U.S. World Cup woe: Time up for Gulati and Arena; help needed for Pulisic
COUVA, Trinidad -- In the wake of the United States' dreadful 2-1 defeat to Trinidad & Tobago, two questions were on everyone's mind. The first was: "What happened?" The second was: "What now?"
Perhaps the second query was an effort not to dwell on the debacle that took place at the Ato Boldon Stadium, but moving forward will require a painful examination of the past, as well as stewing in the colossal failure that this World Cup qualifying cycle represents. However, not everyone seems to think drastic changes are needed.
"There's nothing wrong with what we're doing," said U.S. manager Bruce Arena. "Certainly as our league grows, it advances the national team program. We have some good young players coming up. Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be foolish."
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati seemed a bit more flexible, though not much.
"You don't make wholesale changes based on the ball being 2 inches wide or 2 inches in," he said, referring to Clint Dempsey's late attempt that hit the post. "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."
Arena's response, in particular, was the wrong take at the wrong time. A failure like this has to be examined and dissected. Perhaps it's not necessary to rip everything up but certainly, some steps must be taken to make sure future qualifying efforts have a different outcome.
Where to begin, then? Let's start at the top.
1. What next for Gulati?
After the final whistle, there was a predictable barrage of anti-Gulati sentiment on Twitter, with many calling for his ousting. It doesn't work that way. The office of U.S. Soccer Federation president is an elected position. Fortunately for the anti-Gulati crowd, there is an election coming up in February. Gulati hasn't yet indicated if he will run. When asked about his future plans in the postmatch mixed zone on Tuesday, Gulati said: "It's not a decision for me to think about tonight."
If Gulati does decide to run and is elected, this term will be his last due to new term limits that he crafted. If he decides not to run, USSF vice president and former Goldman Sachs executive Carlos Cordeiro is expected to run in a bid to largely carry on as Gulati would have.
But unlike the last two elections, in which Gulati ran unopposed, there is a passel of candidates lining up. Boston attorney Steve Gans is one, as is Springfield, Mass.-based businessman and longtime soccer entrepreneur Paul Lapointe. John Motta, a USSF board member and president of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association is mulling a run, as is former U.S. international Eric Wynalda.
While the business side of the federation has thrived under Gulati's stewardship, it's in need of some fresh ideas in terms of administering the playing side of the house. The USSF has developed a habit of hiring coaches who don't last a full cycle, be it Jurgen Klinsmann this time, or Bob Bradley before him. The women's national team isn't immune either as Tom Sermanni was dumped for Jill Ellis during the 2015 World Cup cycle, though she seems secure after leading the U.S. women to the World Cup title later that year.
Gulati is still leading the joint bid with Mexico and Canada to host the 2026 World Cup, so his involvement in the game isn't going to end anytime soon. But his time as USSF president has run its course.
2. Who is the next coach?
It's almost certain to not be Arena. The former LA Galaxy manager was brought in as the proverbial safe pair of hands, the steadying force that would get the U.S. to the World Cup. It didn't happen, and since he was never considered to be a progressive pick, the USSF is practically guaranteed to be looking elsewhere.
Where to look? Well, there is a coach in MLS with an impressive résumé and extensive international experience. That would be Atlanta United manager Tata Martino. It's not clear at this point if Martino is even interested in the job. He may decide he is happy to be building Atlanta into an MLS juggernaut. But several Atlanta players, both foreign and domestic, have raved about how much Martino has taught them. Martino is a former manager of Barcelona but also of less heralded sides like Newell's Old Boys. He would be an intriguing hire.
You would expect Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes to throw his hat in the ring as well. Vermes' teams in Kansas City are notoriously hard to play against, and as a former U.S. international he would certainly bring an edge to the job.
The USSF should certainly look outside MLS as well, though at this stage it's unclear what level of manager it might be able to draw. There is tendency to think that the U.S. job is desirable, yet the U.S. hasn't hired a foreign coach who at the time of his appointment was living outside the country since Bora Milutinovic back in 1991.
This is a big hire and one that whoever ultimately makes the decision will need to get right.
3. What will become of the veterans?
A look at the U.S. roster for this last round of qualifying reveals a jarring reality. This team got old in a hurry. Ten of the 20 outfield players are 30 or older, including Bradley, DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey. The same is true for all of the keepers. Looked another way, only five the players are under 25. Yes, performers like Matt Miazga (22), Jordan Morris (22) and John Brooks (24) who were omitted from this roster for a variety of reasons are still in the fold. But this is a team whose spine will need to be almost completely rebuilt.
That need not happen all at once. You would expect Bradley (30) and Geoff Cameron (32) to continue. As strong as the impulse might be to "throw the bums out" there needs to be a gradual phasing in of the next generation of players like Weston McKennie and Haji Wright. But for Howard, Beasley, and Dempsey, this was a final and very painful national team experience. It's time for the new manager, whoever it might be, to move on.
4. Find help for Pulisic
There is no doubt Christian Pulisic will be a force on the national team for years to come. But if this World Cup cycle proved anything, it's that the U.S. became much too dependent on the 19-year-old. Of the final 17 goals the U.S. scored, Pulisic was involved in 12 of them by scoring, assisting, or winning a free kick which led to a goal. And for all the handwringing about where Pulisic should play, a larger truth emerged. The U.S. doesn't need Pulisic to play well in order for it to play well. It needs everyone around Pulisic to play well. Then he can thrive.
Of course, finding those players is a lot harder than just adding water, and presto, attacking help arrives. But it should be the priority of the next manager to develop a more varied attack. Can Pulisic be the focal point? No doubt, but he can't be the only threat. Otherwise, the tendency of opponents to hack Pulisic down whenever he gets within sight of goal will continue.
5. What's next for the sport in the U.S.?
The U.S. failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup will do immense damage to the sport in this country. Since 1990, the men's game has enjoyed a jolt every four years, in which the sport receives greater attention and brings in new fans. As the Women's World Cup has shown, this is by no means the only jolt, but the sport is still in a place where it needs as much attention as it can get. Spectators will still tune in of course, but the sight of watching the U.S. team compete is a powerful tool for drawing in new fans.
But even as U.S. fans endure the biggest pain in over 30 years, there are some structural issues that still need to be addressed. How do you fund youth development in this country? After all these years, pay-to-play is still a thing. The pro game is helping in this regard, but there aren't enough teams to cover the entire country. The USSF is sitting on a $100 million surplus; how can that be redirected to help bridge the funding gap?
Meanwhile, the training compensation/solidarity payment debate, whereby part of the fees involved in signing some pro players are directed back to the youth clubs that developed them, is ongoing. The proponents of promotion/relegation remain vocal.
In MLS, expansion continues apace, but that will end at some point. Moreover, as the league searches the globe for attacking players, it has meant diminishing opportunities for domestic attacking talent.
There are no easy answers here, otherwise solutions would have been found already. But the inquest needs to continue.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.