2017: Loss, Failure, and Public Disillusionment in US Men’s Soccer

By Patrick Salkeld

Certain years stand out in history, such as 1945 with the end of World War II or 1980 and the presidential election of Ronald Reagan due to his populist-nationalist campaign and the evolution of neoliberalism as the prevailing ideology of the United States government, because of their historical significance. The last twelve months (2017) will be a landmark year for men’s soccer in the United States as it evolved into a year of failure and discontent with the US Soccer leadership (specifically regarding its governance of men’s soccer).

This era in U.S. men’s soccer mirrors another dismal period in U.S. history: the last three years (1972-1974) of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Just as U.S. citizens became disillusioned during the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, and Watergate, U.S. men’s soccer fans were dismayed toward figures such as  USSF President Sunil Gulati and USMNT Head Coach Bruce Arena, and the trajectory of men’s soccer in the United States.

In November 2016, US Soccer fired US Men’s National Team Coach Jürgen Klinsmann and rehired Bruce Arena who previously coached the team from 1998 to 2006. The decisions remained controversial for fans and also our contributors during the Sport in American History roundtables about both. The media and fans championed Arena’s second tenure as he “set a program record for the best start to a coaching tenure (8-0-5)” by the end of July 2017 when the USMNT won the 2017 Gold Cup.[i] Despite the undefeated start in the first seven months of 2017, the USMNT performed unsatisfactorily in September and October.

With four games left to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the men needed to muster more effort, focus, and passion to lock in their spot in Russia. On September 1, they lost to Costa Rica, and four days later, they tied Honduras one to one. Alexi Lalas, a former USMNT member, questioned the players’ masculinities by calling them “soft” in his Fox Sports commentary during a Seattle Sounders-LA Galaxy match and warned them, “You are a soccer generation that has been given everything; you are a soccer generation who’s on the verge of squandering everything.” The USMNT appeared reinvigorated with a 4-0 win against Panama a month later on October 6, 2017, but this game proved to be an anomaly and not a response to Lalas’s perpetuation of toxic masculinity. Four days later they faced Trinidad and Tobago in a rematch from twenty-seven years earlier.

In that match, on November 19, 1989, the United States competed against Trinidad and Tobago in the 1989 CONCACAF Championship to determine the final 1990 World Cup Qualification spots for the North, Central American and Caribbean Zone.[ii] FIFA disqualified Mexico from the rest of the tournament due to its National Team fielding over-age players in the 1988 Olympics. Costa Rica led the table in the final round of the 1989 CONCACAF Championship. Only the top two teams moved on to the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Before the game, Trinidad and Tobago sat in second place (9 points) with the United States in third (9 points). Due to the goal differential, Trinidad and Tobago only needed a draw to secure their place because they had two more goals for than the USMNT, which meant the latter required a win. Miraculously, the United States won because of Paul Caligiuri’s “shot heard round the world,” the only goal scored during the match, and Tony Meola’s goalkeeping.[iii] While not an important event globally, it evolved into part of US Soccer mythology much like “dos-a-cero.” The USMNT qualified for its first World Cup appearance since 1950, and professional soccer started its evolution into its current state.

Sadly, no Paul Caligiuri rescued the United States on October 10, 2017. Not even Christian Pulisic, the rising star in US soccer, could save the arrogant, listless, and struggling squad against Trinidad and Tobago. The USMNT lost 2-1 and then the unthinkable occurred. Honduras defeated Mexico 3-2 and Panama defeated Costa Rica 2-1. At the end of the day, the standings stood with Mexico (21 points) in first followed by Costa Rica (16), Panama (13), Honduras (13), the United States (12), and Trinidad and Tobago (6). The men’s soccer team failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since 1986. It stunned the soccer community with many wrongfully equating US Soccer as solely men’s soccer and forgetting about the more successful women’s team. Rather than create a crisis, the loss revealed one—a structural issue within the leadership and the soccer system in the United States.

Journalists, fans and former players, among others” called for reforms and the resignations of both Sunil Gulati, the US Soccer President, and Bruce Arena, the head coach of the USMNT. Arena answered them with,

There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing. Certainly as our league grows, it advances the national team program. We have some good players coming up. Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be foolish. We’re building a good system in our professional league. We have players playing abroad of some quality.

Gulati’s comments mirrored Arena as he said,

You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being 2 inches wide or 2 inches in…So we will look at everything, obviously, all of our programs, both the national team and all the development stuff. But we’ve got some pieces in place that we think are very good and are coming along.

