Analyzing the Seven Stages of Grief as the U.S. Men’s National Team misses out on Russia

It was just a couple of days ago where I gave you my experience from the U.S. Men’s National Team game in Orlando. After this game, every supporter in attendance thought two things, The U.S. was in and Panama was out. My God, how 96 hours changes things.

If you’re an American soccer fan, you more than likely had your eyes glued to the U.S. v Trinidad & Tobago game last night. Many people went out of their way to find somewhere to watch the game since Bein Sports is only in 50 million households throughout the country. Bars were packed, restaurants were unusually full for a Tuesday, and illegal streams were inundated with viewers as everyone looked to see the U.S. punch their ticket to Russia. Except, it never came.

Many supporters are going through the seven stages of grief at this time, which is perfectly fine. Before we get to shock & denial, every American supporter held out hope that the Mexican free kick at the end of the game would find twine giving the U.S. a playoff spot versus Australia. The second that final whistle blew at San Pedro Sula, I immediately felt sick to my stomach. How did this happen? Was this real? How could it have come to this?

Let’s move to pain & guilt. This is characterized by Taylor Twellman as he displayed the perfect example of all of our thoughts and feeilings. Twellman unleashed a three-minute rant on ESPN going after U.S. Soccer, the players, Klinsmann, and Arena. I could not help myself but to nod along at every single argument that was made. I questioned why Fabian Johnson was left off the roster when the squad was announced. I’ve questioned how Bobby Wood continually finds himself starting up front while being nothing more than an opportunist throughout his U.S. career (an opinion not shared by many). The trips to St. Louis, Jacksonville, and Orlando all for nothing.

Anger & bargaining are characterized as the next stage of grief. I publicly stated that perhaps firing Klinsmann wasn’t the best approach despite multiple frustrations, where at times, I believed he should be removed. Arena, was touted as the only person who could take over. For a few moments, I thought like many else “well who else could there be?” which is the main reason I was against sacking Klinsmann at that point in time. Arena was just a retread, a bandage to a wound that was too big to cover.

Arena doesn’t make this loss better especially when you think back at the idiotic comments made regarding European teams qualifying in CONCACAF. Hey dummy, which European powerhouse do you think would have problems qualifying? Iceland? Whom are now being used as the polar opposite example of the U.S. across sports radio, would have qualified through CONCACAF. Why? Iceland did it right, Iceland invested in their system and made sure that the coaches at the YOUTH level received the training and the education needed to get those teams to the point they are at right now.

Most supporters are currently in stage four which includes the feelings of depression & reflection. Maybe Jurgen Klinsmann was right? Maybe, the MLS wasn’t a good enough league to compete with the biggest powerhouses of the world. Maybe, Bruce Arena shouldn’t be so bold as to say that players who are not in MLS but are in the U.S. pyramid would never get a chance to wear the kit. Maybe, this is what we get for destroying Panama’s chances in 2012 when we didn’t need to.

As for reflection, there have been plenty of articles written about “the lost years”. This is age gap where the U.S. program couldn’t develop sustainable talent between the birth years of 90-94. Notable former U.S. players who have seen themselves out of the mix from the national team include, Brek Shea, Ethan Finlay, Miguel Ibarra, Joe Gyau, and Juan Agudelo among others. These were the same players that had major disappointments throughout the youth system. 2007 U-17 World cup, 2009 U-17 World cup, 2009 U-20 World cup, 2009 U-20 World cup, 2011 U-20 world cup qualifying, the 2013 U-20 world cup teams were all major failures and these guys were all part of them. The fact that these 5 teams only provided three notable players (Wood, Yedlin, Villafana) is the major issue which is no longer fixable.

Thankfully this issue has already been fixed or it’s on the right path to correction. With the current U-17 team off to a great start at their world cup under John Hackworth, the performance of the U-20’s under the leadership of Tab Ramos, and Brad Friedel taking the reins the U-19 squad, there is no doubt that the youth academy is now back on the right track. The problem is, it’s too little too late for the current senior level squad.

Eventually we will reach the upward turn, we will reconstruct and work through the difficult times (summer of 2018), and we will find hope in what can be a bright future led by players like Pulisic, Carleton, Sargent. For now, we have immediate problems to fix and the first is the control at the senior level. Then and only then, we can re-evaluate from the bottom back to the top.

There has been a sense of relief in writing this piece as I look to get over the feelings of Tuesday night. As many fans approach that reflection stage, I am unfortunately still stuck in the anger part. I find Arena’s comments at the post game presser to be abhorrent. Arena seems to carry himself as a Bill Belichick like figure, without producing the “Belicheickian” results. Sunil Gulati’s clock has reached midnight and it’s time for a new mindset at the top of federation.

The federation has a tumultuous year ahead of itself. With NASL’s injunction led by Rocco Commisso, the Ricardo Silva led fight for Promotion/Relegation in CAS, the federation needed a trip to Russia to take attention away from these issues. With that ship sailed and the federation without a ticket, don’t be surprised to see headlines that don’t bode well for U.S. Soccer as we move through the months ahead. I guess all we can hope for is some entertaining friendlies against the best nations while allowing the youth to shine.

Photo courtesy Abraham Diaz/AFP/Getty Images

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