Why Did USA Miss the World Cup?

USA could have very easily made the 2018 World Cup (it was just one goal or a few bounces away from doing so). The problems highlighted here would exist whether the USA made or missed this World Cup. The the full context surrounding this USA soccer disaster must be examined. A somewhat one-off event of failing in a few CONCACAF World Cup qualifying matches means as much in the grand scheme of things as an improbable run to the quarterfinals of a single World Cup.

However, one-off events can serve as wake up calls for those unaware of big-picture American soccer issues. This is why many people were just fine with USA missing this latest World Cup. While USA soccer’s failure to qualify is a painful experience in the short term, it can serve as a great long-term learning and re-thinking opportunity for the long-term future of American soccer.

A disaster of this magnitude shook USA soccer to the core, so it is only right for the program to examine its very foundations in order eradicate the root cause of failure. There are surface-level observations which predictably catch the attention of the masses first:

  • USA soccer is a “rich” sport – The best training and playing opportunities for youngsters cost a lot of money (pay-to-play).
  • There is not a big enough soccer culture in USA – Other U.S. sports are overshadowing soccer, not enough kids are playing pick-up soccer, and not enough are following MLS (D1).

One must understand the “whys” behind what is seen on the surface.

These perceived “problems” are just symptoms or byproducts of one root U.S. Soccer governing federation policy: a closed system which excludes and kills incentive for most constituents in the USA soccer ecosystem (more on this topic here).

There’s always a chance of failure even if a system is set up correctly. Global soccer powerhouses like Holland or Italy also missed the 2018 World Cup. But remember, in the larger context, these nations will be contenders to win the entire tournament most World Cup cycles. While systems do not directly determine results, they do have a massive influence. Look at USA soccer’s big-picture record on the international stage:

USA’s World Cup record since 1930: six wins (one every 14 years).


The 2018 U.S. national team is very similar to the team in the 1990s: good enough to qualify for a World Cup but not a serious contender. At the turn of the century, many people believed that USA would grow into a World Cup contender by around 2010. Where is the progress? The competition USA is trying to catch is only increasing the gap, and nations behind are catching up. It is clear that the current system is not a sustainable trajectory.

A national team player pool relies on the production and development success of its domestic clubs. National team programs are not responsible for developing players. Observe how heavily the U.S. national team has relied on exclusively or partially foreign-developed players. Despite its 330 million population, USA resorts to scouring the globe to recruit dual-citizens such as Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones. Key players such as Christian Pulisic leave U.S. programs in their teen years and spend their most important development years in foreign, open ecosystems. The quality produced from USA’s main, domestic player development pipeline is quite lacking.

The USA has 24 million soccer players (FIFA census in 2006). There are so many players in the hat yet so few top-level talents are produced in the end. What if America’s 9,000+ soccer clubs had the opportunity to win promotion to USA soccer division 1? Currently, one single club, Major League Soccer (MLS), has a protected monopoly on the USA first division. An anti-competitive market is awful for investment and innovation. Opening the USA soccer market means that these 9,000+ clubs have incentive to pour money into their infrastructure, sign players and coaches, form scouting networks, and build and sustain free-to-play training academies. The hope of winning promotion is critical to the existence of any lower division soccer club.

With its massive population, the USA by default ends up with a few handfuls of players that are good enough to cut it in top first-division clubs around the world. The mild success of the U.S. national team pool today happens despite a toxic domestic club soccer system. Without many clubs producing top-level talent, the U.S. talent pool will continue to be mired in mediocrity. Adopting an open-market soccer ecosystem is not a wild conspiracy theory. All you have to do is observe the other 99% of the soccer world today. It is time for USA to run its soccer the normal way.

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One comment

  1. Thanks Ben for what you’re doing, I’ve learned a lot from reading from the #ProRelForUSA community. Soccer’s relatively new to me, still learning so much about it! For years the NBA, NFL & MLB dominated my radar. The US Women winning in 1999 was what sparked my love affair with footy. Back from then, up until only a few years ago, I only really knew a bit about soccer from watching the women during tournaments, the USMNT during tournaments (but far less) and from a minuscule amount of MLS. In other words, I didn’t know squat about what it means to be successful in soccer. Still hardly no squat but I’m trying!

    Anyway, the more I learn about how disjointed soccer is in this country and how pay-to-play is such a barrier (living in Madison, WI we’re fortunate our U14 boys are in a league in which we can get some pretty good competition from teams in OH, IN, IL, MI, NE, MO & MN) but holy crap, it’s ridiculous – the time, the travel, the money etc. Look, I’m not complaining. I just want better.
    I see the local kids playing pickup soccer, I get out with boy and his friends and we kick the ball up and down the sidewalk like I used to dribble basketball up and down the block as a kid. We’re trying to grow grassroots soccer in our community.

    There’s too many barriers, not enough quality coaching (not accessible to low income really) and not enough passion. I think, from looking at the world and how soccer really works – it’s time for change. How do we do that though in America where capitalism and profit over performance and grassroots growth is in control?

    How does “Joe Public” get involved to have a voice to create change? I tweet but that’s not doing anything. I talk to parents on our team but that’s not doing anything. All I see is ESPN signing deals w/MLS & US Soccer trying to make it seem like they care about growth but really only care about marketing. What do we do?!

    USA has NFL, NBA, NHL & MLB. Treating soccer like this is NOT the way. We NEED a system of relegation and promotion that creates a pyramid to enable organic growth. Like, Madison – my town, JUST announced they’ll have a USLD3 team. GREAT! Or is it? What’s the point of supporting that club, taking my time and hard earned money to give them dollars to have them do what? Maybe get to USL then what? Big whoop. Now, if we had a top tier and a clear pyramid instead of monopoly, I’d be much more tied to the team. How do we grow the culture? How do we grow the understanding? HOW DO WE MAKE ACTUAL CHANGES TO ELIMINATE THE MONOPOLY and enable kids with nothing but a ball, to BALL!

    We have state soccer associations and then there’s non-MLS academies and MLS acadamies etc. And look, there’s scholarships and whatnot but come on! If your kids talented enough and gets an offer from say Fire or Loons or Sockers FC or something but you live in Madison, WI – wtf you gonna do? Drive back and forth to practice while trying to juggle a job and life and responsibilities? I mean, I guess we’re fortunate in that we’re not at that level with our boy but I mean – come on! Not everyone drives an Audi and makes 250000+ in the household.

    I digress. Sorry for the ramble, I don’t think I’m alone in the way I feel about this though. I’m passionate about the sport more than ever and want to maximize our talent but this current monopoly/system is broken and I feel helpless to make it improve.

    Maybe a #prorelforusa chat group for parents/ppl like me that:

    1) have no coaching or playing experience
    2) have kids playing competitively in “pay to play” systems
    3) love the game, may not know what’s up from down but want to see better
    4) want inclusion and who want to enable organic growth

    This was a stream of consciousness, apologies again for the not-so-well-thought out delivery w/more feeling/questions than actual concrete ideas… Anyway, we don’t know what we don’t know and it takes courage to put yourself out there for scrutiny/criticism. Embrace debate and all that, I just want better and I want to help in anyway possible.



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