U.S. Men's National Team: The Darkest Timeline

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The last decade of American soccer fandom has been defined by two things: contentment that at last we have a financially stable, even highly successful domestic product in Major League Soccer, and a desire for our most talented internationals to stay the hell away from it. The quality of play in MLS may be significantly higher than many admit, but the conventional wisdom has remained: if U.S. Soccer wants to compete on the world stage, its best players should make their way overseas to play for clubs in top leagues in England, Germany, and elsewhere. And so with one glaring, widow’s-peaked exception, over the last two qualifying cycles the USMNT’s European-based elite have become indistinguishable from its first-choice XI; only four of the 23 players on the 2010 World Cup roster were signed to MLS clubs at the time.

But that consensus appears to be changing, and fast. Using selfish justifications like “financial security,” “wanting to be closer to family and friends,” and “my personal health and well-being,” and forgetting that this is as much about us and our need for an excuse to drink on Saturday mornings as it is about them, America’s finest are starting to come home. Less than six months after Clint Dempsey left Tottenham Hotspur for the Seattle Sounders, Monday brought official word that Michael Bradley -- in the prime of his career at 26, arguably the USMNT's most integral player -- has joined Toronto FC on a $10 million transfer from AS Roma. Another key cog in the U.S. midfield, Schalke's Jermaine Jones, doesn't seem far behind. Though he made no secret of his displeasure with Dempsey's move last August, U.S. manager Jürgen Klinsmann now sounds fatalistic, conceding that "the demand is not there" for American players among big European clubs: "It is a very, very tricky situation that players face right now."

All of which -- even before it’s placed in the context of the USMNT’s recent history of snubs, burnouts, freak injuries and weird sabbaticals -- is more than enough to send the tortured soul of the American soccer fan into new fits of doubt and despair. "At the first sign of adversity in his Serie A career," writes Goal.com's Seth Vertelney, "Bradley is seemingly jumping ship. And it's a shocker."

"These are worrying times for United States soccer," adds Sean Miller of The Times of Trenton. Given time, we may be able to have a rational conversation about these moves, weighing the short-term threat they may pose to the USMNT's competitiveness against their transformative potential in the long-term growth of the stateside game. For now, though, with Brazil and its Group of Death fast approaching, it's time to slip into one of those collective panic attacks soccer fans do so well, and to activate the sophisticated worst-case-scenario precog technology with which all American soccer fans of any seriousness are equipped, to steel ourselves for all the terrible things that may lie ahead in the months between now and World Cup 2014. So:

January 19: Rumors continue to swirl about an end to Jermaine Jones’ seven-year stint at Schalke. Shortly before he’s seen boarding an international flight at Frankfurt Airport, Jones tweets, “Going to California. Can’t wait to get In-N-Out. Just kidding! I’m a Whataburger guy.” Outraged SoCal soccer bros flood his Twitter feed with death threats as it becomes clear that his Lufthansa flight doesn’t have on-board Wi-Fi, and #HasJermaineLandedYet begins to trend nationally. Jones makes a teary-eyed tarmac apology and signs a three-year deal with the Galaxy, but days later renounces his American citizenship after seeing an episode of VH1's "Couples Therapy."

January 28: Upon returning to Stoke City from a four-week loan to Championship side Barnsley, Brek Shea is immediately loaned to fifth-division Grimsby Town, which in turn loans him to ninth-division Spennymoor Town, which loans him to 14th-division Twiddymiffler Town, which turns out to be fictional. Distraught, Shea drinks most of a case of Strongbow, wanders out into the English countryside, and joins a band of Irish Travellers, for whom he goes on to score 33 goals in 116 international appearances.

January 31: As the transfer deadline approaches, Jozy Altidore completes a $15 million move from Sunderland to Chivas USA, but balks at fine print in his 11-year contract requiring him to learn Spanish. Several crucial translation errors lead Chivas management to sell his rights to the Boston Whitecaps of Major League Ultimate. Altidore verbally commits to Cal State-Northridge, where he soon quits soccer to pursue a degree in Materials Engineering.

March 8: In a small, candlelit room off a StubHub Center access tunnel, Landon Donovan hears the distant thrum of the pre-game crowd but wills himself back to the safety of his breathing. Eyes closed, body at rest, centered once again, he can sense the blinding sun of enlightenment on the outer limits of his consciousness. He thinks of Rilke: "Oh pure transcendence! Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear! And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared." And of Ondrasik: "It may sound absurd, but don't be naïve / Even heroes have the right to bleed."

As their meaning sinks in, the words themselves drop away, and suddenly his inner eye is open. In that glorious new silence, he can hear only the song of dāna-pāramitā, the call to walk the path of the Warrior-Bodhisattva. Now arisen, he feels himself being carried through the door, and another, and another. Only later will he remember the faces of his teammates, mouths agape, brows furrowed, unseeing, calling after him as he is drawn forth into the twilight.

April 13: Following a triumphant return from injury and a series of stellar performances to lead Bolton Wanderers to a surprise appearance in the FA Cup semi-finals, Stuart Holden is knifed and set on fire by a nine-year-old player escort during pregame ceremonies at Wembley Stadium. “Tough crowd tonight!” he tweets just before undergoing a successful emergency skin-graft procedure.

May 24: During a live satellite interview from the USMNT's pre-World Cup training camp, goalkeeper Tim Howard's odd demeanor prompts ESPN's Bob Ley to ask if everything is alright. Howard demurs, looks off-camera, and mumbles inaudibly. After a long pause, he continues: "You know, Bob, no. No. I'm sorry, but -- there's something, you know, I've had a little bit of time off in the last couple weeks. And there's something that has come to my attention that I'd just like to raise people's awareness -- no, look, I'm gonna -- Bob, Bob, before they cut me off, there's this thing, everyone should just Google it, it's called Agenda 21, okay. Agenda 21. Everyone at home, just look that up, because you're not gonna hear about it from Barack Hussein --" Hours later, Howard announces via Twitter that he is retiring effective immediately, adding, "#TAXATIONISTHEFT #Stockman4Prez."

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