SAN DIEGO (TNS) — That might not be enough time.
It has been eight months since the catastrophe in Couva, Trinidad, the 2-1 loss to a bunch of island boyz that eliminated the nation of 327 million people from the World Cup for the first time since 1986. And aside from the obligatory finger pointing and grand pronouncements, despite a new federation president with a purported commitment to "transformational change," very little has.
American soccer is hurtling down the same, bumpy road that ended at a soggy field in the Caribbean last October. The same folks are driving the car. The same engine is under the hood. The same bald tires are skidding across the pavement.
Lesson ... not learned.
You start at the lowest levels of development, before kids are plugged into the machine of club soccer and spit out as soulless soccer robots devoid of passion or creativity.
One of the most promising morsels of progress last year was U.S. Soccer provided a grant for design a pilot program in Seattle with Tom Byer, an American who revolutionized the youth game in Japan (where he's known as Tom-san) and helped mold several members of its men's and women's national teams known for their advanced technical acuity.
The idea was to promote skills training at home between the ages of 2 and 6, when, like with a foreign language, young minds are more disposed to learning. And before they're subjected to a win-at-all-costs system of regimented practices, league standings and parents screaming from the sidelines.
In December, when initial funding for the program expired, U.S. Soccer scrapped it. Issued a mealy-mouthed statement about insufficient metrics to assess its effectiveness.
More recently comes word that the federation's coaching curriculum is discouraging the use of Rondos at practice. Rondos are 4 vs. 1 or 5 vs. 2 circular drills (think monkey-in-the-middle) that are mainstays at Barcelona and most other top clubs across the world, aimed at cultivating cognitive development and accelerated decision-making.
The federation opposes Rondos, reportedly, because they are circular and not directional. And because, of course, we think we've figured out soccer and know more about youth development than Barcelona.
On and on it goes. Last September, U.S. Soccer rescinded the second-division status of the North American Soccer League, which aspired to challenge Major League Soccer as a first division but with a different ownership and player acquisition model. The NASL filed a federal antitrust lawsuit and requested a temporary injunction restoring second-division status while the case was being litigated _ and prevent the league from folding.
Instead of brokering a solution to buoy a potential competitor that would have provided a professional alternative for U.S. players and further broadened the player pool, the federation and MLS fought the restraining order with gusto and won. The NASL went on hiatus in February for the 2018 season and probably forever.
Also in February, U.S. Soccer elected a new president after Sunil Gulati (reluctantly) stepped down amid the Couva carnage. Several alternative candidates like former U.S. national team star Eric Wynalda and NBC Sports commentator Kyle Martino ran, but egos precluded them from forming a unified opposition front.
Instead, MLS Commissioner Don Garber played kingmaker and threw the 20-plus percent of the vote he controls behind Carlos Cordeiro, who won easily.
Who is Cordeiro? He was vice president under Gulati and has been virtually invisible since the election, the ultimate puppet regime. And indeed, multiple sources say Gulati, Garber and longtime U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn _ the triumvirate running the show for the past decade _ are still very much in charge.
Their big move has been creating the position of national team general manager and hiring Earnie Stewart, who was sporting director of MLS's Philadelphia Union. It is an interesting job description. He has no control over youth national teams that will create tomorrow's players, only the senior team, and he will merely "oversee" the hiring process for the new coach.
But he is "in charge of the culture and the environment" and "ensuring that U.S. Soccer's style of play, team tactical principles and key qualities are being implemented." He also will help the new coach with player identification and selection.
Translation: They hired a GM from a middling MLS club and gave him the kind of power that any high-profile foreign candidate would demand. Can you imagine, say, Jose Mourinho asking: "Hey Earnie, you want me to play a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1?"
Alternate translation: It's a set-up to hire a coach with MLS ties or at least one that won't insist national-team players head to Europe.
And that's a problem. A huge problem.
If you were Garber and had his kind of power, if your league was struggling for traction and legitimacy, you'd do the same thing. And if you were a player, offered a meaty salary without having to face the uncertainty and anxiety of Europe, you'd return home or never leave.
But what's best for MLS isn't necessarily what's best for the national team. If we didn't learn that lesson Oct. 10 in Cuova, Trinidad, maybe we can learn it in Russia this month. Look at the World Cup rosters of the top 10 contenders according to international oddsmakers, the rarefied air the U.S. hopes to breathe one day.
Ninety percent plays their club soccer in Europe, 78 percent in the "big five" leagues of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France.
Belgium has a nice domestic league, probably on par with MLS. Its roster in Russia: one player from the Jupiler Pro League and 19 from the big five leagues elsewhere in Europe.
South America? Brazil has 19 of 23 players in Europe, Argentina has 17, Uruguay and Colombia have 14 each.
Jurgen Klinsmann had the gall to bemoan the reverse exodus of U.S. players to MLS from Europe and suggest it would be "very difficult to keep the same level ... it's just reality, it's just being honest." Garber responded by ripping off a cease-and-desist letter to Gulati, then holding a media teleconference in which he promised to "do anything and everything to defend our league."
New details emerging about Klinsmann's termination in November 2016 indicate he was on the chopping block far earlier; they were just waiting for the appropriate accumulation of losses. You have to wonder if crossing Garber, the kingmaker, signed his death warrant.
When replacement Bruce Arena failed to qualify with a largely MLS-based roster in Trinidad, he recounts in an upcoming book, one of the consoling voices was a message from Garber with a quote from Winston Churchill.
Klinsmann, meanwhile, had since been cast as the villain in post-Trinidad autopsies, the convenient scapegoat for the players' loss of heart and fortitude.
How about this for a reason? They got soft because they weren't hardened by a foreign league where Americans must fight for everything they get, where roster tension is a daily reality, where the battle for promotion or shame of relegation creates ever-present pressure, where the rest of the world's top players ply their trade.
But the car hurtles forward, with the same engine, same tires, same drivers.
The 2018 inductees for the National Soccer Hall of Fame were recently announced based on balloting from a committee littered with federation officers and MLS coaches, executives and the commissioner. Garber was voted in. So was Bob Contiguglia, a former federation president who set the table for Gulati.
And Steve Cherundolo, the Mt. Carmel High alum who left for Europe after his sophomore season at Portland, who spent his entire 15-year pro career with Germany's Hannover 96, who had 87 caps with the national team over 13 years, who started in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, who might have been the most reliable U.S. field player of the 2000s, who never played in MLS?
You must appear on two-thirds of ballots for induction. For the second straight year, Cherundolo failed to get 50 percent.
But they're getting rid of Rondos because they want to be more directional. Right idea. They just picked the wrong circular endeavor to eradicate.