US Soccer, Out Of World Cup, Must Pay The Price And Remake Itself – Forbes

Christian Pulisic, left, was the Americans’ one bright spot again on Tuesday, and their lone scorer. Can U.S. Soccer find more like him? (Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)

There were no saviors, no miracles, and then the unthinkable happened. The U.S. national team was knocked out of the 2018 World Cup with a 2-1 defeat in a qualifier on Tuesday in Trinidad, and soccer in America took a kick in the head that nobody saw coming. The Americans went into the night with a projected 97% chance of qualifying, a number that eventually dipped by exactly 97 points.

The U.S. got no help on this night from its North and Central American rivals Mexico and Costa Rica, which should come as no surprise considering the current political climate and the old soccer grudges. But there is no sense in pointing fingers right now, or wondering how the clock somehow was turned back to 1986. It is better to look ahead and ponder the ramifications for the sport here and abroad.

There are several to consider:

This surely marks the end of the Sunil Gulati era for U.S. Soccer. Fairly or not, Gulati’s legacy has been badly tarnished. He can’t hope to win reelection as president in February now that the Americans have failed at their single most important task. The U.S. team faltered under two different coaches hand-picked by Gulati: Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena.

The end result surely had more to do with the players on the field than those selecting rosters and formations. While U.S. Soccer continues to have one of the deepest player pools in the world, there simply aren’t any difference makers available other than Christian Pulisic. Development and recruitment must undergo significant changes in America, drawing from a more diverse population. Clearly, soccer is still not attracting some of the nation’s best athletes.

It will be even harder to measure the state of the program without a World Cup experience, or a trip to the last Olympics, in Rio.

“The only way you ever evaluate the program and quality of your players is in a World Cup,” Bruce Arena said after the loss.

Now, that can’t happen.

The U.S. absence at the 2018 tournament will deal a minor economic blow to the Russia World Cup because American tourists travel so well. The Russians would have loved to get the U.S., China and Germany in the tournament. Instead, they have only Germany, the defending champion. More importantly, the U.S. meltdown will impact domestic sponsorships and television ratings. In August, Gulati told me there were incalculable financial rewards that come with qualification.

‘The real benefits come from long-term new sponsors and media partners in the next cycle, beyond the period of our current contracts,” Gulati said. “We get increased awareness of the sport, which leads to more opportunities, increased participation and so on.”

Sunil Gulati at a press conference in April announcing the U.S.’s joint bid, with Mexico and Canada, to stage the 2026 World Cup. (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

During Brazil 2014, fans back in the States embraced the World Cup, and the sport, as never before. That won’t happen next summer. Major League Soccer will be able to play a fuller schedule of matches in June and July but won’t enjoy the sort of popularity bump that comes with patriotic support.

There is, one supposes, no use in crying over missed opportunities. The Americans on Tuesday finished up a dreary qualifying cycle with a disastrous finish. It could have been worse: They should have lost 3-1 on this night, if the referee had granted a deserved penalty kick to Trinidad and Tobago.

A nation of 323 million people couldn’t qualify for Russia while Iceland, population 334,000, made it there out of a much tougher region than CONCACAF. If there is one saving grace from all this, it is that the U.S. is still almost assured to become the 2026 World Cup host, along with Mexico and Canada. That gives American officials a very specific timeline of nine more years to get this right. In the meantime, let the hand-wringing begin.

“I would never have dreamt this in a hundred years,” Carlos Bocanegra said on beIN Sports.

Twenty-eight years ago, the U.S. players were jumping up and down for joy in Trinidad, singing the national anthem in a tiny locker room while chugging beers to celebrate their first World Cup berth in 40 years. Not that many Americans really noticed.

Now, they care a great deal.

At least that’s some kind of progress.

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