By Brian Jelks / @briansjelks
Watching the United States Men’s National Soccer Team fail to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 22 years as a passionate and obsessive fan was a confounding experience, to say the least, on multiple levels.
On one hand, I was heartbroken that the national program of my beloved home country would not be participating in the greatest spectacle in sports. On the other hand, this was validation that my distrust in the national program’s management and leadership was merited. I was heartbroken that I would not have a home country to support in the World Cup, yet overjoyed that the men’s national program, marred in corruption and controversy, would be forced to undergo wholesale changes.
World Cup qualification for the USMNT consists of a grueling two-year process in two round robin groups. The first group features four teams group where each must play a home and away series against one another. Advancement to the final round robin group requires finishing within the top two of the initial group. In the final round, there are six teams affectionately called the Hexagonal. Again, the teams play a home and away series, with the top three teams advancing to the World Cup.
The USMNT entered the final game of qualification in third place in the group needing a tie or win to advance to the World Cup.
It’s been nearly 18 months since the USMNT crashed and burned out of the world’s most prestigious sporting event and the sour taste still lingers on the tip of my tongue. I remember seeing the roster like it was yesterday and grimacing in disgust. There were 26 players called up and 18 of them were from Major League Soccer.
The manager at the time, Bruce Arena, had been recognized as the most successful manager in the history of USA’s domestic league, and had made no bones about his feelings toward dual national players and foreign leagues. “I think the majority of the national team should come out of Major League Soccer,” Arena told the New York Times in 2014. "When we do it with randomly selecting people from all over that really have no connection, I don’t think it hits home with people we want supporting our sport and our national team.” Unfortunately Arena’s philosophy seemed to have no consideration for who were the best players available for the national team, only that they played in USA’s domestic league.
Would you think that it’s irrational as the leader of a national men’s soccer program to proclaim that the majority of the players should come from the domestic league, knowing that country’s best players do not play in it? German/American dual nationals such as Fabian Johnson, who plays for Borussia Monogladbach, and Timothy Chandler who plays for Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga, were the two most egregious omissions from Arena’s roster selections throughout qualifying as they both are considered top five players in the pool. After leaving Fabian out of the team for the two most important and final games of qualifying, Arena told Goal.com, “We just put together a roster we thought could be successful in these two games.” This was an incredibly odd statement from a manager that saw the biggest success of his career reaching the World Cup Quarterfinals in 2002 with a team of eight starters who played in Europe and a captain that was a dual national.
I knew that this roster selection strategy had more to do with marketing Major League Soccer than picking the team most capable of winning a qualification spot for World Cup. I hate to be the conspirator, but for those of you who don’t know, a group of MLS owners own and operate Soccer United Marketing which is a subsidiary of MLS. Soccer United Marketing is contracted to broker television rights, sponsorship and merchandising for the United States Soccer Federation, incentivizing the USSF to showcase MLS players.
The problem with showcasing MLS players is that it is considered a second-tier league by world standards and often the disparity in talent is highlighted against superior national teams such as Brazil, France, and Germany etc. ESPN's FiveThirtyEight ranks 11 English second division teams in their top 200 and one MLS team. Basically a famed analytics site, rates MLS, America’s first division, lower than the English second division. If this isn’t strong evidence of the lack of quality in MLS, I don’t know what is.
On October 10, 2017, I read the starting lineup for the United States final World Cup Qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago and quickly realized that the nightmare of missing the 2018 World Cup was very likely to become a reality. There were six MLS players in the starting lineup and two Liga Mex, the top division in Mexico. Oddly enough, of the two Liga Mex players, one was a former MLS player and the other was being scouted for a move to MLS the following season. Before the roster was released, questions were aplenty when it came to the decision about not bringing on new players.“We don’t have the luxury of doing that," Arena answered in Sports Illustrated. "We pretty much have to go with who we have.".
This was quite a terrifying take from a manager that had only won two of his five most recent qualifiers especially considering he had three German Bundesliga players, one English Premier League player, and one Dutch Eredevisie player available, but were left out of his squad call for duty. If you could imagine USA Basketball fielding an international team full of D-league and Euro league players, you can understand how criminal Arena’s player selection was and the rest was history.
In the history of the FIFA World Cup, a player on an MLS roster has never stepped foot on the field in a semifnal game. There has also never been an MLS player voted to the Best 11 for the FIFA World Cup. According to NBC Sports, there were 100 English Premier League players, 78 Spanish La Liga players, 62 German Bundesliga players, 58 Italian Serie A players, and 47 French Ligue 1 players represented in the 2018 tournament. There were even 21 players from the English second division.
To put this all into perspective, there were 14 MLS players that made World Cup rosters in 2018. If you were the USA manager, knowledgeable of the international pecking order of soccer leagues and wanted to give your team the best chance of winning, wouldn’t you pick the players from the best leagues?
With the USA being a country that has been plagued with social injustice, economic inequality, and educational disparity, I have always thought of soccer as the only truly level playing field in our society. The trend for international sporting dominance usually follows population and gross domestic product. Unfortunately, America having the third-largest population, largest gross domestic product, and second highest volume of soccer players in the world mean nothing when it comes to attaining success in the world’s most popular game. Our great nation has literally managed to win a major world title or produce the best player in the world in just about every other sport except for the beautiful game. It’s not like we don’t have the resources to be successful: after all, USSF generated over $152 million in 2017.
What is the problem with USA’s men’s team, you might ask? The leadership of every other national sports program in America understands that revenue is correlated with winning. The leadership of our national soccer program is corrupted by a philosophy that correlates revenue with promoting a domestic league. If we are to ever become a powerful soccer nation, the path forward is through inclusion of all eligible players.
To update you on the status of the USMNT, there were two games played in March against two South American teams that also failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. These teams were Ecuador and Chile, respected across the world, but far from world beaters. The new manager, Greg Berhalter is a veteran of the USMNT and coached for the Columbus Crew SC of MLS for the past five years. In this camp, Berhalter called 24 players with 17 of them were MLS. In the Chile game, we drew 1-1, were outshot 2:1, were out-possessed 2:1, and out-passed 2:1. “I think we made it extremely difficult for Chile and I thought we showed the bravery of trying to play through some of their pressure,” Berhalter relayed afterwards. Apparently, delusion is the key criteria to be a USMNT manager.
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