A humbling defeat at the hands of a nation a small fraction of your size. A manager briskly fired, hastily replaced on a messy temporary basis by pretty much the only guy anyone could think of at the time. Question marks that linger not just about whether the team is good enough, but whether the players themselves care enough about representing their country.
These are difficult days for what, in Britain, is still rather hopefully called the special relationship with the United States. Donald Trump called nine international leaders before getting in touch with Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, and then reportedly told her she should let him know if she happens to be in America any time soon.
At the moment, it would seem, Trump’s primary diplomatic overtures toward the United States’s most steadfast ally are being conducted through Nigel Farage, who, in his last attempt to win a place in Parliament, won roughly as many votes as a comedian pretending to be a pub landlord. Trump and Farage are mainly discussing wind farms, and their untoward effects on golf courses.
It has been reassuring, then, to find that as crisis has engulfed soccer on both sides of the Atlantic in recent months, there remains some common ground between the two nations.
For the humiliation experienced by the United States national team in Costa Rica last week, see what happened to England against Iceland back in June. For the subsequent dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann, see Roy Hodgson’s slow, painful quartering in the hours that followed that earlier defeat.
As an analogy for the appointment of Bruce Arena, take your pick: either Hodgson’s immediate replacement, Sam Allardyce, a preacher of the same back-to-basics gospel but with rather fewer trophies to show for it; or Gareth Southgate, taking the reins somewhat unwillingly after a newspaper sting limited Allardyce’s reign to just one game.
Southgate, like Arena, was described as an “interim” appointment, expected to steady the ship while others worked out exactly what they were supposed to be doing.
His trial period has just come to an end. He had his interview this week. He was, as far as anyone knows, the only candidate for the full-time job. Arena, after a similarly less-than-exhaustive search, at least knows he will have the job through the 2018 World Cup — or until it’s taken away.
In the meantime, officials and supporters in the United States can indulge in one of the great guilty pleasures of international soccer: a good, solid five months of soul-searching, hand-wringing and garment-rending. If things go well, someone might even call for a root-and-branch review.
Questions will be asked, questions that have become so wearily familiar in most European countries in recent years that it is pretty easy to guess what they will be.
Do our players care enough? In the United States, this may focus on where players were born, striking at complex issues of identity and self-identification. In England, it has tended to focus, at least recently, on whether Wayne Rooney should have gate-crashed a wedding at a suburban hotel, and why two of his international teammates went to an exotic-dancing club 200 miles away in Bournemouth on their night off.
Are we producing the right sort of players? In the United States, this will examine the surfeit of athletic, industrious midfielders and defenders, and the absence — Christian Pulisic aside — of creative, imaginative prospects. In England, it focuses solely on whether John Stones should be allowed to pass the ball out from the back (to which the answer is yes, but not always).
This will, of course, lead to the big one: What is our identity? If Spain stands for rapid, incisive passing, Italy for tactical sense and wily experience, the Netherlands for infighting and disappointment, and Germany for intensity and success, what do we want to be?
In England, the answer is yet to appear, though as the writer Barney Ronay has put it, maybe that is the point: England’s identity is that it is always searching for its identity. Perhaps Sunil Gulati, U.S. Soccer’s president, and his organization will have rather better luck.
As they contemplate those issues, though, it is worth pausing to consider exactly how serious the plight of the United States is at this point (in terms of soccer, rather than anything else). Because, in context, perhaps things are not so bad after all.