Project created by Erik Reiss and Benjamin Gottschalk
Written by Erik Reiss
Over the last decade, soccer in the United States has progressed significantly and experienced unequivocal expansion across various metrics. In terms of participation, the number of soccer players in the US has reached roughly sixteen million, the highest level to date, and is continuing to grow at an average annual growth rate of five percent. In terms of development, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) continues to pump money into its youth initiatives to develop stronger and more talented players, elevating its development academy system from 64 clubs in 2007 to 149 clubs today. Examining the United Sates’ professional ranks, the number of professional teams within the MLS, USSF, NASL and USL, has doubled to 70 since 2007, and specifically within the MLS, the league has accumulated 23 clubs from 10 since its inception. Along with this growth, MLS game attendance has risen to over eight million a season from over three million a decade ago. Financially, the value of US soccer teams has grown over nine times to 4.4 billion dollars since 2007 (Young, 2017). However, despite the multifaceted growth prospects of the sport, it has yet to translate to measurable success on the pitch.
On October 10, 2017, the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) suffered, perhaps, their worst defeat in history against Trinidad and Tobago, relinquishing any hope they had to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The semblance of a World Cup without the United States utterly shocked its players, its management, its fans, and the global soccer community as a whole. The United States have had a rich history in the World Cup, with this loss marking the first time since 1986 that the they failed to qualify (to learn more about the USMNT’s history of qualifying for the World Cup click this hyperlink). In fact, they have qualified for the past seven tournaments and were riding a twenty-four-year streak of consecutive berths before it all came crashing down. This was especially devastating because it appeared as though the possibility of missing the World Cup was negligible.
FIFA is comprised of 211 football associations, which are organized into six continental confederations that each have a predetermined number of World Cup allocations: AFC in Asia has 3.5, CAF in Africa has 4.5, CONCACAF in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean has 3.5, CONMEBOL in South America has 4.5, UEFA in Europe has 13, and OFC in Oceania has 0.5 allocations (Current Allocation of FIFA World Cup, 2015). Of the six, CONCACAF has historically held a reputation of being an easy region to qualify in due to its quality of participants and hexagonal qualification structure that disproportionately favors higher ranked nations (to learn more about CONCACAF and its qualification structure click this hyperlink). In short, the qualification structure devises five rounds spanning two years, with the teams ranked 1-6 granted automatic bids to the fourth round along with the other six winners of the first three rounds. Here, these twelve teams are divided into three groups of four teams, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the “hexagonal” fifth round, which is comprised of six teams. In effect, this structure has created “a top-heavy feedback loop” of sorts that consistently benefits the likes of top teams such as the United States, Mexico, and Costa Rica. This lack of diversity in the final stages of qualification can be seen by the homogenous composition fifth round teams since 1998 – only ten out of thirty-five nations have made it to the “hexagon” (Ross, 2015). From there, the six “hexagonal” teams then partake in a round robin style tournament, in which they each play ten matches. This format confers ample room for error, considering the top three teams solidify a World Cup berth, while the fourth-place team has the chance at a play-in against the fifth-place team in Asia’s AFC.
At 3.5 allocations, there is no other confederation that proffers such likely odds for success. CONCACAF encompasses only three teams ranked within FIFA’s top thirty, ten teams in FIFA’s top one-hundred, and the remaining twenty-five ranked in the one-hundreds and two-hundreds. This poor level of competition coupled with ten matches to secure a top four position in the hexagon, primes teams such as the United States, Mexico, and Costa Rica to qualify even with sub-par performances. They have the liberty of a qualifying structure that provides countless opportunities to misstep and slipup before being able to recover and still procure a position in the most elite competition in the world. This was made abundantly clear in the 2014 qualifications when Mexico won just two out of ten matches in the hexagon but still managed to secure a World Cup berth (Ross, 2015). Even in this 2018 cycle, with three losses to Mexico and Costa Rica twice as well as three draws with Mexico, Honduras, and Panama, the United States still had a 93% chance of qualifying for the World Cup ahead of their dreadful match with Trinidad and Tobago (Quillen, 2017). Contrasted with three-straight first place qualifications and only four losses and three draws combined in their last two qualification cycles, the US put forth their worst CONCACAF performance in decades, but the red white and blues were still seemingly destined to succeed.
