The lost boys: Pulisic, USMNT and the weight of missing the World Cup

The pain is still fresh, and the enormous intangible costs of the 2018 World Cup failure are only beginning to be calculated.

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After the raw emotion is processed — the anger, the relative darkness, the embarrassment and stunning disappointment — we get to the real-world consequences. All kinds of consequences.

It’s a big can of worms, for sure. This remarkable failure by the U.S. men’s national team will mean so much to so many, so unpacking the bottom line is a big triage job.

Maybe the place to start is to sort out what, exactly, has been lost. Not so much in the bigger, wide-ranging consequences, the financial impact and such – although all of that certainly requires forensic-level examination, too. But let’s narrow down precisely what opportunities have been squandered for the individuals most involved.

So many opportunities for career advancement and enrichment have been fumbled away. Also, some records and milestones can never be reached, now. Warning: once U.S. Soccer supporters begin digging into it, this gets more painful, still.

Opportunities lost – and some big ones, too

First, there is Clint Dempsey and his quest to score in a fourth World Cup. After striking for goals in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups, Dempsey has the rarest of rare World Cup opportunities: to score in a foursome of them. Only three players have done so previously, so Dempsey could have joined Germany’s Miroslav Klose and Uwe Seeler along with the irreplaceable Pele from Brazil on this Mt. Rushmore of World Cup finals scorers. That won’t happen now for Deuce.

DaMarcus Beasley won’t get a shot to play participate in five World Cups. Tim Howard, 38, will end his World Cup tenure with that 16-save marvel against Belgium. Michael Bradley, 30, and Geoff Cameron, 32, will likely be out of time by 2022.

Those are the older guys, but for the talented Americans at the other end of the age scale, missing the World Cup means something completely different.

For them, this is a tire iron to the knee. We know players tend to be overvalued in the transfer market after upswings in World Cup performance. Guys like Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, John Brooks, Jordan Morris, DeAndre Yedlin and others – maybe others not even in the U.S. pool just yet, like Weston McKennie – won’t get the chance to create that career bump.

Remember how Jurgen Klinsmann scolded us about the opportunities lost to up-and-coming players when the United States failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics? He wasn’t wrong about that. Well, multiply those sentiments times two or three and you get close to what’s tossed down the drain here.

It’s not just the turn of career fortune lost; there’s also a forfeiture of experience at climbing world soccer’s highest mountain. After all, nothing compares to the pressure of a World Cup.

Which brings us to the big one, of course: the big opportunity lost in this unthinkable qualifying failure; the one for Christian Pulisic.

We’ll see Pulisic in 2022 ... hopefully

Look, Pulisic is a sensational young talent who will go on to do sensational things. It’s just his time on the biggest stage this game has to offer will have to wait. And that is perhaps the deepest cut of all when it comes to opportunities squandered.

On the one hand, he’s so young that it won’t be a crushing blow to his shot at building a World Cup legacy. Pulisic could get to his first finals tournament in 2022, at age 23. That was exactly Dempsey’s age as Deuce crushed that equalizer against Ghana, his first World Cup goal, in 2006. As noted, Dempsey went on to score in three World Cups. So all is hardly lost for Pulisic.

On the other hand, he won’t get to become the next young national or international sensation at a World Cup. Landon Donovan was 20 at his first World Cup. Lionel Messi was 19. Pele was 17.

None of that is to suggest that Pulisic can reach the very zenith of the game the way Messi has or Pele once did. But Pulisic may well be the best American soccer talent yet on the male side. And as his comprehensive legacy gets built, performance at a World Cup as a relative pup is a significant part of it. That part suffers the most.

How much does this actually affect his progression as a player? It’s impossible to know, but he has been nothing but cool under pressure for country and club in one of the best leagues in the world.

He’ll chase Bundesliga crowns and Champions League heights at Borussia Dortmund, so we can lean into that. And soon enough, Pulisic is likely to upgrade club addresses, popping up at who-knows-where to chase who-knows-what, trophy-wise. Whatever silverware he chases, it’ll be big, and he’ll benefit from the weight of the moment.

And maybe that benefit will translate into nourishment of his breathtaking talent, drive and ability to handle the big moment – all of which can be put to use as the United States’ men make their next run at a World Cup.

We’ll have to wait another four years for that.

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