1-8 going into the do-or-die match.
Former University of Miami president Donna Shalala, a member of the U.S. Soccer Federation Board of Directors, wrote on Twitter: “This morning 2-1 unacceptable. For us in US Soccer more than a wake-up call. Time for a revolution. Need a long-term plan that is smart.”
Tony Meola, the ex-U.S. goalkeeper, was more succinct: “I’m sick right now.”
Needing only a tie to stay in the running for a World Cup berth, a listless U.S. team scored an own goal, went down 2-0 by halftime, and never looked like a team fighting for its World Cup life.
The World Cup will go on without us, but it won’t be as much fun. For the first time since I was in college in 1986, there won’t be a U.S. team to follow. For the first time in my 17-year-old soccer-loving daughter’s life, there will be no USA watch parties with teammates. No red, white, and blue face paint.
As my Herald colleague David Neal said, “The World Cup without the U.S. is like going to the prom by yourself.”
Everyone was soul-searching and looking for answers on Wednesday. Why did a country that reached seven straight World Cups fall short this time? What needs to change?
There is no short answer. The U.S. men have been inconsistent for quite some time. They won just two games in the last three World Cups – a 1-0 victory over Algeria in 2010 and a 2-1 win over Ghana in 2014. They won just three of 10 World Cup qualifiers this time around. That’s not enough. CONCACAF has gotten stronger, partly because some of its best players now sharpen their skills in Major League Soccer.
It’s easy to blame coaching, but not fair in this case. Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced with Bruce Arena, which sparked the team for a while. But when it mattered most, the players looked as flat as they did during the 4-0 loss to Costa Rica that cost Klinsmann his job.
Critics say U.S. soccer lags the rest of the world because our best athletes choose basketball and football. U.S. Soccer could surely benefit from widening its talent pool to include more blacks and Hispanics, but Lionel Messi is 5-7 and Christian Pulisic weighs 139 pounds. It doesn’t take NBA height or NFL muscle to be a great soccer player. It takes skill and creativity, and that is more likely to be developed early in pickup games than in the hyper-organized, result-crazed world of youth soccer.
Others say MLS doesn’t offer players the same intensity as European clubs, where they face world-class talent day in and day out. True. But the league will only get better with better talent, and American players want to help the sport grow here, so some choose to stay home.
Truth is, there’s no quick fix. But one thing is for sure: This country cares enough about soccer to be really angry right now. That’s a start.