USMNT

Soccer in 2017 broke a lot of people

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Soccer in 2017 broke a lot of people

If you’re a soccer fan in this country, you might always feel like you’re rooting for two things at once: your favorite team and the growth of the sport in this country.

It may sound silly to some, thinking about the latter, but that’s the way it is. You’re constantly on the defensive, constantly reminded of the uphill battle that soccer faces against some of the country’s more established sports, constantly telling people that we’re climbing that hill, slowly but surely. 

And if you’re in Philly, you’re hoping that the Union can help the cause by attracting big-name players and developing promising young ones, gaining more relevancy in a crowded sports market, and competing for championships.

Even when there are bumps in the road, that’s what soccer people think about: building toward something cool, something special.

And then 2017 happened.

On Saturday, the Union were officially eliminated from playoff contention in perhaps the most frustrating season in the franchise’s eight-year history as questions abound as to where the club goes from here.

Three nights later, in a far more crushing and unexpected blow, the U.S. national team’s stunning loss in Trinidad and Tobago, coupled with come-from-behind wins by Panama and Honduras, left the Americans out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Let’s start with the U.S. national team because that, obviously, has far more wider significance. It’s hard to overstate how devastating it is to miss a World Cup — a rare event that brings casual soccer fans and even non-soccer fans to their TVs. Of course, many of those people only watch soccer every four years but there are certainly some who then decide to follow their local team or pay attention the USMNT at other tournaments. Not being able to use the momentum of a World Cup is a big setback to growing the fanbase and getting the sport more into the mainstream (if a defeat as crushing as the USMNT’s on Tuesday happened elsewhere, it might grind that country to a halt; here, it didn’t even register with a lot of people).

More to the point, not being able to cheer on the US at a remarkable event like the World Cup is just gut-wrenching for the soccer diehards out there. The World Cup is the reason I fell in love with soccer and, if you’re reading this, it’s probably the reason you did too. The fact that the US isn’t nearly at the same level as the best soccer countries from Europe and South America is certainly cause for alarm and change (and the subject of plenty of other columns today) but it also makes for a fun, anything-is-possible underdog vibe on the biggest stage in sports.

From watching in a summer camp cabin in ’94 to waking up in the middle of the night in ’02 to jumping on barstools in ’10, I can remember where I was and what I was doing for every World Cup — and for people of my generation, it almost became a given that the scrappy US team would be there. If there’s any bit of solace it’s finally realizing that CONCACAF qualifying shouldn’t be taken for granted and that building around a new crop of players led by 19-year-old Hershey sensation Christian Pulisic is vital. More than anything, though, it’s painful to think about waiting at least five years to cheer on Pulisic and the Americans at the world’s biggest sporting event.

And then there’s a different kind of pain in Philly. While the passion soccer people have for the USMNT won’t ever diminish (which on days like today, manifests as a passion to be held accountable and figure things out), there’s a creeping sense that apathy has set in with some sections of the Union fan base. 

The Union have had bad seasons before but this one almost feels different because, you can argue for the first time, it seems like they’re moving in the wrong direction. Consider: 2010 was the expansion season when everything was new and exciting (and, hey, a World Cup year with a soccer moment for the ages). In 2011, they made the playoffs. In 2012, John Hackworth took over for the embattled Peter Nowak in the middle of the year and unleashed some young players, before leading an overachieving group to the brink of the playoffs in 2013. In 2014, another new coach in Jim Curtin took over and led the Union to the first of two straight U.S. Open Cup finals, in front of home crowds that shook with noise, and then pushed them back into the playoffs (albeit on a winless streak) in 2016.

But what did 2017 bring us? No playoffs. No Open Cup runs. No big changes. Uninspired play for much of the season, especially on the road. Alarming regression or lack of playing time from young players. No real nucleus to build around. Nothing, really, to inspire confidence heading into 2018 other than the hope that ownership opens up the wallet more, the youth academy continues to improve, and sporting director Earnie Stewart does a better job of finding talent around the world with the resources he has to work with.

