Project 2026 – The United States’ deadline for success

Gone are the so-called glory days where success was no longer measured merely by qualification to a World Cup but, rather, held up against the yardstick of genuine expectation.

An expectation not simply of competitiveness but of progress. The delightful ambiguity of progress – in terms of development and advancing past the group stages of major tournaments.

Bob Bradley was evolution, Jurgen Klinsmann was revolution. The German came to the helm in 2011, becoming the 35th coach in the United States (USMNT) history, and despite an initial slow start things quickly bounced into a rhythm with Klinsmann cultivating the perfect combination of experience personified with the likes of Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Co. alongside young, exciting talent.

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All that is in the past, mind and there’s no point in dwelling. It would be one thing to sit here and assess where exactly the USMNT went wrong in their failure to qualify for Russia 2018 in retrospect but what’s more important is how they adjust and adapt in preparation for, firstly, Qatar 2022 but then, most importantly, their home tournament of 2026.

“Home tournament”, well, along with Mexico and Canada. A tournament that will see combined billions of dollars cannot suffer the humiliation of taking part without the American national team but, of course, as host they qualify, right?

Not necessarily, the FIFA Council has yet to determine this but it looks likely as though automatically qualifying three nations is a step too much even for FIFA. This despite the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) “anticipating” an automatic berth.

Herein lies the first issue that needs addressing and it’s one of arrogance. The arrogance to assume a right to qualification and that doesn’t just go for 2026, it goes for 2018, 2014, every World Cup since, in honesty, the turning point of 2002 when America reached the quarterfinals.

The arrogance to assume you can play a weakened team away from home and still expect to come away with a win simply because that’s been the way in the past shows a reluctance to change and what’s worse is that it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the hierarchy that the USMNT struggled in that fifth and final stage of qualification.

What’s worse is that this arrogance isn’t based on previous achievement but rather that because they’re good at other sports – baseball, basketball, ice hockey – that they should be good at football.

The writing has been on the wall for some time and no less than the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup which took place amid the qualification to Russia – a tournament in which they were beaten by Panama and Jamaica, albeit with a fair bit of controversy, but pushed by the trio of Honduras, Haiti and Panama (yes, again) by merit in all three group games.

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So what is shocking about going into qualification with essentially the same team, certainly the same spine and tactics, and then being hassled and hurried by, oh, Panama and Honduras let alone by Mexico and Costa Rica?

It’s not an issue exclusive to America, don’t get that mistaken, but it’s magnified by the fact that, let’s be honest, football in the country is still in the early development stage. The money being thrown at the sport is insane but the refusal de-Americanize the way it is run is one that, frankly, does more harm than good.

What is MLS? It’s still considered to be a retirement home and that’s not me saying it, that’s a fact.

Look at the way football in America and wholeheartedly say you wouldn’t change anything and let’s start off with the fact that there is no promotion or relegation which, granted, isn’t sink or swim for any respectable footballing nation but then not every country has a population of over 325,000,000.

Already in existence are three professional leagues, two further professional leagues have been proposed and that’s to go hand-in-hand with the ten amateur tournaments atop of countless collegiate and hyper-regionalised divisions so at what point will the cog click that with these professional league’s that there is simply common sense in merging them to create a promotion-relegation system instead of the same teams playing the same teams every single year in a drab, unimaginative format.

Look at their last squad, three players were called up from MLS and when you’re in the situation that you can’t even keep your best national players in the “flagship” domestic league. Of course you want them to be going off to bigger and better things but there is a reason why hardly anyone wants to stay at home and believe it or not Wayne Rooney is that reason.

Okay, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard… you get the picture. American football fans are idolising, let’s be honest, past-it players so it’s near-impossible for national team players – I’m talking John Brooks, Julian Green, Bobby Wood – to become household names when this is their competition.

The fact that teams are still chasing that marquee player as opposed to focussing on developing in-house talent speaks volumes about the marketability of the league. That is to say dependent on foreign superstars to capture the imagination of the paying audience.

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Let’s turn our attention to the coaching set-up of the USMNT; I touched on it earlier in saying that Klinsmann was a revolution which was true, to an extent, he was perceived to be the man to bridge the gap from atypical North American football and towards the more flamboyant style of the South American nations along with the tactical robustness of the Europeans.

To go from Bradley who inspired to Klinsmann energised – admittedly not achieving too much in the process – and then end up with Bruce Arena and Dave Sarachan is a stark contrast in outlook.

Not to disrespect Sarachan but the man hasn’t managed a team in 11 years and for a national team not to chase a high-profile manager, proven at the top level, when there are plenty available – just look at the Chinese Super League for a list of top managers, waiting for their next crack at a decent job – shows a narrow-mindedness from the governing body. Why not make a handsome offer to Arsene Wenger for the job when there is, definitively, the money available?

It’s a question of ambition and whilst football is still a developing sport over in the States, it needs to be treated with the level of passion, investment and infrastructure of the likes of MLB, NBA and NFL in order for success to be reaped.

They’ve got the deadline, they’ve got the resources. All they need now is a blueprint.

The Author

Ollie McManus

Once attempted to run for FIFA President. Have a passion for writing about the obscure stories: I've covered football everywhere from Libya, Syria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Uzbekistan to England, Australia and Brazil. @OliverGMcManus on Twitter.

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