3… 2… 1… Happy New Year!
It’s a new year for the United States men’s national team, after a hateful 2017 in which it — here’s where you sigh if you’re reading or hearing this for the 462nd time — failed to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Weirdly, it wasn’t statistically an altogether bad year for the men under Bruce Arena, who took over after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired in late 2016. The USA went 10-2-7 and didn’t lose a game until September, claiming the Gold Cup along the way.
It’s just that the Yanks lost two crucial World Cup qualifiers and that rightly overshadowed all else — and will do so for several more years to come.
Presently, U.S. Soccer is a shambles. It has a lame-duck president due to be replaced in February, after Sunil Gulati announced he won’t run for a fourth term; a coachless men’s national team that was already overdue for a rebuild, and is now without the departed Arena; a youth system that remains chaotic and dysfunctional, possibly hampering more talent than it enables; oh, and a women’s senior team that delivered its now-forgotten worst-ever performance at a major tournament in the Rio Olympics in 2016.
So here are five New Year’s resolutions for the men’s national team, to begin addressing the mountain of issues across the soccer landscape.
1. Figure out the governance and management structure
There isn’t really anything meaningful to be done until a new president is elected in late February. The field is large and comically varied. And it looks for all the world like the new president won’t wield as much power as Gulati did, who consolidated considerable influence domestically, regionally and globally. Regardless, the new public face for the game will be looked to plot out a vision and set the tone.
It’s been reported that a general manager role could be established to handle the soccer side below the president, just as the secretary general currently runs the business side. That would likely put managerial hires in the GM’s hands. Or it could go to a committee, which is probably preferable.
However it shakes out, all these pieces have to be in place before the federation can set about rebuilding its men’s program. There’s no sense in hiring a manager now who winds up not fitting into the plans of a new president, or indeed his or her GM or committee.
2. Find a gracious way to usher out the older generation
A whole raft of longtime national teamers aged out of usefulness in just a few beats on Oct. 10, in the stunned moments after that fateful 2-1 loss in Trinidad and Tobago. They might have been key players — or at least role players — in Russia next summer. But instead, their national team careers are surely over.
The line should probably be drawn somewhere near captain Michael Bradley, who is 30 and won’t turn 35 until after the next World Cup in Qatar in 2022. Given his famed professionalism and underrated durability, he could still be a factor then. But even he’s a question mark.
But anyone whose time has clearly passed needs to be ushered out with the dignity he deserves. Now’s the time. There isn’t much sense keeping anybody around who has no reasonable chance of making it all the way through to Qatar.
There will be plenty of friendlies that can double as testimonials in 2018.
3. Hire a coach, not a manager
By and large, the job of a national team manager these days is limited. They see to it that the players they’ve called up for a week-long camp have regenerated sufficiently for a game or two. And they fit the players into a system they can learn quickly and execute effectively. There isn’t a whole lot of coaching involved.
That’s probably why few of the best managers in the game currently work in the international game. It’s just not where the glory is to be won. The big names in their primes work at the big clubs.
Which is to say that the U.S. isn’t going to hire any big name who isn’t damaged goods or a few years past his best. And if it did, somehow, chances that it could hold onto him for five years are slim. So even trying doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Besides, what the U.S. needs is someone who can do more coaching and building than is customary. What it needs is a bright coach committed to the long term who can figure out a suitable system and drill the players in it over the course of a few years.
4. Assemble a core
There were a range of issues with the national team over the last World Cup cycle. Among them was the endless turnover in the lineup. The team felt stuck between two generations, with the old guard mostly past it but the next wave either not ready or not good enough.
Plainly, this team will be rebuilt around Borussia Dortmund’s 19-year-old star Christian Pulisic. And there is much young talent to surround him with, like fellow midfielders Weston McKennie (19) and Tyler Adams (18). Central defenders Cameron Carter-Vickers (19) and Matt Miazga (22) could help round out a strong spine, topped by striker Josh Sargent (17).
There’s no telling if all that talent will pan out. Almost certainly not. But now is the time to find out. There isn’t anything to lose, with no qualifiers on the horizon for two years.
Oh, and the Americans need to pull Jonathan Gonzalez into the senior team setup post-haste, before Mexico poaches him. The 18-year-old midfielder, who was active with the U.S. under-20s this year, has broken into the senior team at Monterrey, won the Copa MX and been in the Liga MX Best XI in the last five months. Together with all of the above talent, he could be part of a better future.
5. Stay flexible
The central failing in half a decade under Klinsmann was the loudly verbalized ambition to play an aspirational new style while the old, ugly but pragmatic philosophy was never completely ditched. It left things muddled and confused, with players often unsure what they were actually supposed to do.
Developing a house style is all well and good, but clinging too tightly to a tactical vision can easily become detrimental. If the U.S. still functions better playing a rudimentary bunker-and-counter style, that’s okay. It’s better than missing World Cups.
If ever there was a lesson in the 2015-18 cycle, it’s that there isn’t any sense getting hung up on ideas when they come at the expense of results when it matters.
Happy New Year, everyone. Now let’s sleep off the hangover of 2017.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.