The sad part is the Union may have had a fighting chance to break through a couple years back when Curtin, a big Philly guy, took over while the rest of the city’s teams struggled. Now, the other Philly teams are on the rise with marquee young superstars to build around while the Union remain on the periphery of a stubborn four-sports town without a true face of the franchise. (In perhaps the funniest little comparison, the Union’s best young player this season, rookie Jack Elliott, quickly become overshadowed by Eagles rookie Jake Elliott kicking a 61-yard game-winning field goal.) 

Perhaps that’s where the Union are destined to remain — on the periphery. Perhaps that’s where soccer as a sport and MLS as a league are destined to remain, too. Soccer players and coaches love to talk about the building process, and we love to believe them because the possibilities are endless. A Union-operated high school that chooses from the best teenagers in the region and nurtures them along so they can one day win a championship at Talen Energy Stadium? A huge, sports-obsessed country like the United States finding a way to develop enough stars to make them household names and potentially even win a World Cup?
It’s all so tantalizing, so exciting, so fun to think about it. But in a year and a week like this one, it feels like nothing more than a pipe dream.

Hershey's own Christian Pulisic is 'opening a lot of eyes toward American soccer'

Hershey's own Christian Pulisic is 'opening a lot of eyes toward American soccer'

A couple of days ago, a soccer thing went viral for all the wrong reasons as a Chicago-based reporter asked the MLS' newest high-profile star Bastian Schweinsteiger -- twice -- if he could win a World Cup with the Fire.

What followed was a minute of pure awkwardness as Schweinsteiger, who won the 2014 World Cup with Germany, had no idea how to respond, given that the World Cup is an international competition reserved for, um, countries.

The most generous explanation is the reporter, who doesn't usually cover sports, meant the FIFA Club World Cup (which no MLS team has ever come close to winning, or publically aspire toward). The more likely one is that he doesn't know much about soccer but had heard that "World Cup" term thrown around every four years when more of the country pays attention to the sport.

Which, in a weird way, brings us to Christian Pulisic.

The youngest player on the U.S. national team just got done helping the Americans regain their footing in actual World Cup qualifying by completely shredding Honduras in a breakout game for the ages last Friday. Just watch the highlights:

And, if you haven't seen it yet, check out his marvelous assist vs. Panama from Tuesday: 

At this point, we should remind everyone that he's an 18-year-old kid from Hershey, Pa.

My co-podcaster Kevin Kinkead wrote an excellent piece on the ever-growing hype surrounding Pulisic after chatting with Union head coach Jim Curtin, who sort of poo-pooed the comparisons between another former wunderkind in Freddy Adu (who, let's just say, didn’t really develop like everyone hoped).

But making comparisons are only natural, of course, and many have thrown Pulisic in the same boat as Landon Donovan, who also got an early start to his career and (perhaps until now) is probably the best soccer player this country has ever produced.

After practice Thursday, I decided to get the perspective of Union center back Oguchi Onyewu, who came up through the national team ranks with Donovan. He smiled when Pulisic's name came up.

"People compare," Onyewu told me. "Just like people compared Landon to everyone else. I'm not gonna do that to Christian and put pressure on him. I don’t think he needs to have that pressure. I think he’s playing well enough in his own skin not to be compared to anyone else.

"I think if he continues what he's doing -- and I'm confident that he will -- pretty soon people will be comparing others to him. I think he's done a great job and I want him to continue. He's making everyone proud and opening a lot of eyes toward American soccer."

The last part struck me the most. Without being asked, Gooch mentioned that more eyes are being opened to American soccer -- this from a person who, along with Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley and others from that generation, is responsible for opening a whole lot of eyes himself. But it's clear, from the Schweinsteiger press conference and other cringeworthy-moments of that ilk, that there's still a long way to go to improve the sport's visibility. And it's also clear that Pulisic is making the casual sports fan pay attention and get even more excited about soccer.

And hey, who knows, maybe one day the kid from Hershey can even help the Americans win a World Cup -- if they can only get past the Chicago Fire.

