The failure of the U.S. men’s national soccer team to qualify for the World Cup – a feat it had accomplished without considerable trouble for two decades – will have severe implications for those involved in the botched campaign and a sport that has gained a growing foothold on the American sports landscape.
Needing only a draw Tuesday to secure a place in soccer’s quadrennial championship next summer in Russia, the U.S. squad fell behind the last-place team from Trinidad and Tobago by two goals in the first half and lost, 2-1.
After qualifying for seven consecutive World Cups since 1990, the United States will have to wait until the 2022 event at the earliest to return to the sport’s grandest stage. The cost of its absence will almost certainly include changes at the top of the organization, including its coach and perhaps its president. It will also affect the U.S. Soccer Federation’s bottom line, from income lost for participating in the tournament, huge expected ratings hits for television broadcast partners and increased difficulty in luring sponsors for the team.
In the moments after the defeat, the impact of the failure hit the U.S. delegation like a Mike Tyson roundhouse.
Sunil Gulati, president of the Chicago-based USSF, slumped in a chair in the front row of a media conference room, lacking expression as Bruce Arena, the Hall of Fame coach summoned last winter to rescue a troubled campaign, tried explaining what had gone so terribly wrong.
“There’s no excuses for us not qualifying for the World Cup,” Arena said.
Players said this was the worst moment of their professional lives.
“With time – a lot of time – [the team will] be ready to move on in a strong way,” captain Michael Bradley said, “but this one isn’t going away anytime soon.”
The United States was one of seven countries to have played in every World Cup since 1990, joining luminaries such as Germany, Brazil and Italy. Competing in a middling soccer region of North and Central America and the Caribbean, the Americans were again heavily favored to earn one of the three automatic berths – or, at the very least, get into a playoff.
The USSF was preparing an intensive buildup to the World Cup next spring, with training camps, matches and marketing campaigns. Officials had visited Russia several times in the past year to secure a high-end practice facility and hotels in St. Petersburg before other countries could beat them to it.
Instead, Panama, a first-time qualifier, will join Mexico and Costa Rica in Russia, while Honduras will battle Australia next month for an additional ticket.
The Americans finished fifth with a 3-4-3 record, by far their worst showing since CONCACAF, the regional governing body, implemented a six-nation final qualifying round for the 1998 World Cup cycle. It was also their most defeats since going 0-3-1 in a lost attempt to make the 1974 tournament in West Germany. Tuesday’s decisive loss came before only a few thousand people in a town outside the capital of a Caribbean island nation with a population about the same as New Hampshire’s (1.3 million).
“If you look at the interest and pageantry over the last several World Cups, it felt like Americans were really embracing our national team and looking forward to it,” said David Carter, executive director of the Marshall Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “There was this momentum that made you feel as though this movement was on the verge of really arriving.”
While the U.S. women are the most decorated program in the world, pioneering female soccer in a globally male-dominated sport and winning three World Cup trophies and four Olympic gold medals, the men have made humble gains in a more established field.
Though they remain far behind the powerhouses of the game, the men had become a reliably strong team in the region, one that could compete with honor, if not major victories, on the world stage as well. They advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup and, in the past two tournaments, got to the round of 16. In 2014, they escaped the so-called “Group of Death,” which included Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal team.
With a well-established domestic league (MLS) and top young talent such as Christian Pulisic thriving overseas, the United States was primed to take another step in its quest to compete for a world title within a decade.
With this qualifying failure, however, changes are almost certain. Arena’s contract was scheduled to expire after the World Cup, but now he seems likely to leave earlier. On Tuesday, he declined to comment on his future.
Arena, 66, had a surprising response when asked what needs to change, saying: “There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing. Certainly, as our league grows, it advances the national team program. We have some good young players come up. Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be foolish.”
With his departure, whenever that may be, the USSF will have to find a third head coach in about a year. Arena, who oversaw dynasties at the University of Virginia and D.C. United in the 1990s before guiding the U.S. team to the 2002 and ’06 World Cups and creating another Major League Soccer champion in Los Angeles, was an emergency hire last winter. Jurgen Klinsmann had lost his way with the program, culminating with two defeats to begin the final round of qualifying, and was fired in late November.
With about two years left on Klinsmann’s contract, the USSF was obligated to make a $6.2 million payout – an extraordinary figure for a nonprofit operation with a thrifty reputation.
Missing the World Cup will affect the USSF’s bottom line in other ways. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, it collected $10.5 million – $1.5 million for participating and $9 million for advancing to the round of 16.
Playing in a World Cup also attracts sponsors, and while the USSF is locked into long-term deals with many of them, the absence of a U.S. team at the most popular sporting event on the planet will make it difficult to attract new partners.
In addition, Carter pointed out: “These types of contracts typically have contingencies where the amount of money is scaled back. There may be some sort of calibration that will take place so these partners are paying something commensurate with what they are truly getting, whether that’s on the high end or the low end, but this time that would obviously be on the low end.”
FIFA will be disappointed by the U.S. absence as the American market is among the final great frontiers for the organization. Furthermore, at the past two World Cups, U.S. supporters traveled by the thousands to the expensive host countries (South Africa and Brazil).
Fox Sports will also take a major hit after wresting the World Cup rights from ESPN to carry the next three tournaments at a cost of about a half-billion dollars.
The competition will still appeal to a mass audience and draw strong ratings from marquee matches, but, as Fox Sports President Eric Shanks told Sports Illustrated recently, “for us it’s a different tournament if the U.S. isn’t in it.”
In a statement Wednesday, Fox Sports said: “The World Cup is the greatest sporting event on Earth that changes the world for one month every four years, and Fox Sports remains steadfast in our commitment of bringing the games to America for the first time in 2018 and will continue to support the U.S. Soccer Federation as they look ahead to the 2022 World Cup.”
Just two weeks ago, Fox Sports hosted a flashy party in New York to promote its coverage. Among the featured guests were Arena and his Mexican counterpart, Juan Carlos Osorio. Mexico clinched a berth last month.
NBCUniversal’s Telemundo owns the U.S. Spanish TV rights and, with an audience focused primarily on Mexico and other Latin teams, won’t be affected by the U.S. team’s absence as much as Fox Sports.
Aside from Arena’s likely exit, Gulati’s job is in jeopardy after leading the charge to hire both Klinsmann and Arena. Gulati is up for re-election in February, and for the first time during his three-term, 12-year reign, he will face opposition.
On Tuesday, Gulati echoed Arena’s odd comments about the direction of the program.
“Wholesale changes aren’t needed if the ball that hits off the post goes in,” he said of a late attempt against Trinidad and Tobago. “We will look at everything, obviously. All of our programs, both the national team and all the development stuff, but we’ve got a lot of pieces in place that we think are very good and are coming along.”
Aside from the World Cup shortcoming, the U.S. men have failed to qualify for the Olympics three of the past four times. (Olympic soccer is a tournament for primarily players 23 and under.)
The latest disappointment is not expected to affect a U.S.-led effort to bring the 2026 World Cup to North America for the first time since 1994. A combined bid by the United States, Mexico and Canada is heavily favored to beat Morocco for hosting rights when FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, votes next June.