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Hoonhout: U.S. Soccer’s future lies in Europe

| Wednesday, March 28, 2018


No, this column is not about the Philadelphia 76ers, even though my roommate finally thinks the glory days of Philly basketball have returned.

It’s about the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Now, to say that the United States missing out on the 2018 World Cup is a setback for the sport in the States is more than an understatement. As my colleague Ryan Kolakowski pointed out last fall, the USMNT had practically a guaranteed spot in Russia this coming summer, as long as the squad handled lowly Trinidad and Tobago.

It collapsed in a 2-1 loss.

While disappointing and downright embarrassing, the setback has sparked change. Out is head coach Bruce Arena, who replaced Jurgen Klinsmann after a startlingly poor start to qualifying, particularly at home. But Arena couldn’t get the job done. Also gone is longtime U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who stepped down after the fiasco, and Carlos Cordeiro has taken his place.

There has been change in the team as well. As magical as the run the team went on in the 2014 World Cup was, first escaping the “Group of Death” and then bowing out to Belgium despite the Herculean efforts of goalkeeper Tim Howard, the cracks had started to surface. Klinsmann’s core group of regulars — players like Howard, forward Clint Dempsey, midfielder Jermaine Jones and defender DaMarcus Beasley — are now reaching the twilight of their careers. There has been a serious question of who would take up the torch, only emphasized by the retirement of American legend Landon Donovan, who was famously left off of that 2014 roster by Klinsmann.

Luckily, that question has been answered in the emergence of Christian Pulisic, who at only 19 is already a star for German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund and has some of the biggest clubs in the world circling over acquiring his talents this summer.

Pulisic may very well be the once-in-a-lifetime talent that American soccer has been craving, and he is most certainly the byproduct of the emergence of soccer in the States and its first true success story. But what has actualized his success? His emergence in Europe.

In the world of club soccer, Europe is unquestionably the promised land. It’s where you find the biggest clubs and the biggest stars, and for players from South America, Africa, Asia and the rest of the world, it’s the pinnacle of success.

In the U.S., however, that isn’t necessarily the uniform opinion.

As the USMNT ushers in a new era, the debate about where U.S. stars should play their club soccer swirls around the proceedings. For Klinsmann, Europe was the place where American stars needed to be, but there was pushback against his preference of foreign-born players who held dual citizenship but who really were only American by passport. Enter Arena, who made his name coaching in the MLS — the domestic league in the U.S. — and who believed that American players playing at home were the answer.

Both were wrong.

Yes, the USMNT should want American players who everyday Americans can relate to. And yes, the recent rise of the MLS and the emergence of ambitious clubs like NYCFC, Atlanta United FC and LAFC have made soccer in America more than just a retirement league for aging international stars.

But for American soccer to be truly great, it needs to combine both systems — homegrown youth development and European exposure.

Christian Pulisic wasn’t manufactured by the MLS — that was Freddy Adu. Pulisic’s emergence is about his taking a leap of faith and going to the Dortmund academy to try to make it in one of the biggest leagues in the world. But it also wouldn’t have been a possibility if he hadn’t grown up in Hershey, Pennsylvania and developed his love for the game at the youth level with American club teams.

The U.S. needs to recognize both its strengths as a place where world-class talent can be produced, but also its weakness as a non-factor in really fostering talented youngsters into superstars. While Pulisic is the exemplar, he really should only be the beginning.

Will the MLS be on par with Europe one day? Who knows. For me, it shouldn’t really matter. The U.S. needs to take a step back and see that just because we have the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, that doesn’t mean we automatically have or should have the best soccer league in the world.

For its ­­­1-0 win against Paraguay in an international friendly Tuesday, interim coach Dave Sarachan assembled an incredibly youthful roster, with 18 players having five or fewer caps. But there are a number of American-born players who are now breaking through in Europe.

There’s no Pulisic. But there’s central midfielder Weston McKennie, who turned down a contract with MLS-side FC Dallas and a scholarship at Virginia to pursue his dream, and is now a regular for German club FC Shalke. There’s 18-year-old Tim Weah — son of African legend George Weah — who was born in New York City and recently made his debut for French powerhouse PSG. There’s defender Matt Miazaga, a product of the New York Red Bulls academy who made the jump and signed for Chelsea and is currently on loan in the Netherlands. And there’s right back Shaq Moore, who as a teenager decided to try and make himself in Europe, currently going up against the likes of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo while playing for Levante in La Liga.

What unites all of these players? Not only are they the future of U.S. soccer, but they’ve taken the leap of faith to prove they belong among the world’s elite. As with Pulisic, there was no safety net or sheltering in MLS for these youngsters.

And they know it. Weah recently tweeted a reference to #TheProcess. For as the USMNT rebuilds, it also has the chance to usher in a new era. As a number of talented and ambitious young Americans have started to break through into the sport’s highest echelons, the chance at forging a Golden Age of U.S. soccer is tantalizingly close.

Will they succeed? Only time will tell. But as Yoda said, “Do or do not, there is no try.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

Contact Tobias