It was business as usual.
For the first time since its failure to reach the 2018 World Cup with a loss in Trinidad and Tobago back in October, the United States men’s national team played a home game on Sunday. Yet, somehow, it felt like no major shock had ever been felt. Like the U.S. wasn’t about to miss its first World Cup since the first year of Ronald Reagan’s second presidential term.
Things looked like they always had in the non-FIFA date friendly to cap the traditional January camp for domestically based U.S. national team pool players. A team of relative nobodies playing before a half-empty stadium with inexplicably high ticket prices. (On-field seats were $200; standard midfield seats were $60; the cheapest ticket was $25, and that’s all before fees.)
And a lineup that was, on average, about five years too old.
Average age of this experimental, supposedly developmental starting XI: 25.1
That’s probably older than a few World Cup starting XIs.
— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) January 29, 2018
First, those ticket prices. It was hardly surprising that enormous swaths of the StubHub Center looked immaculately clean. The U.S. has had trouble drawing five-digit crowds for stateside friendlies the last year or two. That was before it failed to reach a World Cup. Why in the world the federation thought prices above a hundred dollars for premium seats were still appropriate in spite of that inconvenient fact is incomprehensible.
If anything, this might have been a good time to show some goodwill to the beleaguered fan base, which is being asked to sit tight and hold its interest through at least eight years without a World Cup. Maybe slash prices for a few games, as a good-faith gesture.
Now let’s talk about that lineup. The Americans started a 30-year-old Justin Morrow at left back and handed a debut to a 28-year-old central defender, Ike Opara. Out wide, it played 26-year-old Gyasi Zardes who has already demonstrated to lack the capacity to do a job at the international level. And up front, a 29-year-old C.J. Sapong plainly has nothing to offer the program in the long term.
Yet there they were. As if this were just a regular World Cup-year January camp, useful for unearthing a role player or two to fill out the back end of the roster at the big tournament this summer. Rather than the beginning of an almost half-decade rebuilding process, a total reboot of a national team that had stagnated and then badly regressed after the 2014 World Cup.
This isn’t the time to be handing minutes to 30-year-old left backs. Or blooding center backs who will be 33 when the U.S. next has a chance to be at a World Cup. Or to get wingers on the field who have proven only that they don’t belong in 37 prior caps. Or to play through strikers who have recorded 10 or more goals in just one of their seasons in Major League Soccer.
If a player has no chance of contributing to the cause at the 2022 World Cup, or the qualifying path towards it, he has no business being around this team right now. Not even in a January camp. There are plenty of young players who could have benefited enormously from those spots, whether they’ve made a dent or debut at the pro level or not. Indeed, even a promising under-17 player could yield more net benefit to the program than some journeyman who will never get close to Qatar, five summers from now.
Yet there they all were.
And then, to complete the trifecta of damning evidence against a federation that has had almost four months to think about all that has gone wrong, but hasn’t apparently drawn any useful conclusions yet, there was the interview acting head coach Dave Sarachan gave to SI.com. The subject, predictably, was the failure to keep mega-prospect Jonathan Gonzalez from defecting to Mexico’s program.
Of all the things that went wrong for U.S. Soccer in 2017, this debacle might echo into the future just as long as the American-shaped hole in Russia at the World Cup. For year after year, Gonzalez wasn’t taken terribly seriously by the U.S. youth teams, or indeed the senior side. So after he broke out with Monterrey in Liga MX and had such a strong Apertura that he was named to the league’s Best XI, El Tri swooped in and gave him the commitment that had never quite materialized from the team Gonzalez was said to prefer.
U.S. Soccer personnel have been touchy about accusations that they let the best young American player not named Christian Pulisic slip away. And Sarachan offered up a supposedly exculpatory excuse.
“There was nobody that pulled me aside and said, ‘By the way, we have a chance to lose this kid,'” he told SI. “All indications were that he had shown all the signs that his allegiance was still with the U.S. national team, and all throughout his youth his played for us — around 30 times.”
Sure, Gonzalez had represented the U.S. plenty at the youth level — although never when it really mattered, like at the under-20 World Cup. But if he was that well established within the federation, and if it was true that “his allegiance was still with the U.S.”, isn’t his departure even more damning?
If the Americans lost a player they didn’t even realize might leave, doesn’t that speak to a kind of malpractice worse than a teenager simply making a defensible career choice? Sarachan points to Mexico’s comprehensive recruitment campaign but doesn’t explain why the USSF didn’t put on a similar effort.
It all resonates in the context of the systemic failure to mine the bounty of Hispanic-American talent that’s eager to represent the United States. It’s all of a piece with the wrong national team priorities with no World Cup in sight. And fairly exorbitant prices for the least relevant U.S. game in eons.
In a vacuum, these are mistakes. Taken together, they paint a picture of an organization that has a lot more to figure out than how to get back to a World Cup.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.