TORONTO – It wasn’t supposed to play out like this for the United States national team.
The U.S. has been a mainstay at the FIFA World Cup, competing in each of the last seven tournaments, and making it to the quarter-finals in 2002. During that time, the Americans firmly established themselves as one of the powerhouses in the CONCACAF region, so qualification for next summer’s competition was considered a given.
But then the U.S. lost its first two games of “the Hex,” the final round of CONACAF qualifiers, and a coaching change was made when Jürgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced by Bruce Arena. It didn’t help matters much, as the U.S. looked unconvincing the rest of the way.
The nadir came Tuesday night when the U.S. suffered a 2-1 loss away to Trinidad & Tobago which, coupled with wins by Honduras and Panama, meant the Stars and Stripes were officially eliminated from World Cup contention.
The U.S. won’t be going to the tournament for the first time since 1986 and, in all likelihood, Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley and teammate Jozy Altidore won’t get a chance to play in another World Cup – they’ll be 35 and 32, respectively, when the 2022 tournament in Qatar kicks off.
What exactly went wrong for the United States? How and why did their World Cup qualifying campaign go off the rails? And what needs to be done by the U.S. Soccer Federation to right the ship? These are all questions that pundits, fans, players and officials have been asking in the aftermath of Tuesday’s shocking results.
TFC coach Greg Vanney has some ideas, although he’s not sharing them – his views are not for public consumption, he said, but he added he’d be more than willing to share his thoughts with U.S. Soccer if they ask him.
A former defender who earned 37 caps for the U.S. between 1996 and 2006, Vanney believes there has to be a serious and frank discussion amongst all the major stakeholders within the U.S. soccer community to examine why the national team didn’t qualify for the World Cup.
“I think it’s reflection time. My hope is that [the U.S. failing to qualify] doesn’t mean people start to create boundaries to protect their status one way or another within U.S. soccer; that they actually come together and are honest about what types of things need to happen for the country and the sport to continue to move forward,” Vanney said.
He later added: “You have to look at everything; that’s what you do in a period of reflection. …. Honestly, it comes from the top and it goes all the way down. It’s making sure that we what we’re doing is as efficient as possible, that everybody’s priorities are in the same place, and everybody is pushing together.”
Much has been made about Panama’s 2-1 win over Costa Rica on Tuesday night. Gabriel Torres scored a phantom goal for Panama that made it 1-1, even though the ball never crossed the line. Had the goal not been given, and Panama and Costa Rica finished tied, the U.S. would still be alive – they’d have finished fourth and been forced to play Australia in a two-game playoff next month with a World Cup berth at stake.
For the U.S., the margin between qualifying and not qualifying turned out to be razor thin on Tuesday night. It didn’t have to be that way, according to Vanney.
“When you go into the Hex, the margins are not that thin. The margins are very respectable. The margins get thinner as you fail to execute time and time again – they get tighter, and tighter and tighter. Then it becomes about [a shot] two inches here or there off a post or a non-call. … The less games you give yourself in order to do it, the much smaller the margin gets,” Vanney explained.
“It became a situation [for the U.S.] where over the course of a half the margins became that tight. When you look at the whole Hex, the margins didn’t have to be quite that tight.”
Translation: The U.S. has only itself to blame for leaving it to the final game of the Hex to qualify, and not taking care of business earlier in the round.
All that being said, Vanney sees a lot of positives in U.S. soccer, and hinted that the entire system doesn’t have to be blown up, but rather tweaked here and there.
“I think there’s a lot of positive things that are there. We don’t need to throw out the baby with the bath water, so they say. There just needs to be a real, honest assessment of where we’re at and where we need to go to try improve as a country,” Vanney offered.
“A lot of positive things are happening. MLS is growing, MLS is getting better. The young, up-and-coming American players are very interesting. There’s more development going on in the country than ever before. It starts with developing coaches and then coaches develop players. Coaching education has been revamped in the last few years, which is a positive step. There’s a lot of things that are maybe moving in the right direction, but we failed to qualify for the World Cup, and that’s a problem.”