When the United States men’s soccer team stepped on the field in Trinidad and Tobago, they already knew they had qualified.
Needing just one point to qualify for a playoff World Cup spot against a “B-team” Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S. men clearly weren’t sweating it.
Yet, 90 minutes later, what happened?
As the Trinidad team celebrates, the U.S. team looks dazed, unable to contemplate their 2-1 loss to the small island nation.
While millions all over the country were shocked, it is clear to see, when examining this defeat more closely, that there was a multitude of problems right from the start. With poor results against Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, and Panama in the fourth and fifth qualifying rounds, it’s clear that this United States team lacked some of the fire that we had seen from previous U.S. teams.
But still, what type of problems caused the USMNT to lose yesterday?
The main problem with the USMNT last night was simply attitude.
Going into the game, the U.S. team had a certain arrogance about the game. Despite their shaky performances throughout the qualifying rounds, many of the players appear to treat this game a “blow off” game and one that they were assured to win. The players didn’t seem to take the game seriously until the final minutes, and by then, it was way too late.
Next was the poor quality of play. Despite a good 4-0 win over Panama last Friday, the U.S. team failed to bring that type of fire and energy to the field against Trinidad. Passing was extremely poor in midfield, and the back four, primarily the two centre-backs, looked incredibly shaky from the start. Effort was also very poor, as many of the USMNT players failed to hustle for the ball in midfield and were slow to pressure the Trinidad team, giving the Trinidadians plenty of time and space to control the ball.
I am not taking anything away from Trinidad and Tobago’s win. Their players brought heart, intense energy and effort throughout the match. Trinidad had nothing to play for in this game – their qualifying hopes were gone – yet, they still played with enormous passion and emotion.
The question after the 2014 World Cup, in which the U.S. team reached the Round of 16, was how the team could legitimately challenge the German and Argentine teams of the world. That seems to be in the distant past. Now, almost four years later, the question is: how do we get back on track?
It is clear changes need to be made.
First, there needs to be a higher sense of responsibility ingrained in the United States players.
In other countries, soccer is literally life or death. Players use soccer to stay out of crime and trouble, and to provide for their families. Also, in smaller professional leagues, some town’s football teams are essential to their economy. Jobs depend on those club teams and, if the players fail to get promoted or stay in the division, their hometowns suffer.
That is not the case in the United States. The MLS, where most of these athletes play, has money poured into it. These players do not have that sense of urgency that other foreign players have. They don’t see qualifying as life or death, and they don’t seem to care as much as they should.
Second, the United States needs to fix its recruiting process. The pay-to-play system clearly is not working. In the U.S., the primary way for a player to get noticed is by joining top, expensive academies. However, due to the cost prohibitive nature of these academies, many talented, passionate young players who are low income cannot join and their talents goes unnoticed. Soccer is a democratic game. All you need is a soccer ball and players. Many of the best players in the world grew up poor and played in the streets. There is plenty of talent in the U.S., but not all of it is being seen. Recruiting needs to be broadened to obtain the best players.
It was definitely the most embarrassing night in U.S. soccer history. That being said, there is no time to hang our heads. The U.S. team’s training for 2022 starts now. Maybe now there will be a sense of urgency.