Now 35 and still close to the game since his second retirement from Major League Soccer last fall, Donovan has watched intently as both Klinsmann and his replacement, Bruce Arena, have continued to rely on so many of Donovan’s contemporaries in their 30s. Their options have been limited by the national program’s struggles to develop anything resembling a next generation to supplant mainstays such as Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard.
The United States’ failure to qualify for the 2012 or 2016 Olympics harshly illustrates the lack of emerging talent ready to move into prominent roles. This was not supposed to be the case. An increasingly sturdy domestic league, M.L.S., now in its 23rd season, was expected to gradually fortify the United States men’s player pool.
But on Tuesday night, in the most important World Cup qualifier for the United States in decades, Arena started only three players under the age of 25: Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin. Wood and Yedlin are both 24; Pulisic, of course, is the 19-year-old wunderkind who moved to Germany as a 16-year-old to join perennial Bundesliga power Borussia Dortmund and ensure that his development would take place in a soccer incubator of unquestioned and elevated reliability.
Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
“I think there are a number of reasons we’re missing the best kids, but the fact is we are missing a lot of the best kids,” Donovan said. “And that should not be the situation in a country of this size, with the resources we have, where kids are getting passed over for any reason, whether it’s socioeconomic status, race, religion, proximity to a club. Our best, most talented kids should have the opportunity that everybody else has. There’s no easy answer to that. But it’s something that needs to be fixed.
“Everything’s a lot easier when you’re on the outside looking in, but it is time — and maybe this is the only time it could have happened — to re-evaluate and reassess what’s going on and make sure we are doing the right things and implementing the right things to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Sometimes when these things happen, that’s when you have the real impetus and chance for change.”
Another former professional player, Shaka Hislop, has a rare perspective on the men’s soccer calamity in the United States. He was born in Trinidad, played nationally for Trinidad and Tobago, went to college in the United States and was a goalkeeper for several teams in England’s Premier League before returning to the United States to play in M.L.S.
“Ninety-nine percent of Concacaf wish we had the type of infrastructure, support and resources that the U.S. have,” he said, referring to the other national teams in the United States’ qualifying group. “So, yes, it’s absolutely surprising things seemed to have regressed at the highest end of the game. I’ve been saying this is the worst U.S. team I’ve seen in the last 20 years.”
With fingers pointing at anyone connected to the men’s national team, Sunil Gulati, the president of the sport’s national federation, is under pressure now. He has been in charge of U.S. Soccer since 2006 and, barring a resignation, will be seeking a fourth term as federation president in February.
Dismay with Gulati has been mounting for years, despite his organization’s various financial flourishes and its strong position to host the 2026 World Cup in tandem with Mexico and Canada. His critics point to the men’s team’s modest levels of success under Klinsmann, and Arena’s inability to save the World Cup campaign as Klinsmann’s replacement. On a broader level, they claim that Gulati hasn’t done enough to make the top tiers of youth soccer more affordable, which affects the longstanding development issues.
“The fan part of me says it’s time to move away from the past and get a new president,” said the former national team midfielder and current TV analyst Kyle Martino. “Sunil has done great things for U.S. Soccer but recently is harming the program more than he’s helping it. And I think that’s kind of natural in any position where someone remains unchallenged for so long and fresh ideas aren’t invited and executed. I’m not someone who’s advocating for a clean sweep, because I think there are many good parts of U.S. Soccer. But at the very top, I think the message to our fans needs to be that mediocrity like this — the lowest point in our soccer’s history — will not be taken lightly.
“If we’re arguing Jurgen versus Bruce, we’re missing the point,” Martino added. “It’s not about that. It’s a much bigger concern, which is why I think the change needs to start at the top, because it’s all the way down at the bottom where we’re failing, which is developing players that are capable of bringing the U.S. to the next level.”
Optimists are pointing out that France failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup before winning the 1998 World Cup as the host country. Such a turnaround is unimaginable for most American fans.
“There’s real significant and immediate economic impact and there’s long-term unquantifiable impact as far as kids that may have watched the World Cup next summer who will now lose that opportunity to be inspired by the U.S.,” Donovan said.
“What we have to do now is realize that it’s over and, instead of finger-pointing and name-calling and the blame game, we need people in leadership positions to sit down and re-evaluate things and ask ourselves how do we prevent this from happening again.”