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“You are a soccer generation that has been given everything. You are a soccer generation that is on the verge of squandering everything. So, now it’s time to pay it back, make us believe again. You don’t owe it to yourselves, you owe it to us.”

This was the crescendo of a scathing critique from Fox soccer analyst and former U.S. National Team player Alexi Lalas on the current state of U.S. Soccer. He went on to call out individual players by name, including Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and even threw some shade at America’s 19 year-old wunderkind, Christian Pulisic who is going through his first World Cup qualifying cycle.

While Lalas is polarizing amongst soccer fans, he was mostly right.

Make no mistake, the road to the 2018 World Cup is lined with pitfalls for the United States, and they have work to do on Friday vs Panama and Tuesday at Trinidad and Tobago. In many ways, these are the most important set of games in the team’s history.

Almost four years ago, the United States heroically advanced from the “Group of Death,” getting past Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, whose irritation may have been the inspiration for his famous statue.

Behind the heroic saves of Tim Howard, we very nearly upset soccer power Belgium in the Round of 16! Despite the loss, the USMNT was definitely on a high from the World Cup. The team won over fans because of their teamwork, toughness, and the undying belief that we would win, no matter the odds. This blue collar, nothing is given, everything is earned mentality is a hallmark of U.S. Soccer. And that extended to our fan base.

They made us believe.

As underdogs in the 2014 Group of Death, the USMNT faced superior opponents with grit, heart, and hustle. With the odds stacked against them, they needed their fans to turn international arenas into cauldrons of noise as if we were in RFK Stadium in DC or CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

Everywhere the team went, we followed.

I remember speaking to fans in Brazil, who were thrilled to see that American fandom had advanced beyond cheering once every 4 years. The United States soccer landscape had changed. People woke up at all hours in the morning to watch games in European leagues, and MLS grew and grew, adding four teams and countless fans . This seemed like the right moment for the national team to make the leap, but instead the team jumped the shark.

Let’s take a look at what happened.

Inconsistency after the 2014 World Cup

To revisit how we got here, to this critical juncture of must-wins, let’s take a look at the USMNT’s ups and downs since the last World Cup.

  • 2015:
    • USMNT loses to Jamaica in the last four of the Gold Cup
    • USMNT loses the CONCACAF Cup (and the right to play in the 2017 Confederations Cup) to Mexico
  • 2016:
    • USMNT earns a respectable 4th place finish in the Copa America
    • USMNT suffers two home losses to Mexico and Costa Rica (an embarrassing 4-0)qualification for the 2018 World Cup began with defeats at home to Mexico and a humiliating 4-0 defeat in Costa Rica.
    • Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann loses his job, likely due to these defeats
  • 2017:
    • USMNT wins the Gold Cup on home soil, under new head coach Bruce Arena
    • USMNT posts two dismal performances, including a 2-0 loss (at home) to Costa Rica and a 1-1 draw against Honduras

Safe to say that results have been mixed for the USMNT since 2014. In fact, that’s probably an understatement.

Remember those hallmarks of U.S. Soccer: teamwork, toughness, and the undying belief that we will win? While I have seen it in spurts from the team since the last World Cup, it seems as if the team has lost their mojo.

Inability to rebuild after the 2014 World Cup

Typically the time between World Cup years is a time to give the next generation of players some experience while gradually phasing out some of the veterans who have played vital roles. While some new players have been introduced (Jordan Morris, Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic) much of the old guard remains.

This is troubling for two reasons:

  1. Players in their mid-to-late 30s may have experience, but they have inevitably lost a step to aging and just can’t be as explosive as some of the young stars across the globe
  2. What does that mean for the future of the USMNT?

Since his injury in the Mexico match, Howard has looked a step off the pace in goal and backup Brad Guzan has not fared much better in his stead. While Clint Dempsey has continued to score goals (often by sitting up top and not tracking back on defense), Jozy Altidore has not. Captain Michael Bradley has continued to turn in mixed performances, and with the absence of Jermaine Jones, the team still has not found someone to effectively partner Bradley in the center midfield.

The defense has been awful, and now two coaches have been unable to find a consistent set of defenders that can play well together. It has gotten to the point that DaMarcus Beasley, (who has been with the national team since 2002), has been drafted back into the team, a guy so old, he was alive when taking photos like this was cool.

Beasley is Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, an old timer who keeps getting brought back into the force while constantly reminding us he’s “Too old for this shit.”

What does this all mean?

To Qualify, Winning Is the Only Option

Anything less two wins—6 points—from the USMNT over these next two games and qualification for Russia will be nyet. The team could potentially miss out altogether or face a playoff with either Australia or Syria.

Missing out on the World Cup is something that was once unthinkable, but is now a very real possibility coming at the worst possible time.

Admittedly, we have been spoiled as a soccer nation, that we damn near expect to qualify every year. With CONCACAF’s decidedly weaker field of competitors, we haven’t experienced the nadir of missing a major tournament as some powerhouses such as Germany, England, and the Netherlands have. While the men’s national team would eventually recover, it would be a drastic setback for a team finally gaining some level of international respect.

We mayhave our first global superstar in Pulisic, and missing the World Cup would mean the team would miss the chance to show him off against the world’s best. While the core fan base may remain, U.S. Soccer would miss a huge opportunity to bring new fans into and continue to grow the sport in America.

Two games. Six points. Get to Russia. Make us believe again.

Gavin Lippman

Baltimore native who is always searching for that next adventure and a new story to tell.

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