'We can win a World Cup': Arena, Schmid on how USMNT can claim the holy grail

Instead of worrying about where we haven't been, two coaching legends look at where the USMNT could go. But is it realistic?

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LOS ANGELES -- Will the United States men's national team ever find its way into a World Cup semifinal or title game? Will the U.S. ever parade sport's greatest trophy?

That was the question broached to two of the country's most iconic coaches during a most entertaining session at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America's annual convention, which wrapped up Sunday. Their answers weren't surprising.

Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid agree: Yes, we will.

“We'll figure it out one day,” Arena told an audience of a few hundred coaches at the Los Angeles Convention Center. “If we can put a guy on the moon, I'm gonna tell you we can win a World Cup. It's down the road.”

Sometimes we are a little impatient. We look forward and say, 'Oh, we want to be there' ... we've got to realize how far we've come.

- Sigi Schmid

The Q-and-A, moderated by former U.S. Soccer secretary general Hank Steinbrecher, was among the highlights of a five-day gathering that featured the Major League Soccer and National Women's Soccer League drafts. Arena, the U.S. national team coach, and Schmid, a free agent after leaving the Seattle Sounders in late July, discussed a variety of topics over 75 minutes, but it was their thoughts on competing for a World Cup that resonated most deeply.

The idea of the Yanks winning a World Cup has been bandied about for the past two decades, at least, and the consensus has always been that, yes, at some point it will happen. When will that be? Who knows.

U.S. Soccer in 1998 instituted Project 2010, developed from a Carlos Queiroz report and designed to bring the title to these shores by the South Africa tournament. We know how that turned out. The U.S. made it to the quarterfinals in 2002 -- widely considered the country's greatest achievement in the sport -- failed to advance from group play in 2006, and got into the Round of 16 in 2010.


Today, a World Cup triumph doesn't seem any closer than it did a decade ago, but appearances, Arena and Schmid noted, often mask what's really happening.

“It's an evolutionary process, and I think sometimes we are a little impatient,” said Schmid, who has twice been the U.S. under-20 head coach and was part of Bora Milutinovic's staff leading to and during the 1994 World Cup. “We look forward and say, 'Oh, we want to be there,' and I think sometimes we've got to look in the rearview mirror and we've got to realize how far we've come.

“How far have we come? We have made some great advancements ... We are better than we were.”

This isn't the NFL, you know -- you win and you call yourself a world champion -- or the other sports. To be world champion in this sport, you really have to be the world champion.

- Bruce Arena

That's clear to everyone who remembers what it was like in the 1970s or 1980s, even the 1990s. Reaching the promised land will take perseverance, continued player development, and an emphasis on American ideas and coaches.

“I know we're so eager,” said Arena, who guided the U.S. men in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and has won five MLS Cups with D.C. United and the LA Galaxy. “We want to be so successful. That's what we are: We're No. 1, we're America. We want to be the best. We all understand that. This isn't the NFL, you know -- you win and you call yourself a world champion -- or the other sports. To be world champion in this sport, you really have to be the world champion.

“It's a challenge, and only eight countries have ever won a World Cup. So we're not doing that bad. We're one of [only seven] countries that have qualified for every World Cup since 2000, so we're doing well. There's some bumps along the way, but we're going to get there.”

50 World Cup teams?

The most daunting challenge, they agreed, is the size and diversity of the nation. It impacts the ability to scout talent, create a singular style of play, and impart a consistent message among all of the constituent clubs, coaches, administrators and players.

Schmid, who won MLS Cup titles with the LA Galaxy and Columbus Crew, emphasized this with a shocking proposal: The U.S. might already have won a World Cup were the landscape far more simple to command.

If all of the 50 states were allowed to pick their own national team, and we had 50 national teams ... one of those states would have gotten to the semifinals or beyond.

- Schmid

“Our country is unique. The size of our country makes it an extremely difficult challenge,” he said. “If the State of California and the State of New Jersey, and Texas, if all of the 50 states were allowed to pick their own national team, and we had 50 national teams, I would say probably some American team, one of those states, would have gotten to the semifinals or beyond. Because it's easier. It's easier to deliver the message. You've got a smaller area. You can be the pied piper. You can reach the people on a regular basis, the players, the coaches that you're trying to get your message out to.

“But with the massive size of our country, that becomes difficult. It's like when you start a message at this end of the room and keep passing it down. By the time it gets to that end of the room, it's not the same thing, is it? And it's the same thing in our country. You start over here, and by the time it gets over there, it's a little confused, it's a little garbled, and it makes our job a lot more difficult.”

Some of that makes a lot of sense, but California, World Cup champion? Really? Sounds ridiculous.

Donovan, Wynalda, Balboa, Jones - all from SoCal. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

Donovan, Wynalda, Balboa, Jones - all from SoCal. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

But common assumptions must be abandoned to consider the theory. If California were its own nation, the existing landscape wouldn't be anything like what it is. A distinct style of play, heavily influenced by Latin concepts but utilizing the inherent athleticism seen in the American game, would most likely prevail. Resources theoretically would have been more specifically targeted to develop talent, utilizing a scouting system that would not have missed so much of the, especially, Hispanic talent that continues to slip through the cracks.

The same goes for New Jersey and Texas and Florida. Wyoming and Alaska and the Dakotas are never going to qualify for the World Cup, but New York? Why not?

The real world

“To Sigi's answer,” Arena said, “we could stick Holland [geographically] in New England. Germany in New England. Spain.”

Not Germany nor Spain -- do the math -- but nearly four and a half Hollands could fit. In a different world, who knows? We never will.

Winning a World Cup in the world that exists, or at least contending to do so, will require lots of things to fall into place, but put together a solid side with a talismanic player, great chemistry and a world-class goalkeeper, and it's not unreasonable to dream. South Korea and Turkey were 1-0 defeats from facing off for the 2002 title.

The most talented team, Arena noted, often doesn't win. Look at Portugal last summer. Italy in 1982. Denmark in 1992. Two of the most iconic sides in soccer annals, Hungary in 1954 and the Netherlands in 1974, lost in World Cup finals. Bounces must go your way: The U.S. would have missed the knockout stage in 2002 had South Korea not scored a late goal to beat Portugal, and it might have played in the semifinal had Hugh Dallas blown his whistle against Germany.

“You need to have a little bit of luck, you need to have some breaks,” Arena said. “The draw in the World Cup’s important ... Maybe in 2002, we get a little lucky and the referee calls a hand ball in our game against Germany, and maybe we go on and beat Germany and we win the semifinal, and then I don't have to be answering this stupid question.”

The gap to the powers is still massive, and odds are it's never completely breached -- the sport doesn't occupy the same space in our culture as it does in so many other cultures -- but, Arena and Schmid agreed, if we follow our own path, continue to breed better talent, and a few special players emerge, then we'll find a way.

Hopefully, in our lifetimes.

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Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.