Well, it actually went and happened.
The USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia following a stunning sequence of results. Bruce Arena’s side slumped to a 2-1 defeat in albeit difficult conditions in Trinidad and Tobago, while other results in Honduras and Panama went against them.
But who or what is to blame for this latest debacle?
Man in charge
The national side went into that game against T&T as clear favourites but one defeat, as bad as it was, is just the defining moment of a poor qualifying campaign.
The knives, and rightly so, are being sharpened for head coach Arena but the problem soccer faces in the US is much bigger than just one man or one problem. The obstacles to overcome are many and come in different forms.
Firstly, the MLS, as a domestic league needs to take a long, hard, look at itself if it’s to produce and keep top quality, home grown talent. The match at the Ato Boldon Stadium would have left Sunil Gulati (the USSF president) and the MLS Commissioner Don Garber recoiling in horror and sweating at the prospect of explaining why soccer has reached this point in the US despite claims to the contrary.
It’s easy to blame the MLS for indulging the ageing superstars that flood to the US in search of one last payday and a stroll in the sun, when perhaps MLS franchises should be investing the money in the grassroots of the game but there are two sides to every story.
David Villa is a great example of what Don Garber and other MLS bigwigs see as the blue-print on how they’d like things to pan out. Villa, who joined New York City three years ago, has scored 59 goals in 94 appearances and was named the MLS MVP in 2016 and continued to win plaudits for his influence on and off the pitch.
But what’s more significant was the fact David Villa was called up to the Spanish National Team for recent qualifiers. It’s a massive feather in the cap for soccer in the US that the fact a 35 year-old player plying his trade in the MLS will get picked for an elite international side – it’s a rubber stamp of approval for the Spanish that the MLS is seen as a competitive and high-quality competition.
Nevertheless, it appears that the case of David Villa is perhaps the exception rather than the rule.
Sebastian Giovinco, much like Villa, has been in terrifying form stateside yet cannot force his way back in to the Italian national side, meanwhile the England bosses in 2014 overlooked a Toronto-based Jermaine Defoe for the World Cup squad as he was deemed to be playing in an inferior league in the MLS.
All in all, the MLS is still not being recognized as a competitive enough league but the ageing stars are not the problem here. The problem lies within the infrastructure and quality of young American players that are available to play for the USMNT.
The 22 year-old DC forward Paul Arriola has been involved in the national team setup since he was 15 years old but still doesn’t look comfortable at this level. He was predictably hauled off at half time in the 2-1 defeat against Trinidad and Tobago and was replaced by Clint Dempsey.
Any young American player who shows signs of being a quality player will leave the MLS before they can have an impact. DeAndre Yedlin and Christian Pulisic are the future of the USMNT but both play outside of the MLS; in fact Pulisic, who is a superstar in the making, never kicked a ball in the MLS as his talent was identified by Dortmund as a 16 year-old and has been playing in Germany ever since then.
And why would any young talent in the US want to stay and play in the MLS?
The league doesn’t even an international break in its schedule – what message does this send to its fans and players? While the rest of the world focuses on crucial World Cup qualifiers, the MLS carries on, business as usual, with the regular season as Sporting Kanas City travel to Houston Dynamo.
It’s like the MLS administration are declaring their league is a semi-professional outfit and until these problems are solved, it’s clear the pool of US talent who can make difference on the pitch will be playing anywhere but the MLS.