(Sorry.)

Chris Pontius, Keegan Rosenberry ready to make an impression at USMNT camp

Chris Pontius, Keegan Rosenberry ready to make an impression at USMNT camp

Seven years ago, Chris Pontius and Alejandro Bedoya were young players sharing a room together during their first U.S. national team camp.

Since then, Bedoya has become a mainstay on the USMNT, while Pontius fell off the national team radar as he dealt with a rash of injuries.

But in a couple of days, both players will depart for another U.S. national team January camp together, along with their Union teammate Keegan Rosenberry, who got his first call-up.

“It’s awesome,” said Bedoya, who’s made 55 appearances for the USMNT and was a starter at the 2014 World Cup. “I think it’s great for the club. I’m very happy for Chris Pontius to get the call-up because I remember playing with him at my first January camp. Through all this time, he suffered through injuries and mishaps, so to see him fight through all that and have such a great season last year and get a call-up is well deserved and a great achievement for him. 

“And with Keegan, to see a rookie play every minute, I’m very happy for him. He has great potential. … Three [Union] players representing the U.S. national team is something to be proud of and I’m looking forward to playing with them.”

Considering that Rosenberry was the MLS Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2016 while Pontius scored 12 goals in his first season in Philly, it’s not a huge surprise both got the call from U.S. head coach Bruce Arena, especially because the January camp is traditionally a time to look at new MLS players (since the USMNT players who play overseas are in the middle of their seasons).

But both are looking for a lot more than just exposure and are hoping to impress Arena (who none of them know particularly well) and use the camp as a springboard to earn their first-ever appearances in a USMNT game.

The U.S. plays Serbia in a friendly Jan. 29 and Jamaica five days later, before World Cup qualifying resumes in March in the first games since Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced by Arena.

“It’s still a lot of hard work,” Pontius said. “It’s not a guarantee just getting called into the camp. There’s a lot of hard work ahead, and I’ve got to play well to prove myself.”

If anyone knows that nothing is guaranteed it's Pontius, who last got a U.S. call-up in 2012, but couldn’t go because of an injury. That’s been something of a theme for the 29-year-old winger, who looked to be one of the best American prospects in 2012 before injuries slowed his career progression.

But now that he’s healthy and enjoyed a breakout season in Philly in 2016, he feels more ready than ever to show what he can do at the international level.

“I’m less nervous, certainly,” he said. “I was very, very nervous in those first few camps and I think I’m a more confident player and more confident in my capabilities and know how to go about these camps in a different way. I think that just comes with eight-plus years of playing now as a pro. Learn your body, learn how to deal with these camps. It’s kind of like going into preseason. Like a rookie, it’s like going into camp and trying to impress.”

Rosenberry certainly knows what it’s like to impress as a rookie, locking down Philly’s right back spot after a strong preseason and leading MLS in minutes played in his first season. But going into this camp, which opens Tuesday in Carson, California and features 32 MLS players, he’s trying his best to act more like a seasoned veteran than a wide-eyed rookie — even if that means not asking too many questions to Bedoya and Pontius.

“I think when I get out there, I’ll talk to those guys a little bit,” Rosenberry said. “You don’t want to seem like too much of a young guy. You don’t want to show your ignorance, if you will. You try and play it cool as best you can until you get out there. I’m looking forward to seeing those guys.”

For what it’s worth, Pontius doesn’t think he needs much guidance.

“He doesn’t act like a rookie,” Pontius said. “He doesn’t approach things like a rookie. He’s a pretty bright kid, and if he has any questions, I’m there for him. But I’m sure Keegan will perform well.”

Still, for all three Union players, it’s fair to say that going with a couple of teammates should only make a great experience even better.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” Rosenberry said. “Having a couple of teammates out there just means the world.” 

“I was ecstatic to get called back in,” Pontius added. “If anyone isn’t striving to be on the national team, then I think there’s something wrong with that. As an American player, that’s the ultimate prize for us.”