US Men's Soccer Team Pinnacle
The chants of "USA! USA! USA!", rang loudly around Jeonju World Cup Stadium. In front of nearly 37,000 soccer fans, the United States had defeated archrivals Mexico in a stunning soccer performance. The players soaked in the adulation of the crowd after goals from an American stalwart, Brian McBride, and the new kid on the block, Landon Donovan, saw the Americans into the quarterfinals for the first time in the modern World Cup era.
Back on US soil, it was 1:30 AM at kickoff, and most Americans were asleep, missing the incredible 90 minute display in South Korea. It would be the last World Cup that Americans would sleep on, and the tournament that made many feel it would be the USMNT time soon.
14 years later
Fast forward to November 2016, more than 14 years since the highest point in US men's soccer, and coach Jurgen Klinsmann was removed as national team boss. Klinsmann had ridden a wave of excitement into the US coaching job, but mixed results and a lack of developing good national team players saw him lose the job.
Klinsmann, who was hired to revolutionize US soccer, had lost two World Cup 2018 qualifying games on the trot. A loss to Mexico was followed by humiliation in Costa Rica as the Ticos ran riot over the Americans, 4-0. In all, Klinsmann's US was outscored six to one, and by the time he was dismissed, fans and the media had turned on him.
His successor, Bruce Arena, was a familiar face, who led the US to that great triumph in South Korea. And if it wouldn't have been for a hand ball that was never called on Germany's Torsten Frings, it could have been the USA in the semifinals.
Arena's appointment is surely a stopgap move, one that will see the Americans qualify for the World Cup. Anything longer than that would be a surprise. Arena's current contract is only through the 2018 competition, although he could earn himself another four-year stint.
What does the future hold for the USMNT?
Bruce Arena is the US men's national team's future and past, but what can be expected of this team? The US is in a peculiar state. Dead last in CONCACAF World Cup qualification, the team has to beat Honduras and Panama in March to give itself any hope of qualifying for next year's event.
Arena has plenty of talented players to choose from, but the real question is, can he get the best out of them?
Klinsmann couldn't and his tactics weren't anything more than mass chaos that no one understood. The USA's performance at the 2014 World Cup was painful to watch as the team looked tactically inept. With players like Jermaine Jones running around throwing himself clumsily across the pitch, it was easy to see Klinsmann's USMNT was devolving. Like Teddy Goalsevelt and his stupid gimmick, Klinsmann's team was an embarrassment.
The positives for the USMNT with Arena in charge is the coach will make this a very American side. For the most part, it would be expected Klinsmann's German revolution will be out the door. Bruce Arena will most likely call on US-based players when the team goes up against Honduras and Panama, but whether this is the right move is debatable.
Is Major League Soccer hurting the USMNT?
Major League Soccer's success in the last 10 years has caused a few problems for the USMNT. While the league does give Americans the platform to play professional soccer, it is arguably doing a better job of developing players from other CONCACAF nations.
In 2015, 43% of MLS players were born outside of the US and Canada. Although a smaller percentage of those players play for CONCACAF teams, there are still players benefiting from MLS's competition, pay, and professionalism. Those players are then taking skills developed in MLS back to their national teams and helping to improve competition among fellow players.
MLS is also hurting the USMNT through expansion. The constant strain on the talent pool forces less competition for positions on teams. American talent is being spread out too thinly across the country and foreign players are being signed to fill those cracks. US players are not developing due to the competition for places, rather other players are coming in to take those spots.
Spread too thin
Of course, it isn't just MLS's fault, but looking back on the success of 2002, and anyone can see that the league had only 10 teams. Fewer teams means players have to fight harder to get on a team and gain a position. Today's 22 teams have the luxury of 30 roster spots. That means 660 players could be active in MLS at any one time.
In 2002, the number of MLS players a team could have was 18; although clubs were permitted four additional players as a "development squad". Therefore, there were only 180 MLS players, or 220 if the development players are taken into count.
If the USMNT doesn't make the 2018 World Cup, it will hopefully send the country back to the drawing board with soccer. Unfortunately, it seems everyone has an idea how to fix the national team's problems. From add more expansion teams to needing promotion and relegation, everyone has an idea of how to fix things.
But maybe it is time to realize, the US is just being outplayed by other countries right now. At one time, theUSMNT were overachieving, but now the team is underachieving.
By Drew Farmer, author of Soccer Travels