What happens if the U.S. misses World Cup qualification
On Friday night in Orlando, Florida, the United States men's national team will take on Panama in a crucial World Cup qualifier (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN). Four days later, the Americans meet Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain to close out the Hexagonal round. Two victories will be enough to see the red, white and blue qualify for next summer's main event in Russia.
Bruce Arena's team remains the betting favorite to get there.
But what if the unthinkable occurs? What would happen if the U.S. misses out on the World Cup for the first time since 1990? While anyone who cares about the squad surely hopes they don't fail to make the competition, it's worth considering the alternative.
With that in mind, here's a look at a one possible future.
The American soccer internet would lose its damn mind
If you thought the uproar after the U.S. fell to Mexico and Costa Rica last November was overwhelming, just wait until they stumble against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. And understandably so: Failing to qualify from the easiest region in the world would be an embarrassment and a disaster for the American program, one that calls for reflective and calm thinking about what went wrong and how to fix the issues.
Luckily, American supporters are known for their reasoned and composed reactions...
Who wants a head-coaching gig?
Bruce Arena isn't sticking around for the 2022 cycle. The timing of his departure isn't set, but the identity of the next coach will be the biggest single decision for the United States Soccer Federation president, whoever that might be.
Could Under-20 coach and youth technical director Tab Ramos be ready? What about Major League Soccer veterans Oscar Pareja or Peter Vermes? Or a big name from abroad? The good news is that the USSF would, within reason, have its pick of candidates. Despite the immediate turmoil, the job of U.S. head coach remains one of the best in the sport.
Whoever is picked will have job security, ample compensation, a wealth of young talent to help mold and a mandate to make changes as he sees fit. It won't be an easy gig, but it's a good one.
For the first time in four elections, USSF president Sunil Gulati will have a challenger for the position. (That's assuming Gulati tries for a fourth term. He hasn't announced that he will, although there's no reason to think he won't.)
Boston attorney Steve Gans plans to run against the most powerful American in world soccer in the February election. He's a long shot to win, due to Gulati's success, longevity and consolidation of power, but the men's team coming up short of the World Cup would help Gans' case.
The election takes place in February, which will provide some distance from the disappointment and gives Gulati a few months to show why he should continue in the position. If the U.S. doesn't have a new coach by the election, the first priority following it will be to find one.
Because what else is there to do? It's not like the U.S. needs to prepare for the World Cup. The January camp (if there is one) should focus on young MLS talent such as Cristian Roldan, Jackson Yueill, Tyler Adams, Kelyn Rowe, Justen Glad, Marky Delgado, Tommy Redding and others. Bring in Jonathan Gonzalez, Weston McKennie, Matt Miazga, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Josh Sargent, Erik Palmer-Brown and the rest of the young crew playing abroad early and often.
Don't give up on the core group that made up the spine of the team this cycle, but 2018 and 2019 represent a chance to get much younger, quickly. The U.S. coach won't ever get the same opportunity. Which leads into...
Prioritize upcoming youth tournaments
The 2017 U-17 World Cup (starting Friday). The 2019 U-17 and U-20 World Cup. The 2020 Olympics. While none of these have the cachet of the biggest sporting event on the planet, they all represent opportunities for the next generation of Americans to stake a claim as the best generation yet. Get to the quarterfinals, at least, and start winning knockout-round games. (Did you know the U.S. U-17 team hasn't won a World Cup knockout game since 1999?)
It's not out of the question that the Americans could get a couple of good bounces and win one of these things in the near future.
Win the World Cup 2026
Hosting duties, that is. (Winning the 2026 tournament would be great too, of course.) The U.S.-Mexico-Canada proposal remains the strongest bid and should be able to beat out Morocco, while the failure to reach Russia isn't an impediment.
"I don't think not qualifying gets in the way of getting the World Cup in 2026," said Dan Jones, the lead partner of the Sports Business Group at consulting firm Deloitte. "It wouldn't be a barrier at all to hosting the World Cup. It wouldn't be on anyone's radar at all."
The bidding process, which was fast-tracked in May, could end as early as June 13 next year, when the 68th FIFA Congress votes whether to award the tournament to the North American or Moroccan bid or open up the process again. The vote comes a day before the start of the World Cup. Winning wouldn't eliminate the pain of missing the tournament, but it would provide a salve.
It wouldn't be the end of the world
If the Americans don't make it to Russia, soccer in the U.S. isn't going anywhere. Talent will continue to develop. MLS will improve slowly. Christian Pulisic will still be playing for Borussia Dortmund. It would be bad, but the sky won't fall and the program won't collapse.
Maybe the biggest takeaway is that this is the first World Cup of the modern era that wouldn't be a complete and utter disaster for the U.S. to miss, because it will force the powers that be to usher in a new generation of talent.
But also: Just qualify.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.