Analysis

What happens to American soccer if the USMNT misses the World Cup?

Better if the U.S. doesn't qualify? Hardly, but MLS and the men's national team won't collapse without Russia.

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ORLANDO, Fla. – The last time the United States men did not qualify for the World Cup, there was no professional soccer league in the U.S., no development academies and no English Premier League on television every weekend.

The growth of the sport in this country truly began when the World Cup came to the United States in 1994, the second of seven consecutive tournaments in which the U.S. men’s national team has competed. Its growth has been fostered by Major League Soccer, which itself is expanding and maturing rapidly. The visibility of the sport is as significant as it has ever been in this country. Viewers are able to watch any of the top leagues in the world with a simple cable subscription.

With the U.S. potentially two games away from failing to make the World Cup, some of that progress is threatened. The sport will remain relevant. American eyeballs will stay on the world’s biggest tournaments. But if the U.S. fails to get results against Panama on Friday and Trinidad and Tobago next Tuesday, the damage done to the domestic sport will be tangible, whether in financial terms or, more importantly, in the narrative around the growth of soccer in the U.S.

“It’s incredibly vital for us to qualify and not based on our consecutive record of qualifying, seven consecutive, but more of just stability and the growth in our country,” said former U.S. men’s national team captain John Harkes, who emphasized he believes the U.S. will qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia. “There has been such a huge investment from the ownership groups [in MLS], from players, from coaches, from fans, the accountability of showing up in the seats. I think at the highest level the World Cup, although it may not directly affect the clubs in Major League Soccer from a week-to-week basis, or the USL or NASL, I do think it would put a damper on things. There is this black cloud that would hang over it.”

The impact on MLS

There is an undeniable link between Major League Soccer and the U.S. men’s national team.

The latter is dependent on the former to produce strong domestic talent in both the short- and long-term and to provide a pipeline to the national team. The former benefits when those players succeed on the world’s biggest stage: The World Cup. To miss out on the tournament would be a failure, then, for both parties.

Those who have been involved in the league, however, believe MLS would be able to survive the worst-case scenario of the U.S. missing out on the World Cup.

MLS on firm ground. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

MLS on firm ground. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

“A lot of times, in most leagues, if a country does not make the World Cup, I think it reflects poorly on the domestic league,” said former New York Red Bulls technical director Ali Curtis, who also spent several years in the MLS league office. “While it would be damaging to Major League Soccer, I don’t believe it would be catastrophic. I think the league has really grown substantially since its inception and particularly in the last five years. Certainly it would be a blow, because you start to build momentum, and there’s been a tremendous amount invested in the league over the last five to 10 years. To not make the World Cup [would hurt].”

Since 2005, Major League Soccer has grown from 10 teams to 22. The price of an expansion franchise has risen from a $7.5 million entry fee to expansion fees now expected to rise north of $150 million. Attendance has gone up, boosted by markets like Seattle, NYCFC, Atlanta, Portland and Orlando. Major League Soccer is, in other words, in the safest place in its history.

That doesn’t mean the league is yet in a secure place like the country’s top sports leagues, and it doesn’t mean MLS isn’t still losing money, even with the existence of Soccer United Marketing as a potential security blanket. Economically, though, it’s likely not in a place where it would suffer big enough losses from missing a World Cup to throw the league into flux. Nor is the league unstable enough to be thrown by even such a major missed opportunity.

Among its fan base, however, there would certainly be pressure for MLS to change if the U.S. missed out on the World Cup.

The league has grown significantly in recent seasons on the back of players imported from abroad, including stars like Miguel Almiron, Ignacio Piatti, David Villa and Nicolas Lodeiro. The percentage of domestic players in the league has dropped. In February, only about 50 percent of the league’s rosters were made up of American players, according to FFT USA’s calculations. According to ESPN, just 42.1 percent of the starters on opening day were born in the U.S., a decrease from 51.2 percent in 2014. That percentage doesn’t factor in foreign-born USMNT-eligible players or Canadian domestic players that play for the three Canadian MLS teams, however.

Should the U.S. fail to make the World Cup, the league and its teams could face pressure to do a better job of developing and playing U.S.-eligible players. Fox Sports commentator Alexi Lalas, a former U.S. national team stalwart and MLS general manager, said it is a responsibility that should not fall on MLS teams.

