The case for anger against U.S. Soccer

In the face of a disappointment, emotion is understandable. How that emotion is targeted will shape U.S. Soccer's future.

“(The American) is always in the mood to move on … He is devoured with a passion for movement, he cannot stay in one place; he must go and come, he must stretch his limbs and keep his muscles in play … He is fit for all sorts of work except those which require a careful slowness. Those fill him with horror; it is his idea of hell.”

— Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, 1839

Where do you want to put this anger?

First, let’s state that anger is understandable and appropriate. The U.S. men’s loss in Trinidad was a terribly mismanaged game to end an awful Hex campaign and close a World Cup cycle of serial failures. Anger and something like grief is a natural response, if you care about the game and this team.

For the next few days you won’t hear much else. Again, that’s understandable.

After that, we’ll likely have the totemic personnel sacrifices, and they’ll be understandable, too. Bruce Arena had one job. He has to go, though there’ll be little cathartic about his departure, given what he left behind. The firefighter will be leaving a burning building, muttering about “European hotshots” as he goes.

Sunil Gulati presided over not only the Klinsmann and Arena appointments but also the developmental structure they drew on. He has lost his mandate, if it still existed, and has to go, too. The World Cup bid shouldn’t save him, either. Frankly, no bid so precarious that it’s tied to one man’s continued presence deserves to succeed, and the U.S.’ case should be way more robust than that.

You don’t have to believe anything nefarious about Gulati, or to character assassinate the man gratuitously, to accept that, like many a chief executive before him, he has been there too long to be effective any more. The institution is too reflective of his personality, and that’s not sustainable.

So no more Gulati, and perhaps no more of up to two generations of U.S. players. The old guard for sure, are gone, but the black hole of mid-20s talent whose Olympic failures foreshadowed this loss could be set to become our version of the 1980s’ “lost generation” — only they’ve been mislaid in plain sight. Do we now look forward to them becoming MLS coaches in 15 years? Will we wheel them out as pundits to criticize the next generation of under-achievers? Or will they enjoy a quiet retirement as the best players in their “top ten in the world” domestic league? As Bill Hicks once said of standing armies, “You know what? After the first three largest armies, there's a real big f***ing drop-off, all right?”

Yes, a few people will lose their jobs, individual players will carry the weight of this failure, and perhaps we’ll revert to the status quo of grumbling about their replacements rather than complaining about the landscape those replacements occupy.

That would be a missed opportunity. Because if there’s anything about this moment of anger that could be useful, it’s in finally instituting the culture of accountability, one that Jürgen Klinsmann tried to institute in his strange hybrid persona as both peanut-gallery and chief cheerleader.

What will be telling about this moment is if this changes us, not the coaches and players and administrators who represent us. Is this a passing, collective trauma or a definitive cultural change in expectations? And if we’re prepared to make any degree of argument that the underlying game can survive missing a World Cup, is this at least the final death of the “growing the game” evangelical narrative which forestalled criticism by constantly claiming we are all in this together?

You can argue the U.S. established an institutional meekness between 1994 and 1996 and doubled down with the SUM/MLS deal in 2002. You can further argue that any punching above its weight done on the international stage is down to the brute numbers of the country throwing up enough viable candidates for a basic roster and not the best representatives of a thriving culture serving as its champions. It’s definitely the end of insulated complacency for the U.S. within CONCACAF.

I keep thinking this morning about England’s experiences in the 1950s, as it reckoned with its place in a soccer world it was no longer possible to dismiss. It’s a different context and sense of expectation, but I keep thinking of the idea that your blind spots are perfect until your angle is changed for you. And of the U.S. finally, humiliatingly, only discovering their true place in the soccer world at the moment the world moves on without them.

It won’t be easy. Soccer cultures, once established, are for better and worse, hard to overturn. English myopic self-aggrandizement still survives (in self-deprecating form, perhaps, but it survives); Dutch belief in reason and teams built on synthetic chemistry keeps coming up against flesh and blood realities; Germany modernized the machine but still believes in the machine; Argentina still believe in the individual talent who transcends team play with invention (Messi isn’t just a one-off genius, he’s an archetype).

And the U.S.? I’ve used the Chevalier quote before in thinking about the U.S. It makes me think of the tremendous restlessness that’s discernible in the team’s finer moments. The times when they look most like themselves. When vigor outweighs the risks of losing what careful slowness offers …

But the Trinidad game saw a tremendous listlessness, not restlessness, that spoke of way more than a hot night, short turnaround, unchanged selection, shot off a post, or any of the circumstantial explanations we might want to turn to. The team (Pulisic apart, ironically) looked like teenagers made to wear ties to church. They looked like failure was a likely destiny, not an unthinkable alternative to it.

Now, they’re watching the World Cup from the couch. Be angry at them for a moment, though try to remember they’ll be angry at themselves for far longer.

After the moment passes, let’s decide where this anger could take us. If it can be harnessed and sustained and focused on institutions as much as individuals, there might just be the possibility of real change. Never mind Gulati and Arena. Let’s look at the voodoo economics of SUM, and the dysfunction of youth and club soccer reps at each others throats, the cute workarounds that keep the system closed and us consenting to the financial arguments for those monopolies. And let’s stay angry there.

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