The U.S. national team’s absence from the 2018 World Cup in Russia won’t really strike home until June.
“Half of the population is just understanding, ‘Wait, what, we’re not even going to be in the World Cup that’s nine months away?’ ” Minnesota United winger Ethan Finlay said Wednesday. “And it won’t really hit the other half until they’re not hearing about our team. And you’ll have, I’m sure, plenty of people asking when Team USA plays after the opening ceremonies, and they’ll be shocked to find out that they’re not in it.”
The U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986 with Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago (which United midfielder Kevin Molino represents, though he missed this match on a yellow card accumulation suspension). Qualifying for the World Cup is a two-year, 16-match process that saw the Americans change coaches back in November 2016.
Finlay, who played in one of the U.S.’s qualifiers in March of 2016, said it was “tough” to see the U.S. eliminated. Loons winger Miguel Ibarra, who played for the U.S. in 2014 and 2015, said he was “sad” and termed the U.S.’s absence from the global tournament “a big loss.” United coach Adrian Heath, an England native, called it a “huge disappointment.”
“My generation, this was our generation for the World Cup,” Finlay said. “I’m not saying I was on the inside, that I was going to be there, but you never know, right?”
The U.S. finished third at the 1930 World Cup, but since then the best finish was 2002’s quarterfinals appearance. Finlay said the U.S. measuring stick for most of his recent memory had been advancing out of the World Cup group stage.
“Now I look at it, and I say, ‘Well, how far have we regressed then if we’re not even making the World Cup?’ ” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s a catastrophic occurrence, but this is going to do one of two things, I think, for us: This is going to set us back significantly or we’re going to have an incredible response, and we’ll be back in a quarterfinal in four years.”
Finlay put the onus on individual players, calling for all American soccer players, national team capped or not, to take responsibility to improve on a singular basis to better the collective.
Heath said while everyone is “really angry” and “calling for radical change” now in the heat of the moment, he “really strongly” believes that some adjustments need to be made to the system. He used the example of Germany and Belgium in the 2000 European championship. Both failed to make it out of the group stage, but it became a “watershed moment.”
“For both coaches, they sat down with everybody, the federation, with the coaches, with the schools, with the coaches within the organizations and decided, ‘What do we need to do to get better?’ ” Heath said. “And the aftermath of both coaches doing that is now probably the two strongest countries in Europe.”
Germany won the 2014 World Cup.
Heath said he hopes U.S. Soccer will seek out the opinions of people such as New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch and Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes, both former players who have had success creating a pipeline of youth players into their MLS teams.
How the U.S. develops its young players also should be a focus, Heath said. The U.S. under-23 team also has failed to qualify for the past two Olympics. Heath mentioned overhauling the traveling youth club soccer system, which is costly and doesn’t really emphasize player development.
He also questioned the collegiate system for soccer, which has a short three-month season during prime growth time for players.
“They’ve got the facilities. They’ve got the talent. They’ve got the money. So something, somewhere needs changing,” Heath said of U.S. Soccer. “Everybody needs to sit down and decide which way we’re going to go forward. Because as Germany and Belgium have proved more than anybody in the world, with a good plan, you can turn it around.”