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 Donovanâs contemporaries in their 30s. Their options have been limited by the national programâs struggles to develop anything resembling a next generation to supplant mainstays such as Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard.
The United Statesâ 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 menâs 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.
âI think there are a number of reasons weâre missing the best kids, but the fact is we are missing a lot of the best kids,â Donovan said. âAnd 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 itâs socioeconomic status, race, religion, proximity to a club. Our best, most talented kids should have the opportunity that everybody else has. Thereâs no easy answer to that. But itâs something that needs to be fixed.
âEverythingâs a lot easier when youâre on the outside looking in, but it is time â and maybe this is the only time it could have happened â to re-evaluate and reassess whatâs going on and make sure we are doing the right things and implementing the right things to make sure this doesnât happen again. Sometimes when these things happen, thatâs when you have the real impetus and chance for change.â
Another former professional player, Shaka Hislop, has a rare perspective on the menâs 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 Englandâs Premier League before returning to the United States to play in M.L.S.
âNinety-nine percent of Concacaf wish we had the type of infrastructure, support and resources that the U.S. have,â he said, referring to the other national teams in the United Statesâ qualifying group. âSo, yes, itâs absolutely surprising things seemed to have regressed at the highest end of the game. Iâve been saying this is the worst U.S. team Iâve seen in the last 20 years.â
With fingers pointing at anyone connected to the menâs national team, Sunil Gulati, the president of the sportâs 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 organizationâs various financial flourishes and its strong position to host the 2026 World Cup in tandem with Mexico and Canada. His critics point to the menâs teamâs modest levels of success under Klinsmann, and Arenaâs inability to save the World Cup campaign as Klinsmannâs replacement. On a broader level, they claim that Gulati hasnât done enough to make the top tiers of youth soccer more affordable, which affects the longstanding development issues.
âThe fan part of me says itâs time to move away from the past and get a new president,â said the former national team midfielder and current TV analyst Kyle Martino. âSunil has done great things for U.S. Soccer but recently is harming the program more than heâs helping it. And I think thatâs kind of natural in any position where someone remains unchallenged for so long and fresh ideas arenât invited and executed. Iâm not someone whoâs 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 â the lowest point in our soccerâs history â will not be taken lightly.
âIf weâre arguing Jurgen versus Bruce, weâre missing the point,â Martino added. âItâs not about that. Itâs a much bigger concern, which is why I think the change needs to start at the top, because itâs all the way down at the bottom where weâre failing, which is developing players that are capable of bringing the U.S. to the next level.â
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.
âThereâs real significant and immediate economic impact and thereâs 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.,â Donovan said.
âWhat we have to do now is realize that itâs 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.â