Long before a disastrous 2-1 loss this week to Trinidad & Tobago in the final match of World Cup qualifying, an uncertain future for U.S. Soccer had been the subject of intense speculation within the American soccer community and its small, but devoted media contingent.
For the first time since 1986, the American men’s team will not be going to the World Cup. All it had to do against the last-place team in the CONCACAF hexagonal round was get a draw.
Instead, the U.S. fell behind 2-0 in the first half, then slipped around in the rain in the tiny stadium in Couva, uninspired, as Panama earned a spot in Russia, and Honduras nailed down a playoff berth against Australia.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also in This Issue: Baseball Writing; Local Sports Journalism; College Football’s Gift to American Higher Education; Syria’s World Cup Heartbreak; Aussie Cricket Fiction; Remembering Y.A. Tittle
By the end of the week, coach Bruce Arena had resigned, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati was under pressure to do the same, and calls (howls, even) to “blow up” the entire youth development system were overheating analysis pieces and social media channels.
Former U.S. player Taylor Twellman’s epic rant on ESPN summed up how many feel, and it’s hard to argue with what he was saying (shrieking, even):
“It’s not just about tonight. It’s a complete embarrassment . . . With the amount of money that is in this sport . . . you can’t get a draw? Against Trinidad? . . . Belgium played Bosnia on a cow pasture, but we can’t play in Trinidad with water on the field. . . .The arrogance around our sport in this country bothers me, and it has bothered me from the beginning.”
That’s among the better of fiery post-mortems (here’s another one) that will likely continue for many months, and it’s important to note that Twellman wasn’t calling for everything to be blown up, as some pundits have.
While it’s true that the youth development system in the U.S. is vastly different than in Europe or South America, dramatic steps have been taken in the last decade or two to create an accelerated environment for the most promising players.
(I am refraining here from delving into to the highly successful U.S. women’s program, which dominates in a sport that is underdeveloped around the world. There simply is no comparison, especially where the World Cup is involved, and that’s not a knock on the American women at all.)
The “academy system” includes teams sponsored by every franchise in Major League Soccer. While it’s a far cry from the vaunted La Masia program in Barcelona that served as Lionel Messi’s finishing school, it’s a significant step in the right direction.
The problem for U.S. Soccer is that these initiatives have a long payoff, and they’re not guaranteed at all. And with an American soccer fan base demanding continuous progress, this failure came at precisely the wrong time.
In a front cover blurb for Filip Bondy’s 2014 book “Chasing the Game,” Gulati expressed the gauzy aspirations of the American soccer community this way:
“All of my dreams end the same way, with us winning the World Cup. But if we talk about when that will happen, it starts getting a little fuzzy.”
Indeed. The nightmare of what transpired in Trinidad—the same country where the U.S. ended a 40-year World Cup drought in 1989—was years in the making.
When I covered the World Cup in South Korea and Japan in 2002, never did I think that would still be the contemporary high-water mark for U.S. Soccer. A quarterfinal finish ended in a spirited loss to Germany, and the coming-of-age for Landon Donovan, then 20 years old.
But what followed him, and his generation of young Americans, was not progress, but active regression. Donovan was part of a U.S. Under-17 team that placed third in its World Cup in 1999.
His successors have had no such success. The U.S. men have been missing from the last two Olympics, which is essentially an Under-23 team. The players who have risen to the senior team haven’t been tested the way they’ve needed.
On Tuesday, the U.S. players not only crumbled under the pressure of having to get a result—a single point!—they seemed not to have responded to the sense of urgency at all.
Which brought all the usual complaints: MLS isn’t a sufficient breeding ground, it needs promotion and relegation, overhauling the U.S. Soccer hierarchy is imperative, we don’t have our best athletes playing soccer.
These points are exaggerated, if not wrong, especially the last one. American soccer needs players with more creative, improvised skill on the ball, and this has been an issue for decades.
As for uprooting the establishment, fine. And replace Gulati with whom? For all of his blind spots, including the hiring of Jürgen Klinsmann, Gulati has done a generally good job in his (unpaid role), especially in youth initiatives. Perhaps the time has come for new blood, but those wishing for a full and expedient bloodletting shouldn’t be so rash.
It’s not that changes don’t need to be made, but what the rethinking of strategy, investments and realistic expectations need to be. The U.S. has reached the knockout stages in three of the last four World Cup tournaments, which is rarefied air in global soccer.
That may have bred some complacency, as Twellman suggested, and it’s a valid point. While MLS is not the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga, for two decades it’s given young Americans a chance to play at a fairly high level. It’s also given good players from Latin America a way to help their tiny nations close the gap against the U.S.
Some MLS-bred standouts, like Donovan, left for Europe and came back, as have his peers Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard. Getting a tryout in Europe for U.S. players is harder than one might think, much less getting a chance to play in a significant way.
The crux of the matter comes down to this, as I see it, several years removed from actively covering soccer as a journalist: The U.S. has had a serious generational dip in quality in the last decade and a half. It happens to every nation. The Netherlands, a world powerhouse, won’t be going to the World Cup either (see below); nor will Chile, which was one of the great stories of the last World Cup.
These are more serious soccer-playing nations than the U.S., and they’re going through the same hand-wringing. They’ll be scrutinized even more intensely, even shamefully, for their failures.
Then they’ll have to get up and try to bounce back. The future for U.S. soccer isn’t as grim as the pundits are saying. While it’s a shame that Christian Pulisic, the talented 19-year-old forward, won’t be able to play at the World Cup, he’s part of a more promising generation of Americans who figure to play a central part in the next qualifying period.
Unlike Germany, which overhauled its youth structure about the time the U.S. was basking in its 2002 success, the American system won’t undergo such dramatic change. The top-down control in Germany doesn’t exist here, and nor do the players. While Pulisic may become the best player ever produced in the U.S., neither are there a bevy of Thomas Muellers and Mario Götzes waiting to burst through the door.
As Will Parchman wrote about American soccer’s youth development in 2016:
“There is no quick fix. A country so large with so many sports competing for a young player’s interest has development issues that will outlive most of us. Fans long for the U.S. to produce our very own Leo Messi, but Messi was originally developed by a club located in the town of his birth in Argentina. He didn’t move to Barcelona until he was 13. The system in which Messi first thrived was in place before he was even born.”
While the overreactions to the U.S. failure to qualify have been understandable—it illustrates how much some Americans do care about soccer—they lack so much historical context it’s laughable.
A younger generation that has grown up on social media and having the U.S. a fixture in the World Cup is facing a trauma it never imagined. For those of us who never played, watched or followed soccer until the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., the current hysteria is amusing.
When the North American Soccer League folded in 1984, the doomsayers thought that might be the death of the sport in this country. But little boys and girls continued to play, and they served as a bridge to a crucial time a decade later.
This is a painful time to be a fan of the U.S. men’s national team, to be sure. But what’s happened in the last generation or so is unprecedented. American fans are finding out what some of the very best nations go through, and if they want to commiserate with the best, they can start following their fellow fans in Amsterdam and Santiago to understand just how agonizing the next four or so years will be.
A Few Good Reads
For The Hardball Times, John Paschal on the timelessness of most sports and especially baseball writing, as evidenced by a recent serendipitous romp that had him taking home sports collections from Grantland Rice, Blackie Sherrod and The Wall Street Journal:
“Seasons change and names are replaced, but themes are ageless and stubborn. They have a way of reminding us they have been this way before, not least in the realm of major league baseball.”
