US failure flummoxes as place at the 2018 Fifa World Cup missed

US footballers Christian Pulisic and Michael Bradley hug after losing to Trinidad and Tobago to spell the end of their ...
ANDREA DE SILVA/ REUTERS

US footballers Christian Pulisic and Michael Bradley hug after losing to Trinidad and Tobago to spell the end of their bid to play at the 2018 Fifa World Cup.

OPINION: The last time the US men's football team failed to qualify for a World Cup finals, the tournament in 1986, the country was without even a national outdoor professional competition after the collapse of that splendidly decadent 1960s creation, the North American Soccer League.

When it happened again this week, the American team did so with Major League Soccer in unprecedented health. The average MLS attendance is at 21,692, a 40 per cent increase in the past 10 years.

The value of a MLS franchise has gone from US$20 million (NZ$28m) five years ago to US$125m (NZ$176m). When Fifa announced the first round of ticket applications, fans from the US were among the top 10 nationalities outside Russia showing the most interest. The US looks odds-on to host the 2026 tournament.

US coach Bruce Arena didn't have much to smile about in the World Cup qualifying loss to Trinidad and Tobago.
ANDREA DE SILVA/ REUTERS

US coach Bruce Arena didn't have much to smile about in the World Cup qualifying loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

So, what happened? Like many in American soccer, Darren Eales, the English president of new MLS franchise Atlanta United, watched the US team's failure to qualify with disbelief. 

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The former Tottenham Hotspur club secretary has presided over his new club breaking the MLS attendance record in their first-season run to the play-offs and regards the World Cup as a major part of promoting the game to its massive domestic audience.

"Soccer is obviously growing over here, but every four years you get the rocket fuel for that growth," Eales said.

"We have new fans watching in bars, youth soccer participation went up nine per cent in 2014 [after the US run to the second round of the World Cup]. It brings in more casual fans. We have avid soccer fans and Atlanta is an example of that. At a World Cup, we might attract college [American] football fans, basketball fans. It's a pathway into the sport. This is a real lost opportunity."

The New York Times described the potential scenario in which the US would not qualify as "a stunning combination of results," and stunning they were with the US losing to Trinidad and Tobago, and Honduras and Panama both winning against the odds. In a country which boasts the women's world champions, Eales said that the response had been telling.

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"It's been interesting watching the reaction since the result [on Tuesday] - it is definitely much more of a country where people don't just accept that the US qualifying is good, they think they should be qualifying," Eales said.

"It's a mark of where soccer is now in America that there are strong opinions. The feeling is that this isn't acceptable. It is not at the levels you would expect if the same happened in England but it is positive that it is a factor. People want answers and the reasons why it has happened. There should be introspection. It is healthy."

While the English Premier League has gone from strength to strength despite declining performances from the England team, the relationship between the US Soccer Federation (Ussf) and MLS is more mutually dependent. Eales' Atlanta have signed mostly talented young players rather than golden oldies from Europe and have invested US$60m (NZ$85m) in a training ground. They launched their academy, mandatory under MLS rules, one year before their first team made their debut.

Stepping off a 14-hour flight from Sydney where he had been dispatched by US coach Bruce Arena to scout the Australia team, a mission rendered superfluous by this week's defeat, was the US team's Dutch-American scout Thomas Rongen. A former player and MLS-winning coach with DC United, Rongen also starred in the documentary Next Goal Wins in which he coached Fifa's lowest-ranked nation, American Samoa, to their first international victory.

The experienced 60-year-old, who played in the Nasl alongside Johan Cruyff and George Best, is a renowned talent spotter in America, discovering Clint Dempsey in Texas, where the striker had only ever played in unofficial Mexican leagues.

Recently, Rongen has specialised in finding dual-nationality US international players such as Wolfsburg defender John Brooks, born in Berlin, and Hamburg striker Bobby Wood, who moved to Germany as a teenager.

"We need an absolute revolution," Rongen says of American soccer.

"We need to abolish the pay-to-play system, and you have organisations like the Ncaa [National Collegiate Athletic Association], the MLS, Ussf and the [lower tier] leagues that need to come together and say 'We are going to change', as Germany did in 2000. Yes, it will take money but we can use this moment to really make sure we start developing the game at all levels."

He says that the game in the US is still largely the preserve of the white middle classes and parents who can afford "a $2000 summer programme".

He says, "Dempsey playing in those Mexican leagues is where he learned to take care of himself. The white suburban players coming through the system are still very naive. We need to extend into Hispanic and African-American markets, which will be largely in our cities."

The US Under-17s team, who have won their first two games at the current World Cup in India, is selected from a Ussf academy in Florida that has produced the likes of Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley but will close this year.

Rongen is convinced that the talent is out there in that vast, sport-obsessed nation, but that there have to be legions of scouts employed to watch all over, including unrecognised immigrant leagues, and also major investment in coaching.

"Our best young player, Christian Pulisic, developed in the US until he was 16. His parents did something right. They were both college players who have a good understanding of the game. They encouraged him, worked with him, played with him in the backyard. He picked up the things we need all promising American players to learn."

If the country is to host the 2026 World Cup, then Rongen's view is that it should also be in a position to win it, as the American public will surely demand. He chuckles at the memory of the 1980s "Team America", the US player-only side inserted into the old North American Soccer League to develop the national team in the 1980s. As ever, the potential of the US soccer was obvious then, but the question has not changed: how best to realise the dream?

 - The Telegraph, London

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