"Would it be good, in the long term, for the US to miss the 2018 World Cup?" is a question that – to my astonishment – has gained a certain amount of traction on social media in the days following a pair of disappointingly-played qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras.
It is a dumb question because it has such an easy answer: No. No, of course it would not be good for the US to miss the World Cup. It would be borderline catastrophic to the growth of and interest in the sport in this country, it would be an embarrassment for the men's national team, and it wouldn't fix any of the problems that persist with the sport we love in this country().
()Ask our Canadian friends how much it "helps" to miss out on the World Cup, you ninnies.
The genesis of this spasm of nihilistic ideation is that by missing next summer's big dance in Russia, US Soccer would be better able to confront the problems at all levels that are holding the USMNT back, and as a result we'd see the Yanks turn into a superteam that would regularly contend for, presumably, the World Cup title. Or at least make regular runs to the semifinals. Failure ipso facto begets greater future success.
All of that is built upon a faulty assumption and a counterfactual.
The faulty assumption: Somehow it's easy to go from a team that consistently makes the knockout rounds of the the World Cup to a team that competes semi-regularly as one of the 10 best in the world. In the modern history of the game, only the Netherlands has really made that jump and stuck the landing across more than a single generation.
The counterfactual: That the USMNT has not grown in quality over the past 30 years. As someone who can remember the 1980s and the 1990s, this astounds me. Here is the journey of the USMNT since then:
In the 1980s, the US were a true minnow. They were eliminated in the semifinals of the 1982 and 1986 World Cup qualifying cycles and won no regional tournaments. The whole futile exercise was redeemed, finally, by Paul Caligiuri's still-the-most-important-goal-in-US-soccer-history in 1989.
That goal, by the way, helped the US make the World Cup, not miss it.
In the 1990s, the US rose to the level of "can consistently make the World Cup." We all remember 1994 fondly, and the 1995 run to the Copa America semifinals. But the US still finished last or next-to-last in two of their three World Cup appearances, and mostly got housed by Mexico (who won three of the first four Gold Cups) in regional play.
Then, in 1999, there was a ray of hope as a bunch of mostly US B-teamers went down to Mexico for the 1999 Confederations Cup and finished in third place, beating Germany 2-0 along the way. Things started looking up.
In the 2000s, the US became a team that could be a threat to anyone on the day. They made it to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup and lost in the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup. They dominated the 2006 and 2010 Hexagonals, winning both. They won three out of six Gold Cups (Mexico won two, and Canada (!!!) won one).
There were still disappointments in the middle of the decade. The 2006 World Cup was a gut-punch (despite being the only team to take points off of Italy, which shows how much the US underachieved that summer), and the 2007 Copa America was, with a B-team, an opportunity wasted.
But just as the 1990s were better than the 1980s, so too were the 2000s better than the 1990s.
In the 2010s thus far, the US have become a team that always gets out of its group. They did so in dramatic fashion in 2010, and in less dramatic fashion in 2014. Then they exited in excruciating fashion both times, which leads to understandable disappointment. Still, the US are now staring at a quarter-century of consistent improvement that leaves them in pretty good company:
The US also won a third straight Hexagonal in 2013, made it to the semifinals of the 2016 Copa America, and have won two of four Gold Cups (Mexico took the other two).
While this has been happening at the senior level, US U-20 team has pulled itself out of an eight-year funk. They've now made it to the World Cup quarterfinals twice in a row, and already there are players from both cohorts – Christian Pulisic, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, hopefully Matt Miazga and Weston McKennie soon enough – playing crucial roles for the US.
But suddenly, because the US have struggled and been uninspiring during this Hexagonal, there is a loud contingent of folks on social media who think it would be best for this team to fail to make it to Russia. Because somehow it would be better for the US as a whole if there was no surge of interest around the program, creating a new generation of fans and a new generation of youth players; because somehow it would be better for the US as a whole if the past decade's investment in youth development (four of the five guys mentioned in the previous paragraph come from MLS academies, and Pulisic's is a MLS-affiliated academy) didn't start to show tangible results on the world stage; because somehow it would be better for the US as a whole if Pulisic and Acosta and Bobby Wood etc. etc. were denied a chance to test themselves under the brightest spotlight the sport can offer.
We know there are structural inefficiencies in US soccer that making the World Cup and doing well won't automatically fix. There need to be more free-to-play academies, and better talent ID in underserved communities, and better Latino outreach and inner-city outreach and rural outreach, and (especially) better coaching at the youth level. Again: Making the World Cup doesn't fix all of that, but over the last 20 years it sure as hell has seemed to help at least a bit.
We also know that improvement tends to be incremental and non-linear. That's not just soccer, that's life.
What would missing the World Cup do? How would it help in any of the above areas? I've yet to see someone make a coherent argument, one that doesn't involve some warlock waving a magic wand and the US – poof – having the equivalent of Brazil or Spain or Germany's youth development structure.
And even if that was the case... we get to watch Pulisic for maaaaybe four World Cups, if we're lucky. Are you willing to punt on one of them for a theory? Do you so desperately need to be right on Twitter?
"In need of improvement" is not the same as "irreparably broken," and if the US system was irreparably broken, we wouldn't have had the last 30 years. There wouldn't be wins over Argentina and Germany and Portugal and Spain. There wouldn't be teenagers like Pulisic and McKennie, like Tyler Adams and Jonathan Gonzalez. There wouldn't be knockout round appearances at three of the last four and four of the last six World Cups, or semifinal appearances in the Copa America, or titles in the Gold Cup. There wouldn't be the first ever CONCACAF U-20 title this past spring.
"Would it be good, in the long term, for the US to miss the 2018 World Cup?"
No. It wouldn't. There's no need to even ask the question.