World Cup Begins Without The U.S. Men's Team

Jun 14, 2018
Originally published on June 14, 2018 6:54 pm

The United States is among the notable no-shows for the month-long World Cup tournament. It's the first time since 1986 the U.S. men haven't qualified for their sport's biggest event.

Soccer officials say they are moving on from criticism and controversy to get the men's national team back on track. But some wonder whether they're focusing on what really needs to be fixed — from improving coaching to broadening the appeal of the sport at the youth level — to put the American team back on the world stage.

Still stings

It's been eight months since the disastrous match where Trinidad and Tobago beat the U.S., knocking the Americans out of the World Cup. Nineteen-year-old Christian Pulisic, a star midfielder for the U.S., played that night. He still laments he'll be watching the World Cup rather than competing.

"You know [it's] sad, obviously," Pulisic said. "We'd like to do it [play in the tournament] but now we're just working on developing this team and being ready to qualify for the next one."

Pulisic was part of this team that took the field two weeks ago in a Memorial Day friendly against a national team from Bolivia. The game was in Chester, Pa. and more than 11,000 fans were there. So were top U.S. Soccer officials, like Nico Romeijn. As chief sport development officer, Romeijn oversees five departments in the Federation, including youth national teams and talent identification. Asked whether missing this World Cup means there's a crisis in men's soccer, Romeijn said "no, [that's] too strong."

Carrying on after criticism

Not qualifying, of course, was a "big disappointment." And Romeijn says it gave urgency to work already underway. For instance, work on coaching education.

"It's so important to improve the level of coaching all over the U.S.," says Romeijn, adding "not only when you're looking at the highest levels, but also when you're looking at grassroots. Because it's all connected to each other."

Romeijn says youth development continues as well, with recent signs of success. The U.S. made it to the quarterfinals last year at both the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups.

U.S. Soccer may be keeping calm and carrying on. But it can't ignore the fractures in the men's national team that contributed to the qualifying debacle. Fractures caused by coaching controversies and the harsh criticism that followed the Trinidad and Tobago upset. The Federation has responded by adding new personnel. Last week U.S. Soccer hired former player Earnie Stewart as the first-ever general manager of the men's team. In February, U.S. Soccer elected a new president.

Hoping for a culture change

Former national team player and current NBC soccer analyst Kyle Martino ran for president of U.S. Soccer, but lost. Still, Martino continues to share his campaign calls for reform. Starting with the U.S. Soccer culture.

"There's a culture of patronage," says Martino. "It's become incredibly insular [with] a handful of people that don't have the technical qualifications or the history as a player to grow the game and create macro architecture that can help not only develop players but improve the quality of experience within the sport."

"[U.S. Soccer] hasn't become the meritocracy it should be," Martino continues, "where the qualified people who are in it for the right reasons rise to positions where they have the authority to, in a democratic way, make great decisions for soccer in this country."

Despite his criticism, Martino says he's rooting for new U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro.

"I hope he does a great job," says Martino. I hope [he pushes] the reform that's necessary to change the culture within U.S. Soccer and bring this game to a larger amount of people who've found it hard to either participate or stay in the U.S. Soccer family for a long time."

Casting a wider net

Martino's particularly passionate about the idea of spreading the game. As the new board chairman of Street Soccer USA, a non-profit working to grow the game in inner city communities, Martino wants U.S. Soccer to cast a wider net at the youth levels of the sport – as part of a broader search for the next generation of national team players.

"You have to create the architecture so that it's inclusive," he says. "This is a blue collar sport everywhere else in the world. The teams that win World Cups, that list is made up of kids from favelas in Brazil and the streets of Buenos Aires. That's where the game lives. It's the most diverse and non-discriminatory game in the planet. And in our country it's a rich kid's game. Fixing that absolutely will improve our national team."

A hopeful glimpse of the future

At the game in Chester, fans were happy for a night. The U.S. beat Bolivia and two 18-year-olds were stars. Josh Sargent and Tim Weah both scored. Sargent made his national team debut.

"I was very nervous to be honest," Sargent said. "It was my first professional game ever, so it was a pretty big deal to me and I was proud to net one."

After Pennsylvania, the U.S. went overseas and lost to Ireland and then tied World Cup-bound France.

The friendlies perhaps offered a hopeful glimpse of the future. Now that the 2026 World Cup is coming to North America, qualifying for that event, at least, may not be an issue since there's a good chance the U.S. will automatically qualify since it's the principal host.

But new Federation President Carlos Cordeiro has the kind of big plans that might help the U.S. avoid other World Cup qualifying embarrassments for years to come.

"We believe this event [the 2026 World Cup] will become a lightning rod," Cordeiro said Wednesday, after the U.S., Canada and Mexico won the bid. "It will become transformational for the sport as kids that're now 8, 10, 12 years old can all dream of potentially playing for a national team."

"I make the argument," Cordeiro continued, "that we are a vast, powerful, wealthy nation, but we have haves and have-nots. And our disenfranchised are underserved, and in many ways these are the people with whom the sport resonates most. We don't have enough of them – at 3.5, 4 million registered kids [in U.S. Soccer], we believe there are many, many more who could be playing with us."

It's a message of inclusion that should give hope to critics — that with the right people making the right decisions, the U.S. finally can realize its potential in men's soccer.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The World Cup began today with host Russia defeating Saudi Arabia 5 to 0 in the opening game. Thirty-two countries are competing in the tournament over the next few weeks. The United States is not among them. This is the first time since 1986 that the U.S. men haven't qualified for their sport's biggest event. Soccer officials in this country are focused on getting the team back on the World Cup stage in four years. But are they focusing on the right things? NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Eight months after the disaster...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: It is over. Trinidad has dethroned the United States, knocking them out of the World Cup 2018.

GOLDMAN: ...Nineteen-year-old U.S. star midfielder Christian Pulisic still laments having to watch the World Cup.

CHRISTIAN PULISIC: You know, sad obviously. We'd like to do it. But now we're just working on developing this team and being ready to qualify for the next one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: And now U.S. Soccer presents the national team of the United States of America versus the national team of Bolivia.

GOLDMAN: Pulisic and a new-look U.S. team played a Memorial Day friendly against Bolivia. It was in Chester, Pa. More than 11,000 fans were there. So were top U.S. Soccer officials like Nico Romeijn. He oversees a really important department - soccer development. He says missing the World Cup does not mean a crisis in men's soccer.

NICO ROMEIJN: No, too strong - it's too strong.

GOLDMAN: But it was, he says, a big disappointment. And it gave urgency to work already underway like coaching education.

ROMEIJN: It's so important to improve the level of coaching all over the U.S. So not only when you're looking at the highest levels, but also when you're looking at the grass-roots because it's all connected to each other.

GOLDMAN: U.S. Soccer may be keeping calm and carrying on, but it's not ignoring the fractures in the men's national team - coaching controversies, disgruntled players - that contributed to the qualifying debacle. Last week, the federation hired former player Earnie Stewart as the first-ever general manager of the men's team. In February, U.S. Soccer elected a new president. It wasn't Kyle Martino. The former pro player and current NBC soccer analyst ran for the office and lost. Still, Martino continues to share his campaign calls for reform. In particular, he'd like U.S. Soccer to cast a wider net at the youth levels of the sport, the next generation of national team players.

KYLE MARTINO: And you have to create the architecture so that it's inclusive. This is a blue-collar sport everywhere else in the world. It is the most diverse and non-discriminatory game on the planet. And in our country, it's a rich kid's game. So, you know, fixing that absolutely will improve our national team.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) U-S-A. U-S-A.

GOLDMAN: At the game in Chester, fans were happy for a night. The U.S. beat Bolivia, and two 18-year-olds were stars. Josh Sargent and Tim Weah both scored. Sargent made his national team debut and afterwards sounded 18.

JOSH SARGENT: I was very nervous, to be honest, coming out. That was my first professional game ever. So that was a pretty big deal to me, and I was proud to net one.

GOLDMAN: After Pennsylvania, the U.S. went overseas and lost to Ireland and then tied World Cup-bound France. The friendlies perhaps offered a hopeful glimpse of the future. Now that the 2026 World Cup is coming to North America, the U.S. may automatically qualify for that event. New U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro hopes 2026 acts as an incentive to get more kids in this country dreaming of playing for the national team. It's a message of inclusion that should give hope to critics that with the right people making the right decisions, the U.S. can fully realize its potential in men's soccer. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.