“MLS has to, and I think they have, come to a conclusion, and be open and honest about it, that their priority is not to help the national team of the United States or Canada,” he said. “And that’s ok. They are a business and they need to do what is best for their business.”

But some coaches admit it’s a balance they consider, even as their focus remains on winning day-to-day.

“Do I think about a responsibility for U.S. soccer? Absolutely, in the back of my mind, and I think every coach does,” said Petke, whose RSL team includes five players that featured for the U.S. Under-20 World Cup team. “Subconsciously, once in a while in the back of my mind, I might think, ‘This kid could play in a World Cup in 2022 and be a big player for us and maybe we’ll get closer to winning a World Cup.’ There is that thought process. It’s a very interesting dynamic in this league.

MLS coaches balancing priorities. (Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports)

MLS coaches balancing priorities. (Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports)

“I grew up in a league with no academy. At the end of my career and the beginning of my coaching career, academies started taking off. For me personally to be the head coach of an MLS team with one of the top three academies in the country and to look at my roster and see those five players that came through the pipeline, it’s an extra sense of pride for me in the short amount of time I’ve been here, and an extra sense of responsibility.”

Curtis said the two goals are not mutually exclusive, and that the league has multiple dimensions. MLS is focused on putting the best product on the field, but it has also invested heavily in growing the game domestically.

The national team is reflective of some of that early development – Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore are all examples of players who came through the league in its earlier days – as well as some of the recent progress. Kellyn Acosta and DeAndre Yedlin are both Homegrown Players who now start for the national team.

“In 2007, they implemented a rule that every MLS club has to have an academy,” Curtis said. “And there is the development of youth guidelines, Homegrown Player rules and those things. I know for a fact that the league office is doing a lot to try to develop and improve player development and produce young players that can support MLS and also can support the national team.”

How to move forward

Harkes was playing for Derby County in 1994 when the U.S. hosted the World Cup. England, where his career was unfolding, did not qualify for the tournament. The reaction to that stunning failure sticks with Harkes.

The negativity around the missed World Cup was omnipresent in England, dominating the headlines in the newspapers and often focusing solely on what went wrong. There were few solutions offered up as to how to move forward.

“I think that [instinct is] the same with everybody,” Harkes said. “You could certainly understand the process and what it took to go somewhere, the successes or failures, learn from it and then you have to move forward with a vision.”

When it comes to the potential scenarios that might unfold in the next few days, there is a wide spectrum of opinions about how the U.S. should move forward. While some voices have floated the idea that missing a World Cup would be good for the U.S., none of the coaches, former players or soccer sources interviewed for this story believed that missing a World Cup was necessary to institute major changes.

Curtis said an event as catastrophic as missing a World Cup would likely force some harder conversations, however.

“Winning sometimes masks what the real issues are,” he said. “When you lose, you’re then forced to reevaluate and look at what you’re doing and what you’re not doing … If anything, it would force everyone to really reevaluate in an academic way what has been happening with soccer in this country in a different way than if they qualify …

“I would say I think it’s always better to win than to lose, and I think there’s enough bright minds around the table of U.S. Soccer and MLS to figure it out whether they are winning or losing.”

The specifics of the needed changes are difficult to specify without intimate knowledge of both organizations – MLS and U.S. Soccer. Transparency about how to move forward would be vital, according to multiple people interviewed for this story.

Harkes, like many of the former U.S. national team members interviewed, remained confident the U.S. was going to qualify for the World Cup. Members of the teams that played in 1990 and 1994 World Cups, especially, believed the U.S. would give its best performances against Panama and T&T.

When asked to examine how the U.S. would respond if it does miss the World Cup, however, many of those players were optimistic that the country would rebound quickly.

“There would be a collective depression that would set in, followed by anger, by a look inward as to what happened, why it happened, certainly some recriminations and then we would go on about getting better,” Lalas said. “There’s this sentiment out there from some quarters that somehow the U.S. needs a reset in the form of not getting to a World Cup in order to progress, and I completely disagree. I don’t think we need a mirror held up to get us to know what we are or what we aren’t. We are very aware of our problems and our challenges. The damage that missing out on the platform that is the World Cup would be a huge blow, and not a necessary one at this point in time. Any return and improvement that would happen after not qualifying is, as far as I’m concerned, advancement that is going to happen regardless.”

The hope within U.S. soccer circles is it doesn’t have to see that advancement happen the hard way. The next few days will go a long way toward determining the path forward.

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