- The Hardball Times, which started in 2014, is now part of FanGraphs, and its once print-only paid Baseball Annual will become online-only, free and available in January;
- Official baseball historian John Thorn and other writers size up some stirring League Division Series that ended with the usual heartbreak for the Washington Nationals and the shocking exit of the Cleveland Indians. The defending American League champs were dethroned by those spunky young upstart New York Yankees, as Roger Angell so deftly describes, especially Brett Gardner’s classic post-season at-bat in Game 5;
- Tom Seaver’s had to flee his Napa Valley home due to the wildfires; in 2013 Pat Jordan wrote “The Constant Gardener,” a terrific take on Tom Terrific’s late-middle age devotion to the vineyards;
- For the Middle East Eye, James Montague examines how the Syrian national soccer team, which lost to Australia this week in an Asian World Cup qualifying playoff, triumphed over the ravages of civil war in a region where governments have often used sports for the worst kind of political propaganda;
- American soccer fans have plenty of company in their despair over missing the World Cup. Imagine being a fan of Holland, considered the greatest soccer-playing nation never to have won the World Cup, and which has failed to qualify after reaching the semifinals in 2014? Arjen Robben’s retirement is part of the inevitable fallout of a dreadful near-decade for Die Oranje. Like even the best of nations, the Dutch are suffering through the midst of a “lost generation,” one that can be traced to conforming to the “total football” concept that once lifted them so high;
- The American Basketball Association is holding its 50th anniversary reunion next spring in Indianapolis in a weekend extravaganza to benefit former players, coaches and employees who need financial or health care assistance;
- Whatever you may think of college football—the spectacle, the excess, the violence, the compromise with academics—the sport as it is contested at the highest levels, writes David Labaree, author of the recently published “A Perfect Mess,” has been helpful in building the American higher education brand;
- A layman’s history of college football fight songs includes the origins of tunes from big-boy schools and Georgetown, which once a upon a time was one of them;
- Between Bear Bryant and Nick Saban, the University of Alabama won exactly one national championship in college football, in 1992. From The Birmingham News, the first installment of an oral history of that team coached by Gene Stallings;
- After a three-year investigation, the NCAA ruled it can’t levy sanctions against the University of North Carolina for academic fraud involving student-athletes, and Pat Forde at Yahoo! Sports asks what good is the NCAA for?
- The same NCAA this week also announced it was forming a commission on college basketball in wake of a federal investigation that the organization was told nothing about. Useless and feckless are mild words for what’s become of the main governing body of college athletics.
- Making the case for local sports journalism in Britain, where reporters adapt to digital tasks like live-blogging and interacting with readers, is tempered by the challenges of finding an audience and dealing with access issues that national outlets don’t often have to battle;
- More about The Athletic, which has expanded into 15 North American markets and starting verticals in college football and basketball, and how it’s trying a different business model than its competitors;
Sports Book News
The collapse of the Harvey Weinstein empire includes the immediate elimination of Weinstein Books, which has been subsumed by Hachette Books, including an upcoming book on Aaron Hernandez. Ironically, one of the few sports books published by Weinstein Books was “Against The Grain,” (2015), written by a high school football coach weighing heavily on the subject of character and including blurbs from Pete Carroll, Jimmy Kimmel and John Feinstein and a foreword by Phil Jackson;
The men behind the Grade Cricketer Twitter account in Australia (@gradecricketer) are about to publish “Tea and No Sympathy,” their latest novel in The Grade Cricketer Series. In this 2016 Q & A, they discuss how they got started and the Australian cricket culture that has inspired their work:
“Cricket’s that kind of game where it’s almost at odds with society, in that we’re being taught more and more to express ourselves and share our dreams and feelings. But in cricket there’s such a pervading culture in Australia of never telling anybody what your dreams are. If you say, ‘I want to play for Australia’, the game will bite you on the bum and nobody will respect that, so you keep it all to yourself.”
Y.A. Tittle, 90, was an aging star NFL quarterback when he came to the New York Giants in 1961. Although he never won an NFL championship, Tittle endeared himself to the city’s fan base with three division titles and was later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He also was the subject of one of the most famous sports photographs ever taken, as he dropped to his knees, exhausted and grimacing after throwing a pick-six in a 1964 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The image, taken by Morris Berman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, came in what would be Tittle’s final season, and as he later recalled: “A whole lifetime was over.”
As Tittle wrote in “Nothing Comes Easy,” his 2009 memoir: “What a hell of a way to get famous!”
Tittle would live for more than a half-century after last playing football, and late in his life, he made a final trip home, ravaged by the final stages of dementia. Cared for by his daughter Dianne, who wrote a memoir of her father (but not about the photo), Tittle was to have been the book interview subject of David Halberstam in 2007. However, Halberstam was killed in a car accident while enroute to Tittle’s home in the San Francisco Bay area.
Tittle’s death came during the football season, a time of the year loaded with the memories of a long and splendid life, no more resonant than during his youth in Marshall, Texas:
“Fall is still the saddest part of the year for me. It’s because the leaves are turning, and if the leaves are turning, we’re getting ready to play Longview or Tyler.”
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The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 100, published Oct. 15, 2017 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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