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A way-too-early look at what’s next for the USMNT

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“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it. I don’t like it any more than you men,”

Captain, “Cool Hand Luke”

(It made us sick typing that headline, too).

So, about qualifying for that 2022 World Cup in Qatar…

It’s difficult to turn our attention beyond the short-term devastation and long-term problems that come from failing to qualify for a World Cup, especially in the forgiving world of CONCACAF qualifying.

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For one thing, it’s challenging not to wallow in the disappointment of what is likely a humiliating exclamation point placed on the glittering USMNT careers of Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, and Geoff Cameron.

The last two will play a bit longer and have some chance of playing a bit part in the next round of World Cup qualifying, but Dempsey and Howard are almost certainly on the verge of their testimonials.

Then there’s the batch of players who won’t get their first taste of the World Cup. Christian Pulisic won’t be able to showcase himself at the age of 19, building up some experience for his prime. Weston McKennie, DeAndre Yedlin (a second for him), Ethan Horvath, and Matt Miazga can’t garner time, either.

Which brings us to the what’s next. Bruce Arena has to be gone. He shouldn’t get another minute on the job. Yes, he’s a legend who managed the team to its longest World Cup run. He also essentially admitted there were better players he’d call in for the World Cup should he got there.

Even ignoring that he also coached one of its most embarrassing tournaments (World Cup 2006) in addition to this fiasco, he has to leave the gig. If you want to debate this for some reason, let’s not waste everyone else’s time. Email nicholas.mendola@nbcuni.com.

I hate that this picture of classy CB Matt Besler exists (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Here’s one thing to remember: A lot of desperate people are going to try to tell you everything is okay. It brings us to the lines so famously uttered by Strother Martin and sampled by Axl Rose in “Civil War.” It’s not good when power reaches a point where it dismisses failure as happenstance or bad luck when it so clearly is, well, failure and the product of design.

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati is a powerbroker and has had some terrific success guiding the American ship, but the worst thing American soccer can do right now is assume “it could be worse.”

Hardly! And, in fact, perhaps some of us should’ve said that when Arena was hired to replace Jurgen Klinsmann. We rely on the familiar far too often when it comes to American soccer.

I mean LISTEN to this guy, as if the side hasn’t been below its own standards and expectations for the majority of play since the end of the Copa America Centenario:

And we — myself included — are so antsy to celebrate Major League Soccer that we make huge excuses for it. Sure, MLS is improving other players in CONCACAF, but the league is also largely American. And it’s not about those Costa Rican, Jamaican, T&T, or even U.S. kids getting better, it’s more about accepting America’s best talents coming home to play in MLS rather than challenging themselves in much better leagues.

You can love MLS, love the USMNT, and accept that they both need each other to improve but also need to eschew the easy option. Maybe Michael Bradley and Alejandro Bedoya just naturally got a little worse when they came home because of natural career decline, or maybe it was about not playing against better competition. Matt Besler choosing to stay home at Sporting KC instead of trying his hand at Fulham or Sunderland was great for us as MLS fans, but did he reach his potential? Right now, it’s a bit too easy to say no (or yes).

If someone lives to the ripe age of 75, they maybe get 16-17 chances to be cognizant of their nation’s play in a World Cup. We’re set to miss one. RIP.

So, uh, back to the path forward.

They deserved better. Turned out to be lousy vacation usage(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Let Arena resign, hire a new coach… And let’s stop with the also-rans. If you need to be an America-first guy, go for Peter Vermes (Sporting KC) or Greg Vanney (Toronto FC). Talk to Tata Martino about leaving Atlanta United, and have a guy who understands MLS but also will work to get his players in great spots. Or find an alum to keep driving the technical bus. What’s Steve Cherundolo doing? Tab Ramos? Claudio Reyna? Yes, you may find a coach who does some things that bother you tactically, but at least you won’t be looking clueless in a must-win match at Trinidad and Tobago.

Build up to Brazil… While the United States is playing friendlies for the next two years, it needs to let its new coach and a bevy of new faces go through their international growing pains ahead of the 2019 Copa America in Brazil.

That team shouldn’t be about a bunch of wily vets trying to manufacture a positive result. It should be about seeing what Miazga, McKennie, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Cristian Roldan, Kenny Saief, and Sebastian Lletget can do against top international competition. With loads of love and respect to Besler, I don’t need to see him mark Neymar.

Get over yourself… The road to a World Cup should be a relative cakewalk for the United States given its talent, which regularly qualifies for major tournaments at the youth level. (And for goodness’ sake, can we please stop with the “CONCACAF is hard” lip service and walk around like a team that knows it’s going to work hard enough to maximize its talent and prevail?).

Well, that means recognizing that the U.S. Soccer Academy system has to be nurtured, and the right top-to-bottom focus should be implemented so the concept of an American team missing out on an Olympics or World Cup at any age level is a thing of the past.

Perhaps this is an argument for bringing in an outsider, someone who is going to say, “I’ve seen it all, and you’re not as good as you think you are.” Kid, try your hand on a bigger club. Veteran, here’s a role you might not like. Not on board? Cool, we’ll find someone else.

November 2019… Ugh. That’s a long way away, but shortly after the Copa America, the U.S. will begin World Cup qualifying again with a fourth round against a decent team, a below average team, and an poor team.

How many surefire guys do we know at this point? Here’s a preliminary look, with ages at that time in parentheses.

(Goalkeeper)

Yedlin (26) — Brooks (26) — (CB2) — (LB)

 Arriola (24) — McKennie (21) — (CM2) — Pulisic (21)

Wood (27) — Altidore (29)

That’s really not bad.

You’d say Miazga (24) is the front-runner at CB, Carter-Vickers (21) is in the mix too, and Cameron could still be in the fold for that spot or CM2. Bradley isn’t an improbable option there either, nor is Kellyn Acosta. Jordan Morris will hopefully have a claim toward Altidore’s spot, and Haji Wright is one to watch in Europe. Horvath and Bill Hamid are among the goalkeepers who could get looks.

Left back in America is a death spiral. Just assume teams will be ruining Hex matches and World Cup thoughts from that spot (you’ll notice the two goals versus T&T originated from room on that side).

By then the team should be teething several of Tyler Adams (CM), Josh Sargent (FW), Tim Weah (FW), Jonathan Lewis (FW), Matthew Olosunde (DF), and Jonathan Gonzalez (MF).

It doesn’t feel good right now, and it won’t for some time. The interconfederation playoffs are gonna sting, the World Cup draw is gonna be a throat punch, and the tournament itself will carry emotional paper cuts every time you see Alberth freaking Elis dribbling at a world class defense.

But stinging is good if it’s antiseptic. And U.S. Soccer better have some important people ready to flip the script.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

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Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

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The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

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No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

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For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

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It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

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The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

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Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE