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Jim Curtin calls U.S. men's World Cup qualifying failure 'devastating'

CHESTER, Pa. — The Union play a game Sunday but head coach Jim Curtin knew he wouldn’t get many questions about that following Thursday’s practice.

And that’s not because the Union have already been eliminated from playoff contention when they hit the road to face the Chicago Fire (5 p.m./NBC Sports Philadelphia). It’s because all anyone can talk about this week is the historic U.S. national team loss to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday that caused the Americans to miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and send shockwaves throughout the entire country’s soccer community.

That certainly includes Curtin, who played in MLS for many years before getting his start in coaching, first at the youth level.

“It’s devastating,” the Union coach said. “It’s a devastating result for anyone that’s involved in soccer. If you just take the 90 minutes and the simultaneous 90 minutes going on in different countries and the chain of events that happened, for it to all fall apart before our eyes was incredible. It will be probably a 30 for 30 or some kind of documentary.”

While the surreal set of circumstances that included last-ditch, come-from-behind wins by Panama and Honduras to knock the USMNT out was painful in the moment, many soccer people have since used it as a way to take stock of the state of soccer in the United States.

How does a country as big as this one fail to beat tiny Trinidad and Tobago in a do-or-die game? How did the U.S. go 3-4-3 in the Hexagonal stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying when it had won the Hex the previous three times?

Curtin has heard all the takes, flying in from every direction, and has tried to figure it out himself.

“Is it grassroots? Not getting enough city kids involved in soccer? The academies letting us down? The coaches in our country letting us down? The player pool not being good enough? The fact that we haven’t qualified for the Olympics in two cycles? It’s a little bit of all of those things,” he said. “There’s no one answer. There’s no one person that’s right. It does prove we have to step back, evaluate things and get better for it.

“Listen, our country right now, we are the best at basketball, we are the best at American football, we are the best at baseball, we’re not the best at soccer. Sometimes maybe we feel like we’re taking big steps forward but the reality is it’s still newer in this country and we have to improve. We have to get better.”

MLS has certainly taken its share of criticism for the World Cup failure with some pointing the finger at USMNT stars like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard and even Union captain Alejandro Bedoya leaving the more cutthroat world of European soccer to play club soccer in their home country. Interestingly enough, MLS has also probably made the rest of CONCACAF better — a point that was driven home when the Seattle Sounders’ Roman Torres scored the game-winning goal for Panama shortly after the Houston Dynamo’s Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto both scored for Honduras.

But while Curtin acknowledged the fact that the league’s “amazing facilities” and other factors have boosted the Panamanian and Honduran programs, he also said the USMNT still “has the quality in our player pool” to beat those countries out for a World Cup spot. He is concerned, though, that the league often favors foreign-born players at the expense of American ones.

“Listen, I’m a believer that the domestic league has to be a resource in developing players,” Curtin said. “It really has to be. You look at different countries and the way they do it — some are successful in doing it, some are not so successful. And right now, there are big decisions that have to happen, with the league and U.S. soccer.

“I think it’s critical because you do see the direction our league is going and it probably wouldn’t be one that would favor the American player right now to be honest, with the different ways money’s coming into it. So it’s an important time. We still have very good young American players in our league that are getting better each and every day and developing. But you do want to see more of it.”

While admitting it might be better served as an “eight-hour discussion,” Curtin also touched on the pay-to-play model of youth soccer in this country. He recognized that it’s “big business” for people who make a living doing it but that it “does get in the way of what’s best for kids.” And he said he’s been in rooms where people involved in youth soccer simply don’t listen to each other because “everyone has to show they’re the smartest guy in the room.”

“We’re probably one of the few countries in the world where soccer is a privileged sport, and if people want to argue that, they’re crazy,” Curtin said. “It’s a privileged sport in this country across the board. Do I have the answer how to change that? I don’t have it right now. I wish I did. But there are enough resources, we have enough facilities in the United States of America to do a better job of getting the best kids involved, regardless of whether they’re rich kids, regardless of whether they’re middle class, regardless of whether they have nothing. 

“I think we’re out of excuses, to be honest. I can’t come up with one reason why we can’t be better.”

While Curtin does not have a direct connection to the USMNT, he knows that “if our national team fails, soccer is going to fail in this country.” And missing out on a once-every-four-years event like the World Cup hurts the growth of soccer and is a big blow for all of the kids — his three included — that will have to wait five years to watch the U.S. on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

But for the Union coach, there are still too many exciting things happening around the sport and MLS for him to be entirely discouraged.

“Honestly, I still see the game moving forward,” he said. “The coverage for the game, MLS is getting better despite people that will blame the league for the collapse. The game is growing in our country, that’s inevitable. It’s on TV more. Does this hurt? Absolutely. It hurts the growth any time there’s a setback like this, but there’s still good things happening.

“We got punched in the teeth and now we have to get up and recover.”