World Cup Disappointment: What Does this Mean for the United States Men’s Soccer Team?

One month on from the heartbreaking failure to qualify for the World Cup, soccer star Christian Pulisic is still feeling the devastating effects. The American prodigy has expressed his dismay at missing the biggest soccer event in the world, as have many of his teammates. While many furious fans have been quick to blame the management of the team and the lack of talent, Pulisic begs to differ. According to him, it is not the lack of talent, but rather the lack of opportunity that holds the US back.

Why is it that a country the size of the United States fails to produce a strong men’s soccer team? (Of course, it should be acknowledged that the women’s team is the greatest in the world.) Are there not enough people who play soccer? Are the coaches teaching us poorly? Or is there just a general lack of domestic talent?

These are all good questions, none of which can fully be answered. It would help if our players and coaches were naturally more gifted, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt if we had more soccer players. While our soccer culture is developing, it is certainly still a distant cry from the passionate  Brazilian “futbol” or even from the British “football” trend. However, Pulisic argues that these are not the true reasons for our downfall. The Pennsylvania native cites the lack of opportunity for American players as the true reason for our World Cup disaster.

Pulisic moved to Germany to ply his trade during his teen years. There, he played just 15 games in the Borussia Dortmund academy before he was promoted to the first team. While he is a star at his club, Pulisic had to fight for his place in the team. This internal competition within the team, he says, is what sculpted him into the star that he is today. In the United States, soccer teams lack that same internal competition. The best players at a youth level either stay at the top without being challenged, or they are rushed onto the professional stage where they don’t receive any playing time. Freddy Adu is a perfect example of the dangers of early promotion. Selected at the tender age of 14, Adu was the youngest ever player to sign an MLS contract. However, despite being regarded as the future of American soccer, he quickly spiraled downward, and today, at age 28, he doesn’t even have a professional contract. While technically gifted, Adu was never mentally sculpted into a professional. Used to being the sole star, Adu was suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar environment where he was outmatched, and he never fully adapted. Too often, American soccer players don’t get the opportunity to develop in a setting where they are challenged. Young stars, Pulisic says, are either treated like royalty at the youth level, or they are benched and demoralized by professional teams. The US soccer system needs a middle ground, like the Borussia Dortmund Academy, where players are challenged but also given playing time.

The United States Men’s Soccer team has a vast population of soccer players to work with and select. America has a future with many young and talented players. It is the crucial teenage years where the American soccer system needs remodeling. While the MLS is a growing league, American stars should be encouraged to look for opportunity abroad. There, they can compete directly against stars of other countries, and they will gradually adapt to the level of play that other nations have. European academies offer a competitive level of play where Americans can develop technically and mentally as well. Pulisic is a star, but to succeed at the international level, the USMNT needs more than just a talisman. The more Americans that we send abroad to develop, the better our chances will be for the 2022 World Cup and more.