With these statements, neither recognized their role within the USMNT’s failure nor seemed to comprehend the gravity of what they, fans, and the rest of the world (of those watching) witnessed on October 10. Arena later resigned on October 13 and in his resignation letter, he briefly admitted “[the loss was] a major setback for the senior Men’s National Team and questions rightly should be asked about how we can improve,” but he then reiterated his belief that “the sport is on the right path” and his xenophobia with “I believe in the American soccer player and the American coach.” Gulati refused to resign and waited two months to announce his decision to not run for re-election as US Soccer President for a fourth term. He told ESPN, “The loss to Trinidad was painful, regrettable and led to a lot of strong emotions. And to be honest, I think at this point, that’s overshadowed a lot of other things that are important.” Both Arena and Gulati tried to mitigate the situation despite the overall soccer community’s accurate understanding of the USMNT’s loss as a “colossal failure.”

The fallout from the loss resembled the negative perceptions of the US federal government during the Cold War.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Vietnam War plagued US politics, society, and culture. As people read about it in newspapers and watched coverage of the war on television, the administrations (Johnson and Nixon) chose to “paint a deceptive image of the war.” During the 1968 Presidential Election, Nixon reassured the country of his plan to withdraw troops from Vietnam and to end the war in favor of the US; yet he escalated the war and hid it from the public until the publication of the Pentagon Papers that revealed this information and the deceit of previous administrations. An oil crisis also struck the US as OPEC “embargoed oil exports to the US”. In 1972, Nixon campaigned for reelection during which five men broke into the Watergate Complex to bug the offices of the Democratic National Convention, and it surfaced that one worked “for the Nixon administration’s Committee to Reelect the President.” Nixon won the election, but ahead of a House vote to impeach him, Nixon resigned two years later in 1974 as more investigations into the Watergate Scandal continued and he refused to cooperate.

Much like Richard Nixon, Gulati will leave office on his own terms rather than the possibility of being voted out during the 2018 USSF Presidential Election. Gulati faced public disillusionment much like Nixon because of the events during their presidencies. For Gulati, widespread dissatisfaction started with the USMNT’s poor performances under Klinsmann, his temporary solution of rehiring Bruce Arena, and culminated with October 10, 2017. Even though voting members (according to Gulati) wanted Gulati to run again, he reluctantly admitted a new person should run the federation.

What will 2018 bring to US men’s soccer? Hopefully a commitment to changes throughout US Soccer, even though they will take years to implement and to see results. The loss to Trinidad and Tobago should be a wake up call to the entire community to examine every facet of soccer in this country. As Ray Rotto of NBC Sports wrote on November 16, 2016 after Gulati fired Jürgen Klinsmann,

The U.S. isn’t in the place it’s in internationally because the players aren’t sufficiently “coached up,” but because the structural issues with U.S. soccer (as well as U.S. Soccer, the suit-and-snoot component of the sport) are well beyond anyone’s ability to fix comprehensively, and especially not quickly. The game is more profitable than ever, but butts in seats doesn’t mean the same as goals in nets.

The 2018 USSF Presidential Election will determine the direction of US Soccer and all under the federation’s governance for years in the future. Scholars of various fields, fans, former players, and others have argued for more reforms, such as increased transparency in US Soccer, an end to the pay-to-play system, increased exposure and funding for the US Open Cup, and for the United States to adopt the open system (promotion and relegation) implemented by all except the US, Canada, and Australia. With any changes made to men’s soccer, however, the new president and the federation must fight for improvements in women’s soccer, such as equal pay (see Colleen English’s earlier post, “Looking Back on Women’s Soccer in 2017”). As Taylor Twellman said, “If this failure doesn’t wake up everyone from U.S. soccer to Major League Soccer to pay-to-play to broadcasters to everything, then we’re all insane.”

Patrick Salkeld is an adjunct in History at the University of Central Oklahoma where he received his M.A. in History in 2017. His research focuses on the rise of mainstream soccer in the United States from the 1960s to the present in addition to the relationship between social movements and sports, the role of the LGBTQ+ community, race, and gender. He is currently revising his thesis for potential publication. He can be reached at psalkeld@uco.edu and followed on Twitter at @PatSalkeld.


Notes:

[i] When he resigned on October 13, his record stood at 10-2-6. If you subtract the international friendlies, his competitive record is 8-2-4 for 2017.

[ii] CONCACAF stands for the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Associational Football.

[iii] It should be noted that Joe Gaetjens scored the first “shot heard round the world” in 1950 against England.

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