It was bad.
There is no other way to describe what happened to the United States men’s national team on Tuesday night, no other way to spin how the Americans lost in staggering fashion to Trinidad and Tobago and then saw a combination of other results knock them out of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. When the tournament kicks off in Russia next June, it will be the first time U.S. has been absent since 1986.
Not surprisingly, the entire soccer community — from players to coaches, executives to fans, corporate sponsors to media partners — has been sent reeling. As the fog of disappointment begins to lift, however, a variety of natural questions arise.
What happens to U.S. Soccer next?
Put simply: a reckoning.
Coach Bruce Arena’s contract technically runs through next summer but a search for his successor begins immediately and there will be much discussion over whether the best fit is a former player-turned-coach such as Peter Vermes or Tab Ramos, or a big-name outsider (though don’t hold your breath on Pep Guardiola).
There will be significant player turnover, too. The days of Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley playing any significant role with the national team are over. In truth, every player — save for Christian Pulisic, who continues to be a revelation — will have to earn a spot going forward. This kind of failure runs that deep.
What about Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer?
Gulati’s status isn’t as clear-cut. As president of the federation, he is responsible for more than just the results of the men’s national team. He reports to the U.S. Soccer board and that isn’t likely to try to oust him because, among other reasons, he has been instrumental in growing the game in this country and is a key cog in efforts to bring the 2026 World Cup to North America.
That said, there is a presidential election in February. Steve Gans, a Boston attorney, has already stated he will run and there may be others. Gulati has been president since 2006 and ran without challenge in his previous elections, so this will be a trickier process, particularly with this qualifying failure hanging over him.
The voters in the U.S. Soccer election come from something called the national council, which is basically a group of people who represent the various pieces that make up the country’s soccer community (representatives from each of the state federations, for example, as well as the amateur leagues, youth leagues, professional players, etc.).
There have been calls for Gulati to stand down before the election and, to this point, he hasn’t announced whether he will run again. If he does, it is clear he will have to do more campaigning than in past years.
How will this affect the U.S.-led bid to bring the 2026 World Cup to North America?
The short answer? It won’t.
The United States, Mexico and Canada still offer a superior hosting infrastructure — stadiums, hotels, travel options and more — to just about any country or region in the world. Moreover, the only other option at the moment for 2026 is Morocco, which would need to build at least four stadiums to meet FIFA’s requirements.
While it is embarrassing for the U.S. to miss out on Russia 2018, not qualifying for a previous World Cup has never been a part of earning the right to host; after all, in 1994 the U.S. hosted and, at that time, it had qualified for just one tournament in 43 years.
In other words, American fans need not worry: the debate over which United States city should host the World Cup final can continue.
Does missing the World Cup hurt U.S. Soccer financially?
Not really. The direct impact on the federation itself is small, in large part because the big-ticket sponsorship and marketing deals are locked in for the long-term and aren’t contingent upon the men’s national team making the World Cup. Missing Russia doesn’t mean that the value of the deal with Nike is suddenly cut in half and, with the World Cup likely coming to North America in 2026, most potential partners will be running toward U.S. Soccer, not away from it.
(It is worth noting that many other countries have different business arrangements where qualifying for the World Cup can trigger big bonuses and missing out can trigger out clauses, which is why failing to qualify for, say, Mexico, is often portrayed as being a complete financial disaster.)
The damage in the United States is more indirect. Travel companies won’t sell nearly as many packages, apparel companies won’t sell nearly as many jerseys and media companies, including rights-holders Fox, won’t be able to monetize the tournament in nearly the same way. Casual fans, who find their way to soccer during the World Cup and then gravitate to MLS, will also be down.
The interest in the tournament, however, won’t disappear. Unlike other countries where the majority of fans support the “home” team, the diversity of the United States’ population means that many Americans support other national teams. They will go to bars and watch parties, whether the U.S. is playing or not.
One person who may be hurt in the wallet is Pulisic. The midfielder is already a star in Europe since he plays for Borussia Dortmund, but the World Cup figured to be lucrative for him as he established himself globally. Now, he’ll have to wait at least another four years to experience the exposure that comes from shining on the sport’s biggest stage.
Should I be surprised by all this?
In a historical context, yes. After all, the United States participated in seven straight World Cups before missing out on this one. So, from that perspective, it is an anomaly.
But for anyone who watched this qualifying cycle, it’s hard not to say the U.S. got what it deserved. It lost to Guatemala in its first qualifying round. It lost to Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, in the Hexagonal. It was embarrassed in Costa Rica and at home by the same opponents. It had multiple games in which it seemed, for no obvious reason, that the players’ effort wasn’t complete.
Even with all that, it needed only to get a draw against Trinidad and Tobago in the final game, against hosts with nothing tangible to play for, and it lost anyway. At that point, surprise was replaced by embarrassment.
And what does Jurgen Klinsmann think?
A lot, most likely. But when reached by telephone late Tuesday night, the man who coached the United States during the 2014 World Cup but was fired after losing the first two games of the Hexagonal this time, demurred.
“Yes, I watched,” Klinsmann said. “But I don’t want to give any comments right now. It wouldn’t be right.”