The U.S. talent was high enough to easily qualify for the World Cup.
Ever since 2002 when the U.S. National Team reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup, the overall talent of American players has been improving. Many of the former players insist that the talent hasn’t improved, but there appears to be a clear bias there. This bias can be shown quite briefly. First of all, Clint Dempsey, the best U.S. National Team player of all-time, didn’t start playing for the U.S. until 2005. Second, Michael Bradley who played in the Bundesliga and Serie A started playing for the U.S. in 2007. The current crop of U.S. players display better overall touch and technical skill than American players in the past.
Christian Pulisic is already the best player the U.S. has ever produced.
While Dempsey is the actual best U.S. player ever, Pulisic is a more talented player, or at least he’s much faster than Dempsey. Dempsey is very creative, aggressive, and technical, but Pulisic has an extra gear of speed that makes him more dangerous. Pulisic has been starting for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga and the Champions League, and no other American before him was playing an attacking role for a team of that level. Even watching Pulisic briefly, an observer can see a player capable of beating top defenders 1v1 off the dribble, and he can score and provide assists. Neither Dempsey nor Donovan could blow past defenders of an elite level almost at will.
The major changes needed to the USSF had nothing to do with the U.S. not qualifying.
No matter what the problems are with American soccer at a systemic level, the players and team were more than capable of easily qualifying for the World Cup out of a weak region like CONCACAF. The U.S. lost to a B Team from Trinidad and Tobago with a fourth string goalkeeper. Given this reality, it’s hard to argue that the deep-seated problems with U.S. soccer stopped the most talented group of U.S. players ever from qualifying. The serious problems within American soccer have stopped the U.S. from regularly going far in the World Cup, but they didn’t stop the country from qualifying for the tournament.
Bruce Arena made tactical mistakes, and the players didn’t play with enough urgency.
The coach of the U.S. got his tactics right in the final two games of qualifying, save starting Omar Gonzalez, but in the two previous games he didn’t start a central playmaker. In the final two games, Arena used a 4-1-3-2 formation with just Michael Bradley as the defensive midfielder, and he wisely started Pulisic at playmaker again. Nevertheless, the rest of the team’s effort let Arena down. The passing was lazy and appalling. Arena did make the mistake of favoring his former club player Omar Gonzalez at center back in recent games, and Gonzalez wasn’t agile enough on multiple occasions. On two occasions, Gonzalez tripped players in the penalty box, but only one of them was whistled. Nevertheless, Gonzalez didn’t cost the U.S. the World Cup. The U.S. should have pounded the weak CONCACAF competition.
Current long-term problems within American soccer don’t mean there hasn’t been plenty of progress in the overall quality of American soccer.
Even arguing that American soccer hasn’t improved over time is a ridiculous argument. American players display more technical ability against better competition than in years past, and the U.S. has multiple teenagers starting in the Bundesliga and Liga MX. Just because the U.S. dogged it against Trinidad and Tobago doesn’t mean that American soccer is spiraling into a nose dive.