Missing the World Cup is a wake-up call for United States | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 11.10.2017
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Missing the World Cup is a wake-up call for United States

The United States will sit out a World Cup for the first time in 32 years after failing to qualify for next year's tournament. DW analyzes what has gone wrong for the country, which had been making strides forward.

Shock poured from the United States on Tuesday after the United States failed to get the required point against Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for the World Cup. Reactions from current and former players of the team ranged from speechlessness to outrage as the US failed to reach the tournament for the first time since 1986.

"Every single one of those players — nightmares for the rest of their lives because this is an utter embarrassment with the amount of money that is in Major League Soccer and in this sport," said former US player Taylor Twellman, who is now a pundit on American broadcaster ESPN.

"You can't get a draw, a tie, against Trinidad? You don't deserve to go to the World Cup."

The setback comes as a particular shock given the development of US football over the past few decades. The last time the United States didn't qualify for the World Cup, they lacked a professional soccer league and were relying on amateur players who played for universities. Nowadays, Major League Soccer (MLS) has added teams each of the last few seasons, and many US nationals now earn seven-figure annual salaries in MLS.

So where did it all go wrong? Here are a few reasons why the US missed the boat to Russia.

A bad start got worse

The USMNT's troubles started back at the beginning of the Hexagonal, which is the final qualifying stage in CONCACAF qualifying. They lost to Mexico 2-1 after Rafa Marquez scored just before full time, and then followed up that defeat with a 4-0 loss to Costa Rica.

Mexiko | Fußball WM-Qualifikation | Mexiko vs USA (Getty Images/AFP/A. Estrella)

After stints at Gladbach and Roma, Michael Bradley returned to the US well before turning 30

The two results cost Jürgen Klinsmann his coaching job, and the United States elected to reappoint Bruce Arena, who coached the team between 1998 and 2006. Though the US improved, they still struggled away from home, failing to win any qualifiers played outside the United States. A 4-0 romping of Panama wasn't enough to keep them out of danger, and it all fell apart with Tuesday's loss to Costa Rica.

Read more: Christian Pulisic performance leaves USA drooling

Unchallenged players

Of the players who took the field for the United States against Trinidad and Tobago, only Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood played in a top European League. Defenders Jose Villafana and Gonzalez and forward Paul Arriola are the only players who play in Mexico.

WM-Qualifikation USA vs Honduras Christian Pulisic (picture-alliance/dpa/USA Today/K. Terada)

Christian Pulisic (right) is one of the US's most important players

The rest of the players are from Major League Soccer (MLS), the domestic league in the United States and Canada. Having so many MLS players in the squad is not abnormal for the United States – at least 9 players from MLS have made four of the previous five US World Cup squads.

Recently, several of the best American players, such as Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, have opted to spend their mid-20s in North America — and earn similar wages — rather than to continue playing in Europe. But the competition in MLS pales in comparison to that of top European leagues. The opposing players, and even teammates, of Bradley and Altidore make a fraction of what they do, and former stars such as David Villa and Bastian Schweinsteiger have come in and dominated the league in their twilight years.

For that reason, several top US players may not have improved as much as they should have and this may have made it difficult for them to bring their best stuff when it is needed most.

No clear development plan

In recent years, many American players have played with relatively successful European clubs. Pulisic and Wood both start fairly consistently in the Bundesliga. DeAndre Yedlin has returned to the English Premier League with Newcastle. Alejandro Bedoya, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore also have several years of experience in top European leagues.

Jozy Altidore und Kofi Sarkodie (picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Blacker/The Canadian Press)

Jozy Altidore, like former Gladbach player Michael Johnson, returned to MLS football in his prime

But many of these players were not developed in the United States. Some joined an academy team in Europe at a very young age, some moved to Europe right when they turned professional. There are also still many players who became naturalized US citizens so they could play for the United States, but who grew up elsewhere, such as German-born Bundesliga regulars like John Brooks and Fabian Johnson.

Having players with different development backgrounds is not a new phenomenon with the United States. The US's 2010 World Cup squad had players playing in nine different countries, but they still came together and qualified for the knockout stages before losing to Ghana.

"We have some good players coming up," Arena was quoted as saying by American magazine Sports Illustrated. "Nothing has to change."

But as US Soccer has moved from one generation to the next, the lack of a clear developmental strategy, like those employed in Germany or Spain, has left them directionless. Because they weren't developed under one philosophy, it is hard for them to come together once a month and play as a cohesive unit.

That may be the biggest challenge facing Arena and his squad. As they sit and watch the 2018 World Cup in Russia, they have to decide the direction of their team to ensure a 2022 or 2023 ticket to Qatar.

"If this failure doesn't wake up everyone from US Soccer to Major League Soccer … then we are all insane," Twellman said. "If we don't change it, then what are we doing? What's the point?"

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