The best sports discussions almost always occurs in small groups of friends, forget Twitter, Facebook, and pretty much every staged debate show on television or radio.
One learns more about this crazy field when sitting down with a couple of friends or new friends (you never who you will meet in a bar or social setting) where you don’t know where conversation will go.
Cogent points aren’t always made but when they are make far more sense than any staged tripe that a media executive could come up with.
I had one of these discussions with my friend Andy many years ago on a train ride through Serbia.
We were discussing the idea of sports folk heroes, people who might not be known for being the greatest in their sport but are remembered (depending upon what side of the result one falls on they might be remembered fondly or disdain).
We debated for quite some time about what is the true marker of to be given folklore status.
I cannot remember which one of us came up with the determining factor (Becherovka was involved and as anyone who has had that knows that can be a rather strong drink) but I distinctly recall the deciding factor: that if the person were to walk into any sports bar in that city and not have to pay for a single drink.
If the United States do end up qualifying for World Cup 2018 in Russia then Bobby Wood better not have to pay for a drink or a meal in any soccer pub across the country.
With their backs against the wall in the blazing hot sun of San Pedro Sula Wood finished off a cross from Jordan Morris to give the U.S.A. a much-needed goal on Tuesday against Honduras. It was not pretty, but it was damn effective.
Taking what they can get seems to be the theme of this World Cup cycle for the States.
This week’s series of ignominious results (the aforementioned draw with Honduras and a 2-0 loss at home to Costa Rica) follows a series of terrible results in CONCACAF’s final round of World Cup Qualification. A 6-0 drubbing of Honduras at home and a 2-0 win over minnows Trinidad and Tobago in the Denver air cannot make up for four ugly matches.
(Author’s Note: Yes we are purposefully leaving out the 1-1 draw with Mexico. While that was a nice goal by Michael Bradley and getting a draw in Mexico is never easy they didn’t exactly look like world-beaters there either. Calling that performance ‘impressive’ would be like calling a Whopper a world-class hamburger. Is it effective and filling? Sure. But let’s not kid ourselves).
In truth, the signs were all pointing to a rather difficult campaign for the U.S. History tends to show that they follow an easy qualification campaign like the one in 2013 with one that is much more difficult and treacherous.
Perhaps it is due to teams familiarizing themselves with the American or it could be because managers are kept on for additional cycles.
All indications were pointing a difficult campaign and that is certainly what is happening.
Now, in truth, things aren’t as bad as they appear.
Assuming the United States (2-3-3, 9 points, +1 Goal Differential) can pull out a result against Panama (2-4-2, 10 points +2 Goal Differential) in October at home that gives them significant leverage over their chief rivals for the third automatic spot.
Let’s also be clear here: a result would not be a draw, but rather a win. While the United States may have some work to do in their final match against Trinidad and Tobago the pressure will likely be on Panama to engender a result at home against Costa Rica.
As for the third partner in this dangerous dance, Honduras, they face a tall task with a road match against Costa Rica and a home match against Mexico.
Los Catrachos’ designs are greatly hampered by their minus seven goal differential, thanks in large part to their 6-0 loss against the United States back in March.
But here’s the thing: let’s say the United States does qualify for the World Cup. What’s next? Is this honestly a side that can compete with the best teams in the world at the World Cup?
Their performances over the past two years seem to point towards this being a rather quick exit for Arena’s side; it is rather difficult to advance in a tournament when one cannot defend and one cannot score.
Under both the Arena and Jurgen Klinsmann tenures the United States has shown that there is just something in how this group of players interact and work with one another that doesn’t fit.
While Jurgen did many things wrong as manager Arena’s inability to get anything different out of them shows that maybe it is not the manager’s fault; it is the players.
The long-term future of this organization should also scare USMNT supporters.
When U.S. Soccer announced last year that Arena will be taking over for Klinsmann they made it very clear that this is a temporary solution.
Arena was here for one reason and one reason only: to get this side into the 2018 World Cup. The problem with that is U.S. Soccer’s solution to Klinsmann was a band aid in Arena.
It didn’t actually halt the wound and by ignoring has allowed it to fester. This side was in need of a hard reset. It still is need of a hard reset.
But rather than going with a younger coach and bringing in a younger side, U.S. Soccer doubled down on the necessity of making the World Cup by bringing in Arena and sticking with players well past their prime.
That Christian Pulisic at the age of 18 was the U.S.’ best player for large portions of both matches last week should be rather telling.
This is a team in need of inspiration, of players who are willing and eager to go that extra mile for a result.
One of the U.S.A.’s best qualities has always been their determination, their resolve, their moxie.
Sadly it just doesn’t seem like this side has that and it seems as if the negative cloud on the pitch has extended to the supporters as well.
Whereas in the past a bad run of form might have been forgotten rather quickly it seems to be hanging over all things USMNT.
Whether it is at the stadium or on the television it has become abundantly apparent that this side just does not excite their supporter like teams in the past.
Supporters can get behind a team and stick through the tough times with them. But when the perception is that management is inept and incapable of coming up with a plan for success they can be less forgiving.
U.S. Soccer’s patchwork response to the 2017 World Cup Qualification cycle seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
This is no longer the 1990’s where the USMNT were the only show in town.
Supporters can get their soccer satisfaction at the pub or at home via the 30 different outlets carrying matches all throughout the world.
Perhaps the biggest pill to swallow from this entire situation is that it goes against what the public have been fed for thirty-plus years: that we are making progress.
Judging by this World Cup cycle it is apparent that the U.S. isn’t but the rest of the region is.
Anyone who believes that Major League Soccer has all of their eggs in one basket with U.S. Soccer got a rather rude awakening this week when two of their players Marco Urena of the San Jose Earthquakes (Costa Rica) and Romell Quioto (Houston Dynamo) knocked in three goals against MLS’ supposed BFF, the U.S.
While many of MLS’ goals and objectives are shared by U.S. Soccer make no mistake about it: they are interested in finding the best players, regardless of their nationality.
Can U.S. Soccer correct this ship? Yes, but it is going to have to take a good, hard look at itself and decide what is the path for the future.
They will have to make some tough decisions like not having three thirty plus goalkeepers on their roster and giving time to Ethan Horvath or Bill Hamid or making DaMarcus Beasley retire.
But Arena and U.S. Soccer have to start thinking long-term, even if it is to the detriment of the short-term. The results and the form could not be much worse than the debacle this past week.
Doing things that are new and different might seem scary but U.S. Soccer has to start taking chances.
Otherwise the road to Russia might not be that long of a trip.