Feeling failure: How USMNT youngsters can put World Cup qualifying shame to use
Every kid into sports has this moment when the wrench of reality twists hard, either for himself or for a team he or she adores.
Her youth team folds in the big moment or his high school squad runs out of magic. For the best athletes, maybe their college or pro team gets close, but can’t push across the finish line.
Either way, they had that moment, a ruthless instance of useful failure. It instructs on the cruelty of competitive life. If the better perspectives prevail, maybe it ignites a drive for redemption.
U.S. Soccer is having its moment, at a much bigger and more meaningful level of course. It’s a shame that we’re having it, but here it is, all full of melancholy and introspective misery.
What’s worth further examination is how long it has been since the community and the federation truly had such introspection. What did that moment’s absence play in seeing the United States shoved aside, with insufficient resistance, as those prized places for the 2018 World Cup were spoken for?
Throughout the qualifying process, even when the entire U.S. men’s national team wagon started veering into the ditch, did anyone really believe the United States wouldn’t pull it off? Inside the team, leaders were steadfast, reminding everyone how the long process was always marked by ups and downs. The American sense of optimism prevailed; we believed and so did they.
But did they have that other, complementing ingredient, the one so critical in this complex recipe for success? That useful little fear of failure, the germ of previous washout?
We’re having our moment, and it gets even more real against Portugal, the first time back on the field since that night in Trinidad. Want to really hurt? Consider that friendlies like Tuesdays are all the U.S. has now. Gold Cups (of debatable value) aside, the United States won’t play another truly meaningful match until the next World Cup qualifying cycle begins in – wait for it – the year 2020.
The current group never went through it
Tim Howard, the oldest U.S. player of the recent qualifying cycle, was 7 years old during the last World Cup without the United States, in 1986.
Most of Howard’s U.S. teammates weren’t yet born, or still in their little baby booties. For pretty much everyone involved in the process, things have always worked out. No player in the recent U.S. pool has truly endured the lead-pipe body blow of a World Cup qualifying crash-out.
For the record, none of this is to suggest that missing the World Cup is a good thing. It isn’t, and suggestions that qualifying failure could be some long-term loss leader were always nonsense. There is way more harm than good from missing the World Cup.
But now that it has happened, it can perhaps somehow be useful. The top-to-bottom inquests now happening in all things U.S. Soccer are a good start. More to the point here, younger players now understand, viscerally and emotionally, how missing a World Cup feels. The wounds won’t completely scab over until after the 2018 World Cup, with the lessons hopefully not lost on the next U.S. men’s national team generation.
You can see it at work already, in fact, in Christian Pulisic’s excellent piece, a real conversation starter that appeared in the Players Tribune. You can feel the hurt coming off the page as he talks about missing the World Cup and something that felt like depression in the days that followed.
Pulisic will never take a World Cup for granted. Nor will any other young American soccer player old enough to ‘get it,’ who will always remember that wretched night in Trinidad when the reality got hammered home.