It is still difficult to accept. And even more difficult to comprehend. The United States men’s national team has failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time in the lifetimes of half the current squad. And in the immediate aftermath of the shambles, tears and dejection stood in the way of confrontations with reality. Even Sunil Gulati, the under-fire U.S. Soccer president, slumped in a front-row chair at Bruce Arena’s postmatch news conference, the life sucked flush out of his face.
But soon enough, those confrontations will happen. Gulati knows that. “We’ll look at everything,” he told media members after Arena had finished at the podium. “All our programs, both the national team and all the development stuff.”
Just as it is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the debacle, it is difficult to gauge the long-term ramifications of it. There will be some, surely. Every World Cup is an opportunity for growth. Next summer’s opportunity will be missed.
But there are more obvious short-term consequences that will soon be felt. Decisions that will be forced. Questions that must be answered. Inquests for Gulati and others to conduct.
Here are 10 of those decisions and questions – the next steps for a federation and a national team program trying to move on from the unthinkable:
1. Bruce Arena will be gone
Arena was unlikely to stay on after the 2018 World Cup anyway. He was a stop-gap solution brought in to get the U.S. to Russia. His failure to do that almost certainly sealed his fate. He has managed his last game for the U.S.
2. The search for Arena’s successor will begin
Gulati and the federation knew a coaching search loomed. They knew this day would come. They just didn’t know it would arrive so soon. The search will likely begin immediately, with Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes and U.S youth technical director and U-20 head coach Tab Ramos among candidates to take over.
With more than five years between now and the 2022 winter World Cup in Qatar, the next hire marks the start of a new project. Five years is a long time. In an odd way, U.S. Soccer can afford to experiment – the chances that the next manager is the one who will lead the U.S. in Qatar are not exactly high. Ramos, due to his relationship and experience with many of the young players who will come through over the next cycle, would make sense. But big-name, splashy hires are in play too. Really anything is. The process will be fascinating.
3. Out with the old …
Expect some veterans, with one last World Cup dream dashed, to retire from the national team. Tim Howard, at 38, will likely lead the pack. But expect others to have the decision more or less made for them. Arena hinted at that after the match, even if he won’t be the one ultimately making the decisions. “If we had qualified for the World Cup, there needed to be a number of changes for a World Cup roster,” he said bluntly.
The U.S. squad overall was alarmingly old. Howard is 38. Nick Rimando and Brad Guzan, the other two goalkeepers are 38 and 33. Clint Dempsey is 34. Geoff Cameron is 32. Even Michael Bradley is 30. Guys like Bradley aren’t going anywhere, but squad players like Alejandro Bedoya (30) and Graham Zusi (31) will probably be the victims of an immediate newfound commitment to youth.
4. … And in with the new
Despite a startling gap in the 23-27 age range, there are plenty of talented youngsters who will arrive on the scene over the next five years. With nothing to play for in the immediate future, there’s no reason to keep them waiting any longer.
The next wave is led by a trio of teenage midfielders: FC Schalke’s Weston McKennie, the New York Red Bulls’ Tyler Adams, and Monterrey’s Johnathan Gonzalez. McKennie, a well-rounded box-to-box player who’s also comfortable holding, is the obvious future partner for an aging Bradley. Adams could start at fullback for the U.S. right now, and could have a long national team career either there or in central midfield. Gonzalez is slick on the ball.
Behind them are the current crop of under-17s competing at the U-17 World Cup in India. They’ve won their first two games, beating a talented Ghana side on Monday. Josh Sargent, who recently signed with Germany’s Werder Bremen, is the best of the bunch. Tim Weah, the son of former Ballon d’Or winner George Weah, is in PSG’s youth system. With the U.S. facing an early restart, senior team national call-ups for the top teenagers should come sooner rather than later.
5. Christian Pulisic’s rise to megastardom has been put on hold
This is not a point about Pulisic’s development. He is already a star, one of the top teenagers in the entire world, and by far the U.S.’s best player. He will continue to progress at Borussia Dortmund. But he would have blown up at the World Cup, both stateside and even abroad. His marketability and popularity would have shot through the roof. Global megastardom will have to wait, even if only for a short time.
6. There’s a calendar to fill
The U.S.’s next year-plus is completely barren. The federation was preparing for a World Cup. It had lined up St. Petersburg as the site of its base camp in Russia. It was thinking about European friendlies in November and World Cup warmups in the spring. Now the focus shifts. The friendlies still have to be scheduled. But there are different motives behind the scheduling of them.
7. Will USSF look to put on another tournament?
The revenue gleaned from World Cup runs will no longer fall into the federation’s bank account. And it’s not just that, it’s also the exposure and brand-building opportunities that accompany the tournament every four years. How does USSF make up for that loss?
There have been rumblings over the years about running back Copa America Centenario, or organizing a similar tournament that pits the U.S. against high-profile, non-CONCACAF opponents. Expect the federation to explore those possibilities with heightened interest now that there is nothing but Gold Cups, and perhaps a Confederations Cup, on its calendar between now and November 2022.
8. The 2026 bid should be unaffected
The U.S., Mexico and Canada have launched a joint bid to host the 2026 World Cup. They are overwhelming favorites to win hosting rights, with Morocco the only competition. The Americans’ failure to qualify for next summer’s World Cup should not affect that bid. And in fact, FIFA’s decision, which will be made on the eve of the 2018 tournament, will give American fans something to look forward to in June.
9. There’s a USSF election in four months
Sunil Gulati has run unopposed for the U.S. Soccer presidency three times. Ahead of a potential fourth term, he has challengers. One is Steve Gans, a Boston attorney who has wide-ranging experience in soccer, if not quite Gulati’s credentials. Another is Paul LaPointe. Both will be looking to upset the proverbial apple cart. Others could yet join the race.
Any challengers will look to prey on the outrage-driven instability that the World Cup qualifying failure will incite. Many fans called for Gulati to resign Tuesday night. Those fans, of course, won’t be the ones voting at the USSF election at the federation’s annual general meeting in February, and Gulati should probably still be considered the favorite – if he decides to run; he has not yet announced his intentions. But the qualifying failure puts him on thin(ner) ice.
10. There will be a wholesale review …
But will there be wholesale changes? Gulati doesn’t think so. “You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being two inches wide or two inches in,” he told media after Tuesday’s game. “We have a lot of pieces in place that we think are very good and coming along.”
Arena agrees with him. “There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing,” he said after the match. “Certainly, I think if our league continues to grow it benefits the national team program. We have some good players coming up. Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be foolish.”
They are both wrong. Changes are necessary. But they are probably not as wrong as you think they are. A chunk of the national team’s failure can be explained by mistakes made years ago, and problems that have plagued American soccer for decades.
There’s a middle ground to be found between the status quo and a full reboot. The internal self-appraisal that Gulati and the federation conduct over the coming weeks and months must find that middle ground. And they must make some ground-up changes, even if they stop well short of a full uprooting of American soccer’s foundation.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.