- Jason Davis

I'm almost glad to see it, the smoldering heat of fiery disgust still emanating across the American soccer community. It means people care, and with everything we've been through in the last 25 years or so, that's a encouraging thing to note. If people didn't care, they wouldn't rant and rave, write 800 word missives on the listing USMNT ship, spew venom in the direction of Bob Bradley, Sunil Gulati, et al., or just generally grouse about things "not being good enough." It has become hackneyed to point it out, that the more people care the better (and the crushing number of "US SOCCER IS DOOMED!" pieces serve to indicate that growing interest), but that doesn't mean it's not still true. I'll happily repeat it, if only because it seems like someone has to say something positive.

I won't even bitch that all of these doom and gloom articles - they're understandable after all - are easy to write in the wake of a loss and are therefore often bereft of anything approaching actual insight. They feed the beast, that large portion of the American soccer fan base who desperately want apparently respectable voices (or people with bylines at recognizable publications who must be worth listening to) to join them in their righteous anger. The talking points are ubiquitous. Statements of "fact", like that the United States' failure to produce one transcendent star from a population of 300 million is proof positive that everything we're doing is wrong, flow like rivers of grain to starving masses. 

I wonder where the line between "healthy" discussion of the true state of US Soccer and "delusion" over where it should actually be, is. I find myself turned off by the same polemic appearing over and over in various outlets - many of them soccer-focused, but many of them not - because the arguments never change, there are  rarely (if ever) legitimate suggestions for how to better the situation (other than "FIRE BOB!" although not everyone sees that as more than a superficial fix), and the rants typically devolve into the writer clubbing US Soccer the institution and American soccer the culture about the face and head while doing his or her best to  set themselves apart. Because they know better. If only someone would listen.

Calling for Bob Bradley's head is typical wake-of-a-loss-to-a-rival stuff. It's to be expected, and justifiable in the way that any similar call is justified after a crushing defeat to someone we measure ourselves against. There's something healthy about that, too, because it makes American soccer fans just like sports fans of any stripe. Calling for our head coaches to be fired at the slightest sign of trouble is just something we do. Rational thought doesn't even enter the picture. While the ends should be "Who can we can that will actually improve the team", it's too often "Get this guy out because he sucks." Change for change's sake is an action of last resort. Sports fans treat it as the diametric opposite.

The negative voices are the loudest, which is why it's so easy to think they're the only ones speaking. The negative voices feed our rapidly inflating sense of impatience. We want the US to take the leap now, because we've been here, waiting, for nigh on two decades and it feels like we should be farther along. It feels like we should have players at the biggest clubs in the world, that our national team should have a Chicharito and a Dos Santos of its own, that - no matter how exciting it was - a last minute goal against a middling African nation shouldn't be necessary to get us into the Round of 16 at the World Cup. Aspiration doesn't have a slow-motion setting. If progress isn't baldly obvious, always on the up with no dips, it's not good enough. 

But I can't get the problem of variables out of my head. There are too many to count, just as there are in any sport, but soccer's in particular are compounded by the nature of the sport in America and international soccer as a competition. American failure like we witnessed Saturday (and if you're of the mind to draw it out to the belief that the whole program is off-course, American failure in general) is equal parts creeping progression of our culture and the relative progression of the nations we face. This is the best Mexico has been in a very long time. El Tri has been underachieving for years, likely making the United States look better than they actually were during the initial years of a nascent rivalry. Now they have dynamic, young, attacking talent and the US looks like a nation that started taking the sport seriously twenty years ago facing a nation with a long history and bedrock-level cultural roots in the sport. 

I despise that notion that any fan base "deserves" to have their team win because they "care more" by virtue of greater numbers or because soccer is a part of national identity. But until soccer is fully integrated as a part of America's retinue of sports obsessions, our player pool will always suffer. We have a lot of kids playing the sport. We have a lot less sticking with it. 

My appreciation of the many variables should have an expiration date, I suppose. I don't excuse failure (Saturday's collapse is not excusable, even while I recognize that Mexico has some disgustingly magical things happening at the moment), I'm just admittedly unclear on which evidence is crucial, which is damning, and how much to hold the powers that be responsible for the limitations of a development process that is largely outside of their control. 

Still, this is undeniable: if the United States ever wants to win a World Cup, the country as a whole has to become home to better players. Ideally, it would be nice to organically grow a few here, send them off to the brightest lights of Europe, have them star in the Champions League and domestically, put them in a USA jersey at the first signs of maturity, and watch them lead our boys to glorious victory over Mexico and everyone else.

How do we make that happen? Is there a manual? What are reasonable expectations, and what are the fevered delusions of a fan base itching for proof positive that the United States is getting better as a soccer nation? 

Of course, the Gold Cup Final loss was another example of soccer "missing a chance" to make strides in America. It wasn't, but saying it makes for easy copy. 

Objective results, like Mexico 4-2 USA, look like clear indications that nothing is getting better. The lead-up to the final, with its narrow margins over CONCACAF's lesser lights, are damning indictments. Surely, those are signs that everyone is doing everything wrong and that the system needs an complete overhaul, top to bottom, Gulati and Bradley down to the guy who fills the water bottles in Bradenton. Never mind that it's a brief window of time, when Mexico is suddenly flush with exciting young talent that their long-established club academies have produced, that the United States is missing some of its better young players and with its most promising striker to come through in years marginalized by a freak car accident, and that even good teams go through difficult stretches. 

Pretend this is just Bob's fault, that - despite the things he's won and the places he took the team - he didn't maximize the players he had available. Imagine that Bradley, if he had just chosen to go more attacking or given Freddy Adu a shot a year ago when he was languishing on the bench in Portugal, or picked Jose Francisco Torres or Herculez Gomez, or a dozen other guys, that everything would have been much better. 

As for the big picture, never mind that. Forget that US Soccer has hired Claudio Reyna to improve coaching at the youngest levels and changed the academy rules to stress practice over games, or that MLS academies will improve the development options for kids not pulled into the USSF's programs. Just think about losing to Mexico, how bad the defense was, how there aren't any guys at all anywhere who might get better in the next three years and surprise us by making contributions to World Cup team in Brazil. 

Time for change. More change, I mean. Change we can believe in, like firing Bob Bradley, not change that might take some time to make a difference, like improving coaching guidelines and professional player development. Change that is easy. Change that is obvious.

Change for change's sake. 

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