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World Cup qualifying saga overshadows U.S. Soccer's bigger problems

Punching a ticket to Russia (or missing out) won't change the realities at home.

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We’re in the final week of CONCACAF World Cup qualification, and by this time next week,  we’re going to know whether the United States men’s national team has qualified for Russia 2018.

Failure to do so will naturally prompt various anguished diatribes about a needlessly painful cycle. The relative success of automatic qualification would be greeted with as much low-key relief as celebration. If it’s true that collective amnesia tends to erase the memory of previous qualifying campaign setbacks, it’s also true that it’s impossible to forgive and forget all that has gone wrong in these last four years, and this last year in particular.

Of course, World Cup qualification is important. I’m not going to try and make the perverse argument that missing a World Cup would be a good thing, and it might somehow work as a scared-straight incentive for U.S. Soccer.

But being back in an anxious CONCACAF qualifying grind, as the U.S. now is, has inevitably drawn focus away from the supposedly attainable goals of a ‘World Cup win within our lifetimes.’ We’re back to the minute-to-minute triage of scrambling for points in the long grass of San Pedro Sula. Nobody’s thinking about youth development as they’re praying for a kind ricochet in the six-yard box.

One way or another, with 2018’s fate determined in the next week, we’ll have an opportunity to lift our heads and consider whether this has been a poor cycle in a generally upward trajectory or a definitive wrong turn on the journey to the promised land of a World Cup win.

There’s nothing wrong with winning a World Cup being the ultimate goal, however unimaginable it may seem in trying competitive moments, or when contemplating seemingly intractable structural challenges. Yet it might just be one of the paradoxes of nations with successful soccer leagues and cultures that such a benchmark becomes less distinct, or at least less exclusive, as the measure of success.

In recent years, we’ve seen waves of successful overhauls of national-team programs, initially exemplified by the French experiment at Clairefontaine and polished under the German initiatives that ultimately led to a World Cup title. The latter process was at least kickstarted by the iconoclastic zeal of Jurgen Klinsmann managing a structural overhaul of the relationship between the federation and the top clubs in the Bundesliga. It’s easy to forget that the current phenomenon of German soccer could easily have turned in on itself and lost its way in a top-heavy mess of former player committees and administrative power struggles. There was nothing inevitable about its modernist revolution.

For better or worse, he was looking forward. (Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

For better or worse, he was looking forward. (Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Yet in that time frame, we’ve also seen a golden generation of Portuguese players arrive, more by accident than design, then fail to win anything of note, only for a much more mediocre cadre (peaking-Ronaldo aside) to win the Euros. Belgium, meanwhile, has produced its own wonder generation with one of the more celebrated models of intensive player farming in the world, but it has not gone any closer than the U.S. to winning a World Cup in this century, however lopsided the game between the two was at the 2014 World Cup.

That said, even Chris Wondolowski putting his infamous chance away in that game would not have changed most sober assessments of just how close to maximum efficiency each program was running. Belgium might never win a World Cup and still serve as an aspirational model for many countries. It’s conceivable that by some version of brute numbers, the U.S. could win one and not be.

You could argue that’s already the case for the U.S. women’s national team, where the 2015 World Cup win was achieved with a hard-working veteran group outlasting their rapidly improving, often technically superior, peers without showing signs of how the program intended to stay at the pinnacle of the world game. By the subsequent Olympics, the short-term logic looked to have caught up with the team. The World Cup win was great, and it gave us Carli Lloyd’s performance for the ages, but some of its necessary lessons may have been hard to see behind the trophy.

And in a strange way, as far as the U.S. men look from lifting a World Cup right now, the mandate Bruce Arena has had all year has taken the focus off the program as a whole and back to just how a group of 30 players can get the job done. In other words, the historical brief for many U.S. coaches before Klinsmann. Those aren’t unimportant challenges, but whatever his flaws, Klinsmann the technical director, as opposed to Klinsmann the coach, was at least tasked with thinking in sweeping structural terms. It may have been his tragic flaw to ultimately be unable to resist the soap opera of the first-team’s fortunes, rather than the worthy but less inspiring saga of turning around the national developmental structure.

And yet, buried in the breathless narrative of feuds with Don Garber and Landon Donovan, and inexplicable tactical decisions in big games, there was real, unglamorous work going on. In the end, Klinsmann’s cult of personality got too enmeshed in the fortunes of any given moment to spare the energy to drive those disparate initiatives through to fruition, but the rough work at least was there.

I remember an article written in October 2015, which Klinsmann subsequently tweeted about approvingly, that detailed some of those initiatives. The article, written by Wendy Thomas, was remarkable for producing a long bullet-pointed list of tangible developments under Klinsmann, even as it also chronicled the personal coaching failings that would ultimately bring him down. It reads like a period piece now,  at a time when the creaking Klinsmann narrative could just about remain positive, despite being presented in the immediate aftermath of him losing the Gold Cup and CONCACAF Cup playoffs, and having the U-23s fail to reach the Olympics.

But that list of initiatives, from small-side game standards for U-6 to U-12 players, to employing a Belgian consulting firm, Double PASS, to audit the youth development system, should, in its own way, inform any conversation around continuity just as much as the U.S. maintaining its run of World Cup qualifications.

Klinsmann, the big-picture guy, feels long gone now. His mentor, Sunil Gulati, looks set to be mired in local politics for the immediate future, as legal and electoral challenges loom. But whatever the immediate fate of the national team for the coming months, it’s time for someone in authority to once again not only consider the best batch of players but the landscape they inhabit, and future groups will inherit. At the very least, let’s look at what worthwhile remains of Klinsmann’s maps, or a World Cup win may be as far over the horizon as it has ever been.

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