All they would need was a draw against Trinidad and Tobago, who was far and away the worst team in the group and had absolutely nothing to play for since they were already eliminated from contention. But, the United States lacked heart and quality in what may have been the saddest day in US soccer history. At the same time, they saw their chances squelched at the feet of Panama and Honduras, who both scored late goals against the two best teams in the group to propel their doubtful World Cup campaigns. Despite the odds being in the USMNT’s favor, they failed to rise to the occasion. Through a string of unlucky and improbable events coupled with lackluster effort and execution, the United States fell short of a coveted World Cup appearance and escaped the global consciousness. Through the qualification, they didn’t look like a World Cup contender, and their failure can be best analyzed through the lens of their blundered junctures and meager management decisions (if you would like to read more about them click this hyperlink).
But, what does this really mean for US soccer? At the very least, we will likely never see a golden generation of US stars in Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, and Jermaine Jones suit up at the World Cup ever again. The four of them have done remarkable things, elevating US soccer to new heights in their lengthy, honorable, and impassioned stints with the national team. Since 2002, the Americans have advanced from the group stages in three out of four World Cups, placing them in the conversation with perennial powers such as Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, England, Netherlands, and Spain, who have been the only other teams to accomplish such a feat (Wahl, 2017). Yet, accompanying this success, was the enormous growth of US soccer evidenced by increased participation, attendance, engagement, development, and funding. At its core though, the failure to qualify for this year’s World Cup is a massive missed opportunity: a missed opportunity to have our veterans represent our country, a missed opportunity for up-and-coming young guns looking to finally make their mark, a missed opportunity for the millions of fans who now lack a team to root for, and a missed opportunity for the continued growth of the sport in this country.
However, in the face of the USMNT’s dreadful blow, there is still a silver lining looking into the future. While failure begot us this time, there is much to look forward to for US soccer. America has one of the strongest youth groups to date, making their way through the ranks of the USMNT and their respective clubs alike. Although most of them were too young and inexperienced to make meaningful impacts this time around, by 2022 they will be reaching their primes. Players such as Christian Pulisic, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Weston Mckenie, Tyler Adams, among numerous others are some of the hottest prospects the US has ever had, and they are only improving (to learn more about these young guns click this hyperlink). With a fiery group of young talent making a case for themselves, don’t expect the United States to make the same mistakes again and fall short of another World Cup.
How to cite this article:
“The United States Men’s National Team’s Failure to Qualify for the 2018 World Cup,” Written by Erik Reiss (2018). World Cup 2018 Guide, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, https://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/united-states-mens-national-teams-failure-to-qualify-for-the-2018-fifa-world-cup/ (accessed on (date)).
“Current Allocation of FIFA World Cup™ Confederation Slots Maintained.” FIFA.com, 30 May 2015, www.fifa.com/worldcup/news/y=2015/m=5/news=current-allocation-of-fifa-world-cuptm-confederation-slots-maintained-2610611.html.
Quillen, Ian. “ESPN Has USA at a near-Certain 93 Percent Odds to Qualify for Russia ’18.” MLS, 7 Oct. 2017, www.mlssoccer.com/post/2017/10/07/espn-has-usa-near-certain-93-percent-odds-qualify-russia-18.
Ross, Terrance F. “Concacaf World Cup Qualifying Is Broken. But What Should Replace the Hex?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Nov. 2016, www.theguardian.com/football/2016/nov/18/concacaf-hex-fix-solution-uefa-usa.
Wahl, Grant. “USA Equipped to Handle a Missed World Cup, But Ramifications Would Still Be Seismic.” Sports Illustrated, 5 Oct. 2017, https://www.si.com/soccer/2017/10/05/usa-miss-world-cup-2018-russia-fallout.
Young, Jared. “Are We Growing Soccer Fast Enough in America?” Stars and Stripes FC, Stars and Stripes FC, 31 Oct. 2017, www.starsandstripesfc.com/2017/10/31/16567760/usa-us-soccer-youth-soccer-growth-usmnt-iceland-germany.