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American soccer needs changes, from players to coaches to its president

Jonathan Tannenwald, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Soccer

If you're trying to make sense of the U.S. men's soccer team's stunning failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, start here:

What you saw in Tuesday's loss at Trinidad & Tobago represents just a fraction of the problem.

You could write a book the size of an encyclopedia on the reasons why. Here are a few points that should stand out even for fans who only watch soccer during the World Cup.

1. The players aren't good enough. Major League Soccer won't want to hear this, but it needs to. The league's top American stars have failed to deliver in the biggest international games of recent times. Yes, that means Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard.

Those players know it. They know they lost at home to Mexico and Costa Rica, and gave up two first-half goals to a bunch of Trinidadian prospects in a game that only needed a tie.

But it's not just those players. It's the rest of the talent pool, too. There aren't enough good American strikers to knock Altidore and Bobby Wood off the top of the depth chart. There aren't enough good playmakers to consistently break down walls of opponents. (This includes Darlington Nagbe, who has endless skill but has repeatedly not stepped up in big moments.)

There aren't enough good defenders to lock down the back line. John Brooks is one, yes, but he's injured (and he doesn't play in MLS). Where are the rest?

And no American goalkeeper has proven himself to be truly superior to 38-year-old Tim Howard and 33-year-old Brad Guzan.

A generation of young players is coming. You already know Christian Pulisic, of course. Watch out for Weston McKennie, 19, at Germany's Schalke 04. Josh Sargent, 17, just signed for Germany's Werder Bremen after starring for U.S. youth national teams. Quality prospects in MLS include New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams, 18, and FC Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez, 22.

The U.S. won't play games of consequence again until at least 2019. Let those youngsters take the reins today, and let them banish this year to the history books sooner rather than later.

2. The coaches aren't good enough. Bruce Arena is the best soccer coach that America has ever produced. Bruce Arena's own decisions played a large role in the U.S. team's failure. Those facts aren't contradictory.

Arena kept the same lineup in Trinidad that beat Panama last Friday. It backfired on him. Players looked worn out. Since soccer only allows three substitutes, Arena had handcuffed himself.

He was always going to leave after the 2018 World Cup. Now he should leave sooner.

Who should replace him? That's a tricky question. Hire a big-name foreigner and you risk the same chemistry issues that exploded in Jurgen Klinsmann's face. Hire from within MLS and you risk not bringing in enough new ideas.

But there are far bigger problems to solve than just hiring one coach. There need to be better coaches -- and more coaches -- at every level of the game, from MLS to lower leagues to colleges and youth clubs.

It would help if the U.S. Soccer Federation would use more of the big-time sponsorship revenue it banks every year to make coaching courses more accessible. Licensing programs cost thousands of dollars to access.

3. A lot of other people aren't good enough. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has done many good things in his 11 years in the job. He increased funding for the powerhouse U.S. women's team (though more can still be done), and helped launch the National Women's Soccer League. As a member of FIFA's Executive Council, he has championed reform of global soccer's eternally corrupt governing body. Now he is leading the effort to bring the 2026 World Cup to the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

But right now, things are going sour. Next year, Gulati will be up for reelection as U.S. Soccer president. Multiple reform-minded candidates have lined to challenge him.

The American Outlaws supporters club, whose members travel all over the world to cheer for the national team at games, said in a statement Wednesday that "in no uncertain terms, the President of the United States Soccer Federation, Sunil Gulati, must go." Multiple national media outlets have also called for his dismissal.

Even one of U.S. Soccer's current board members, Clinton Foundation president Donna Shalala, took to Twitter to call for "a revolution" and "a long term plan that is smart."

A revolution might not be necessary, but a smarter plan certainly is. It starts with spending more on scouting, and on more scouts.

The players who can truly raise American soccer's level are out there, but they are often ignored. The current scouting infrastructure focuses to much on the elite youth teams that are loaded with kids from largely affluent (and largely white) suburbs.

It doesn't help that top-level youth soccer clubs demand exorbitant registration fees and travel expenses from families. That "pay to play" culture is near the top of the list of American soccer's worst flaws. It shuts children in poor African American and Hispanic communities -- including Philadelphia's -- out of pathways to soccer careers.

That's an impolite truth, but now is the time to say what needs to be said.

Here's another impolite truth: With all that has happened, and with all the changes that are needed, a change at the top seems a good place to start. Find a way for Gulati to step aside and focus on his FIFA role, and let someone else run U.S. Soccer.

(c)2017 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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