It is what it is: USMNT struggles all come down to the players

The issue is not new, but thanks to recent results, the U.S.' pipeline has come back into focus.

During the U.S. men’s national team’s ill-fated CONCACAF Cup playoff against Mexico in 2015, I took a walk from the Rose Bowl press box at halftime and got talking to an ex-national team player.

The news of the U.S. U-23s’ Olympic qualifying loss to Honduras had just come through, and we both remarked on the general mood of the press corps around us, which would soon shift from muted to mutinous (or as mutinous as U.S. soccer media ever gets).

We talked a little about what was turning into a fatally vulnerable period for Jurgen Klinsmann, but then the former international stopped suddenly and said, “The thing is … look at the players he has. No one’s coming through. I don’t know that anyone else could do any better.” Then he shrugged and left.

I thought about that exchange on Tuesday night as the U.S. players toiled aimlessly in the long grass of San Pedro Sula. Christian Pulisic has indeed come through since that conversation at the Rose Bowl, though too late for Klinsmann. But Pulisic is an exception. The level of the team, as a whole, now that the initial bounce of Bruce Arena’s return has passed, looks to have reverted to the mean of this World Cup cycle.

Klinsmann and his patron, Sunil Gulati, can perhaps take their share of the blame for falling short of delivering a pipeline of talent from an overhauled U.S. soccer infrastructure. Yet, in some ways, the analysis of just how much the Klinsmann experiment refracted the trajectory of the program might have to wait for a decade or more.

The more immediate truth is that this is just not a vintage U.S. generation, and as Arena is experiencing, there are only so many ways to distract from that. The kindest analysis of the team since 2014 is that it has stood still.

But the teams around it haven’t. Mexico’s recovery from its own scare in the last World Cup cycle has returned it to unquestioned CONCACAF dominance, while Costa Rica’s emphatic play speaks for itself.

Of the rest of the teams scrambling for the region’s final two World Cup spots, you could argue that U.S. stars returning to MLS has diminished its national team, even as the league’s relentless expansion has drawn from the region’s pool of players and enhanced its rivals. The irony of that would not be lost on Klinsmann, after his prickly public relationship with the country’s domestic league.

Dwelling on the trees

MLS expansion has also been part of the conversation, with the stadium boom that has accompanied it.

After Mapfre Stadium’s synthesized version of a home edge lost its potency with the loss to Mexico last fall, the conversation has resumed about where such an advantage might be found. Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City has been mentioned as a kind of egalitarian central meeting point for fans across the country, and the conversation ignited with some intensity after the decision to play a World Cup qualifier in the New York area appeared to backfire on Friday night.

Red Bull Arena wasn’t really the problem, though. Nor was playing in a diverse metropolitan area where the catchment of Costa Rican fans could easily compete with U.S. ones. The problem was the team, and basic errors in defense.

Likewise, you could make a lot out of the conditions in Honduras on Tuesday, and you’d have a legitimate point to make about the extreme heat, the pollution and the long grass. The latter, in particular, seemed to help Omar Gonzalez misjudge the path of the ball on Honduras’ goal. In fairness, though, Omar can do Omar all by himself, and the grass also seemed to help Matt Besler keep the ball alive on Wood’s equalizer.

More to the point, though, the U.S. could not get Pulisic and Clint Dempsey involved until way late in the game, nor did it have much of an alternative plan for dealing with the Honduras midfield casually administering what looked like wedgies to Michael Bradley. The U.S. looked uninspired and stuck, rather as it had in the first half against Trinidad and Tobago in Colorado in June.

So I don’t really buy the argument about the sequence of games, or location of games, or the timing of games within the European season, are overly determining factors in the current state of the U.S. team.

There’s an old adage about not seeking geographical solutions to existential problems, which runs, “Wherever you go, there you are.” My colleague at the Rose Bowl was expressing a similar sentiment about the U.S. players in this World Cup cycle, and his point holds true this morning.

The U.S. got a big point on Tuesday, and Bobby Wood’s goal may yet turn out to be one of the bigger ones in U.S. soccer history, given the vital need to maintain World Cup qualification for the game to keep growing in this country. But the team is where it is, and it is who it is, and nothing about its current regional standing is unjust or unlikely.

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