bruce arena

Bruce Arena was fired as coach of the U.S. soccer men's national team after its loss to Trinidad and Tobago, but Lake Central coach Jereme Rainwater said our country's problems in the sport run much deeper.

Bebeto Matthews, File, Associated Press

It's being called the darkest day in the history of the United States' men's soccer.

Wednesday's loss to Trinidad and Tobago, roughly the size of Delaware, helped seal the Americans' World Cup fate and coaches like Lake Central's Jereme Rainwater are still shaking their heads in dismay.

"There's no reason a country our size shouldn't qualify for the World Cup," Rainwater said. "It's going to have a negative effect. My 4-year-old son is going to be 10 before he has the opportunity to see the U.S. in a World Cup. A whole generation are missing out on supporting U.S. soccer. Kids are not cheering for the United States and we're losing more and more identity."

Coach Bruce Arena resigned in the aftermath, a starting point for Rainwater, but the problems run much deeper than that.

"The downfall, they're talking a lot on TV, they're not really hitting home on it," he said. "It starts at the grass roots level. I knew we have the athletes. We have to find a way to get those athletes involved in soccer and keep them involved. How do we tap into those kids?"

Rainwater is in tune with the sport at multiple levels. He has had a number of alums play professionally, including Eric Gehrig, now an assistant coach with the Chicago Fire. His own son, Cole, an L.C. junior, plays for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.

"Coaching high school, I get in a little bind at times, but I absolutely think training at that level of play has been beneficial to Cole," Rainwater said. "It's amazing to see what those coaches and players do. "

When Jurgen Klinsmann was the U.S. coach, he advanced the idea of the academies as a way of building the sport here, following a model used in Europe. The idea is good in theory and has produced results — the Chicago Fire Academy, Rainwater said, is completely funded — but a disconnect remains. The reality of it is, many of the kids who are able to afford elite training have rich parents. If mom and dad are struggling to pay the mortgage, soccer camp isn't a priority.

"If the parents are doctors or lawyers, the kids are probably going to be doctors or lawyers, not soccer players," he said. "We're reaching an impasse with the pay to play player. They're not getting the opportunities to get good training. Somehow, we have to create a system to feed the inner cities. You look at Brazil, those kids are fighting to get out of poverty and they're going to do whatever it takes to play at that level. How do we convince kids that it's the way out?"

The other glaring issue that Rainwater sees is infrastructure. He related the story of an Englishman wanting to play for Manchester United from the day he was born, hoping at 50 that every time the phone rings, he's getting a call to sign a contract. That happens in the U.S., but the dream isn't about soccer, it's about baseball, football or basketball.

"How did we learn to do a fade away jump shot when we were kids? We watched Michael Jordan, then went and did it 1,000 times in the driveway," Rainwater said. "In Europe, you see 5 v. 5 fields and kids playing pickup soccer, a lot like pickup basketball here. Kids can't go down to the corner and play soccer. How do we bridge that gap? We have to create that space for them to play so they can get them identified and get them into the system to get experience."

Short of that, the gulf between rec leagues and clubs continued to widen.

"I see the baseball facilities around (Lake Central), a travel team can go down and get rec league kids to play," Rainwater said. "Soccer can't do that. It has to grow so we can make a deeper push into rec leagues."

If the process sounds like it's not going to happen overnight, it's because it won't.

"We have to look back as a way to look forward," Rainwater said. "I love our country. I want to see us do well. I want every player I have to become better than me, to make the next generation better, and help cultivate the national team at some level."

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at james.peters@nwi.com

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Sports reporter

Jim was keeping standings on his chalkboard from the time he could print and keeping kickball stats in grade school at St. Bridget's. He covers all manner of prep sports for The Times and is a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan.