Sasho Cirovski watched every painful minute of the U.S. men’s national soccer team’s 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night, and he stayed up late to watch commentators on television bark over the fallout. By Wednesday morning, the coach of Maryland’s powerhouse college program was still struggling to process the fact that the United States will not be represented in the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
“A major punch to the gut. Just a complete emptiness, filled with disappointment and disgust. The first half was just hard to watch. The casualness, the complacency, the lack of competitiveness was just really surprising and worrisome,” Cirovski said. “And then, obviously, all of the other dominoes that could fall against us started to fall. It was tough to fathom.”
The shock waves of the most embarrassing loss in U.S. soccer history were felt among lower-level programs around the Washington area. The consensus among several coaches, however, was that it won’t have an immediate impact on participation or enthusiasm for the sport in the country, especially at the youth level.
“It won’t affect participation. The numbers we have playing are massive, and tons of them probably won’t even know about last night’s game,” said Chris Jennings, head coach at O’Connell High in Arlington and assistant director of the Braddock Road Youth Club boys elite academy, a travel soccer program in Northern Virginia. “It wasn’t even on a channel that is accessible to most people.”
“In the past, we’ve seen a slight uptick in kids trying out and coming to our camps. After the World Cup, a lot of casual fans will get more involved,” said Jonathon Colton, the director of coaching at Bethesda Soccer Club. “But in an area as diverse as Washington, D.C., we’re a little insulated. I think areas in the country that maybe aren’t as diverse and have football or baseball as their main sports, I think you’ll see an impact there.”
The number of players registered with American youth organizations has remained steady at roughly 4 million for the last 10 years, according to Kevin Payne, chief executive of U.S. Club Soccer. The challenge is to find quality coaching for so many teams.
“This won’t affect our participation numbers, but we should use this in a positive way to get better,” Payne said. “We need to ramp up the training for a much larger number of coaches so that every kid is getting high level coaching, not just a select few. It’s pretty hard to watch all those games and not see that our players are lacking tactical awareness and technical proficiency. The federation has a lot of money, and it needs to start to deploy that money to create a far broader focus of educating coaches.”
One coach said that because matches in the top European professional leagues have become widely available on American television in recent years, soccer-crazy kids do not necessarily need to follow the national team to find players to look up to.
“If you ask a kid who their favorite team is, they’re going to say a European club,” said Nick Papadis, a coach with at D.C. Stoddert Soccer, a nonprofit youth club with more than 6,000 players.
“Last night I was out at a practice and saw three kids in Chelsea jerseys and a couple kids in Barcelona jerseys. There was a 6-year-old who could tell me everything about Liverpool. But if you ask these kids who are some of the lesser players on the national team beyond a [Michael] Bradley or [Christian] Pulisic, they have no clue.”
While Cirovski said that Tuesday night’s loss will not have an immediate impact on his program, he expects plenty of conversations to take place about systemic changes in the months ahead. “College soccer is culpable as a part of this failure,” he said.
The college season is too condensed and needs to be played over two semesters to grow the game, he said, and he will continue to champion that cause to help develop and produce players who can help the national team.
“We should never come to this point in this country,” Cirovski said. “We should be qualifying, and it doing it in more dominating fashion.”