When the 2018 World Cup begins Thursday in Russia, University of Virginia men’s soccer coach George Gelnovatch admits it will be a little strange not being able to cheer on the United States.
In October, the U.S. – with former UVA coaching legend Bruce Arena at the helm – failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in more than 30 years after a loss to Trinidad and Tobago. Arena had been called on to rescue the squad after losses to Mexico and Costa Rica had the U.S. in last place in its qualifying pool.
It was too little, too late.
However, Gelnovatch believes the U.S. failing to qualify could be a blessing in disguise – especially as the U.S. prepares to co-host the 2026 World Cup alongside Mexico and Canada, as was announced Wednesday.
In this interview with UVA Today, Gelnovatch – who played and coached under Arena at UVA – explains why.
Q. What were your thoughts on the U.S. failing to qualify – and did you think Bruce Arena was dealt a rough hand in being asked to take over when he did?
A. I don’t think it was easy. My personal feeling is that if he had been in charge from the start, we would have qualified. However, I think he would even tell you, he didn’t get the job done in the end. Coming in at the time he did, he was already two strikes against the wind, but I think he would tell you we still should have qualified.
It was just a tough situation, but I happen to think it could be the best thing to happen to us in a long time.
Q. Why do you think that?
A. Seeing what U.S. Soccer has decided to do. … I had been worried, somewhat skeptical about “same old, same old” in how we would approach it. But they treated these [recent] friendly matches great and have done a great job with bringing young players along.
Two who have really impressed me have been Tyler Adams and Weston McKinney. Weston McKinney was supposed to come here [to UVA] but at the last second, in June of his senior year, decided to [go pro]. He’s one of the young players, who, in my opinion, is going to be a star at the international level for us. And there are others. You can already see a different type of player, maybe more soccer-savvy, soccer-intelligent.
U.S. Soccer has revamped how they’re doing things. The national team is going to have a general manager who is going to oversee the head coach and be in charge of player acquisition, player development, who we hire as coach – instead of an acting president who is not really a soccer person. I think that’s the first time in our history that we’ve done something like that – and to me it makes a lot of sense.
Q. With the U.S. out of it, which countries will you have your eye on and is there any one group that seems really stacked?
A. I don’t think there’s like a traditional “Group of Death” this year – which is OK. There are some interesting group-stage matchups. I’m going to be watching Mexico and Germany. I think that will be interesting.
I also like the England-Belgium game. I think Belgium is a little bit of a dark horse.
Watching France will be interesting. To me, they are the most purely talented team in the World Cup. They’ve had problems with personnel, so it will be interesting to see how they deal with that.
I would like to see Mohamed Salah of Egypt do well. He’s been hurt. I would like to see him score goals. That would be fun to watch.
Of course, Brazil is coming off of getting kind of humiliated in their own country in the last World Cup. How will they respond in this World Cup?
Q. What’s your prediction?
A. I have some German heritage, so I’m going to put Germany out there as a favorite [smiling]. Of course, you have Brazil and Spain. But France and Belgium are interesting to me. If France can get their personnel straight and the coach can keep things in order, they have a tremendous amount of talent.
Q. Where will you be watching these games?
A. In a variety of places. The times are interesting. At first, I was worried about the times because I didn’t know what the time difference was, but there are some morning and afternoon games. When I was at the 2002 World Cup as an assistant coach, fans here had to watch games at like 4 in the morning.
Q. Your favorite World Cup memory?
A. When I was an assistant coach in 2002 and our first game in our group stage was against Portugal, who at that time was one of the teams favored to win the whole thing. Luis Figo was one of the world stars at the time playing for Portugal and we won the game, 3-2. The look on the faces of the players as we scored the first goal, the second goal, the third goal against a team that was favored to win the World Cup was just a thing I’ll never forget.
Q. How will the popularity of soccer in this country be affected without the U.S. in the World Cup?
A. I think it will be fine. It hurts, man, believe me. It’s disappointing for me not to be able to watch a U.S. team, but I think in the long term it’s actually going to help us. From the top down, we are reexamining ourselves.
The interim coach, Dave Sarachan, who I know very well, is doing a great job of looking at younger players, and the success of those players recently has been really good. And we wouldn’t have even looked at those guys without not making the World Cup. I think guys like McKinney and Adams wouldn’t have made the World Cup team and it probably would have taken them years to get the opportunity.
I think you’re going to see a totally different team before the next World Cup.