by | Oct 11, 2017

There is a tendency, on this side of the Atlantic, to continue to look down upon the United States of America’s national football team as arrivistes. Last night’s narrow defeat at the hands of Trinidad & Tobago, however, ended one of world football’s more understated runs. This is the first time that the American team has failed to reach a World Cup finals since 1986, a record that few other countries can match and an impressive achievement, even if we take into account the fact that the CONCACAF confederation might not necessarily be the deepest pool from which they have to raise themselves.

There are several perspectives from which this failure can be considered. On the night itself, the USA team couldn’t have a much more straightforward task. Going into the match in third place in the group, a win against the team adrift at the bottom of the group would have guaranteed the qualification to travel to Russia. A draw may, depending on results elsewhere, have had them qualifying automatically in third place or dropping to fourth and having to play Australia over two legs in a play-off. Defeat would leave open the possibility of dropping to fifth place and crashing out of the competition altogether.

It turned out to be a dramatic night, both in Couva and elsewhere. A first half own  goal from Omar Gonzalez and a long-range shot from Alvin Jones gave Trinidad & Tobago an unlikely two-nil half-time lead and one pulled back by Christian Pulisic for the USA seven minutes into the second half wasn’t enough to leave matters comprehensively out of their hands. Elsewhere, Honduras beat a Mexico team that had already qualified for the finals to grab the play-off place, whilst a goal two minutes from time for Panama against Costa Rica was enough to send them to their first ever finals whilst knocking the USA out of the tournament altogether.

There were some on social media who muttered darkly about conspiracies, about the timing of that second Panama goal, about a controversy over whether their first one had even crossed the goal line, and there were raised eyebrows over the possibility that Mexico, already through themselves and with their biggest rivals stuttering, might not have gone all out in their match. Most, however, were honest enough to admit the evidence of their own eyes, that throughout the entirety of their qualifying campaign they simply hadn’t been good enough, and against at best mediocre opponents. The team did, after all, accumulate just twelve points from ten matches, managing just three wins, and even on spite of this they went into their final match with their destiny in their own hands. Taking only the most cursory of broader perspectives, the team ultimately only had itself to blame for its failure to progress.

And so the inquests begin. How could it be that a country with a vast population, a steadily growing interest in the game, and the wealth to be able to fund a lavish infrastructure – should it choose to – should fail in this way? Football is no longer a minority sport, a butt of all jokes for American exceptionalists with little sense of imagination. The women’s team has won the World Cup three times, so why are the men falling behind?

We here in England are used to such navel-gazing. It has, after all, become something of a national sport in itself, when it comes to the England team, in recent years. For many American supporters, however, this is a new experience. After all, one has to be forty years old to be able to remember a World Cup finals taking place without them. Once we’ve worked through explanations that sound extremely familiar – the wrong managerial choices, stodgy tactical tactical formations, and so on – though, we come onto the way in which players are developed, and this in turn leads us to subjects as American as apple pie: money and, in turn, race.

In June of last year, the Guardian interviewed Doug Andreassen, the chair of US Soccer’s diversity task force, and had some worrying observations to make about the state of youth coaching in the country. According to Andreassen, “The system is not working for the underserved community. It’s working for the white kids.” He pointed to the “pay-to-play” principle behind American youth coaching as being a prime example of this, and this isn’t a theory that he has plucked from thin air. Reasearchers studying the effect of pay-to-play – whereby young players receive top quality coaching, but only in return for substantial amounts of money – found that American footballers “came from communities that had higher incomes, education and employment rankings, and were whiter than the US average, while basketball and American football players came from places that ranked lower than average on those same indicators.”

In response to this, when questioned by the Guardian, Nick Lusson, the director of NorCal Premier Soccer Foundation, replied that, “I don’t think it’s systematic racism- it’s just a system that has been built with blinders to equality”, which sounds halfway reasonable for the half-second that it takes us to process that racism could in part be defined as “a system that has been built with blinders to equality.” And here is a problem that cuts through American society. Football is still perceived as a white, suburban game, and that’s problematic in more than one sense. From one perspective, there is an obvious ethical issue with the fact that many may be excluded or not get the opportunity to aim for the highest level that they can manage.

But even if we steer clear of the ethics of such an unequal system, there’s an obvious practical consideration to be taken into account. Some of the greatest players in the history of world football have been born into poverty or have been from an ethnic minority. Profressional football is a global game, and it might just be the most competitive that there is. Any nation seeking to be as successful as it could be needs to encourage every potential player, search everywhere and develop them meticulously. If there are thousands of youngsters who don’t have a pathway towards developing a love for the game and the skills to play it at the highest level, the ultimate losers will be the USA national team. Attempts have been made on the part of the United States Soccer Federation to intervene in this, but the ultimate issues of perception and access are important and unwinding these are likely to be difficult, particularly if some are profiting from it.

These are, however, long-term issues that football in the United States of America will have to get to grips with. In the mean time, the damage has been done. Quite asides from the sporting disappointment of not making the finals of the competition, there are other factors to consider. Some may allow themselves a small snigger at the fact that Fox Sports paid $400m for the rights to broadcast the tournament in the USA but now find themselves without a team involved in it. But it doesn’t end there. The same principle of schadenfreude may be applied to FIFA, for whom the value of future rights may well have been adversely affected for future tournaments by last night’s events. 

Most importantly of all, though, the World Cup finals are an opportunity. It was announced in April that the USA, Canada and Mexico are to make a joint bid for the 2026 finals. Two of those three nations have failed to reach the 2018 finals, and whilst that might not negatively impact upon this bid to a significant extent, this  can hardly be considered to be a positive state of affairs. And finally, we come onto the small matter of that future that so many supporters of the team are likely so despondent about today. How many children who might have been bitten by the football bug will now miss out on this because the USA team isn’t in Russia next summer? It’s impossible to say, but if the USA men’s team is going to find that catalyst, that player or two who can help to propel perhaps both the national team and Major League Soccer – which has grown hugely over the last two decades but still has room to expand further – to their next levels of development, then last night’s failure really does start to feel like a missed opportunity in several important respects.