Sifting Through Bad Takes to Explain Why U.S. Soccer Failed
There’s a lot to parse after Tuesday night’s embarrassment but I’ll start with this: That team was not prepared to play and looked like it didn’t even give a shit.
I’ve never seen a more appalling display of effort in 27 years of watching United States soccer, and that was a constant theme throughout this debacle of a qualifying cycle.
That’s on head coach Bruce Arena, who was equally casual in his post game press conference, claiming that no drastic changes needed to be made after a country of 300,000,000 people was just eliminated from the World Cup by an island nation of 1.3 million.
He should be canned for that offensive nonchalance alone.
The next thing to do is fire U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati and move on from the aging veterans who no longer have a future on the national team. It’s a sad way to see the likes of Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard to go out, but the silver lining is that this pathetic charade is over and we can now focus on fixing the problems.
Let’s do this:
I’m gonna cobble together all of the 24-hour hot takes that I read from soccer experts and national idiots alike, and we’ll just go down the list determining whether each one contains any sort of validity.
1. MLS is to blame for the decline of the USMNT
Yes and no.
The first thing to understand is that MLS growth has improved our regional opponents.
Honduras, Panama, and Trinidad & Tobago all have a significant number of guys playing club soccer in the United States. Two goals in the Panama/Costa Rica game were scored by MLS players, and the third goal was scored by a former MLS player. Honduras got two goals from Houston Dynamo attackers and one of the guys who scored for fucking Mexico will play for an MLS expansion team next season.
On the flip side, six of the 11 U.S. starters are current MLS players. Three of those guys, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Paul Arriola, played in foreign leagues before returning to the United States. You can say that Bradley and Howard got worse when they came home, but they also got older. Tim Howard played more than 10 years in England, so don’t tell me he sucked last night because he now plays in MLS.
Eight of 11 U.S. starters last night had some sort of experience playing outside of America, so I don’t buy the “blame MLS” excuse.
If anything, we’re in a weird catch 22/transitional period.
- If our best players go to Europe, MLS doesn’t improve
- If our best players stay in MLS, they aren’t competing against the world’s best
Translation: What’s best for MLS isn’t necessarily best for U.S. Soccer, and vice versa.
We’re right in the middle of that right now, where we want MLS to take the next step but we also want our best young talent to thrive in the world’s best leagues (Christian Pulisic). It’s gonna be a bit rocky until we find a balance there.
2. This failure will affect the popularity of soccer
Last night’s travesty is an indictment on U.S. Soccer, not the popularity of the sport in this country.
See, most of the people who watch the World Cup every four years go back to watching football, basketball, baseball, and hockey after the tournament is over.
The main reason they watch is because:
- there’s an element of nationalism involved (rah rah go USA!)
- there’s nothing else to watch in July
Some casuals might become interested enough to consume more soccer after the WC, but the sport continues to grow in non-World Cup years because of the strength of now-available foreign broadcasts and the growth of MLS.
Atlanta United, an expansion team, set a single-game attendance record this year when they shoved 70,000 people into their stadium (they share it with the Falcons). Your hometown Philadelphia Union were really bad (again), but continued to draw 12,000 to 15,000 fans to CHESTER every weekend.
The popularity of the English Premier League and Champions League has skyrocketed on the strength of NBC and FOX broadcasts. You’ll find a lot of people who watch EPL with their kids on Saturday morning, then flip on college football or Phillies baseball later in the day.
If anything, U.S. soccer is on a trajectory that is incongruous with the overall growth of the sport here. We have millions of people in this country who love soccer, but couldn’t give a shit about the USMNT or MLS, which is an ongoing struggle.
Plus, the World Cup isn’t even the “Super Bowl” of soccer. The apex of competitive global soccer is the annual Champion’s League final.
3. This generation of players just isn’t that good
We failed to qualify for two Olympic games and a couple of other tournaments as well, which had a cascade effect on the performance in other competitions.
There are some success stories, I think. Jorge Villafana might be the left back of the future. DeAndre Yedlin is still young and getting Premier League playing time. I’d cut ties with most of the rest of the team and start handing out caps to guys like Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Weston McKennie (Schalke), and Tyler Adams (NY Red Bulls).
Next friendly. Just do it, man. Clear it out. Have fun. Be weird. pic.twitter.com/DaY63JxcK2
— Will Parchman (@WillParchman) October 11, 2017
Let’s get the kids out there and get ahead of the curve right now. I don’t need to see more of Chris Wondolowski, Darlington Nagbe, Michael Bradley, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and blah blah blah etc.
4. Independent youth clubs are ruining our development
We’re the only country in the world where soccer is a sport for suburban white kids with money.
You pay your club team, something with a stupid name like “Doylestown United Rage 1997,” a bunch of cash just so you can schlep your kids to Tuckahoe Turf Farm every other weekend for day-long tournaments in 95 degree heat.
Meantime, the urban minority soccer loving kids are just sort of falling through the cracks.
True story: the Philadelphia Union’s first academy success was an African immigrant who came to America at age 14. He joined a local club that scrimmaged a Union youth team, and that’s how he was identified and brought into the academy setup.
So it’s important to get into urban communities and identify where these kids are playing.
I used to referee at a place called “Sofive” in Elkins Park, where 95% of the players were “foreigners.” I reffed Brazilians, Mexicans, Uzbeks, Jamaicans, and Africans (not African-Americans, Africans who just got here). I guarantee that no one is scouting those kids or even paying attention. The next U.S. Soccer star is probably playing there, not at Boyertown Junior High School East.
Now, some clubs obviously want to hang on to their best players, and they aren’t crazy about becoming a “feeder” for the local MLS team, but that’s the model we’re heading towards. Individual MLS teams have their own academies. There used to be one national academy in Florida, and that’s where guys like Landon Donovan came from. In 2017, each MLS team is trying to produce its own regional domestic talent.
That relationship between longstanding clubs and these nascent MLS academies needs to be streamlined. A lot of youth soccer forces are working against each other, which is why we aren’t developing these kids from start to finish.
Here’s a valid take from an English guy who now covers MLS:
Thing about soccer in the US compared to other countries I've worked in is that game run almost like a private members club.
— Simon Evans (@sgevans) October 11, 2017
Ding ding ding! We have a winner!
But wait, here’s another take from a different ex-pat Englishman who now does play-by-play for the Colorado Rapids:
Holy shit these guys are on fire!
Maybe the Brits do know the sport better than we do…
Anyway, it also doesn’t help that some parents see sports as a gateway to a free college ride, but that’s an intrinsically American problem. Foreign kids are identified at ages five and six and stay in the same academy for their entire youth.
Here, we send kids to college from ages 18 to 22, then they don’t play pro ball until age 23 (Keegan Rosenberry). Imagine if Lionel Messi didn’t turn pro until age 23. We need our kids on MLS fields at ages 17, 18, and 19, and not wasting prime years playing meaningless ball in Chapel Hill or College Park.
And more money needs to be allocated to U.S. subsidized youth development, which needs to be restructured.
5. “If our best athletes played soccer”
Of course it would be amazing if Odell Beckham, Jr. had stuck with soccer, and he was paired up top with Lebron James in a 4-4-2.
But we’re one of the biggest countries on the planet Earth. We have enough talent here to be the best at every sport. This line of thinking is valid, but it’s not the reason for our failures. Iceland just qualified for the World Cup and their entire country has fewer people than Bucks County.
6. Our coaches aren’t good enough
This is true at every level. Same with refs.
I’ve been around some youth coaches who yell at 12-year-old children with non-instructions:
get the ball!
And the parents are just as bad, because they don’t understand the rules of the game and yell equally absurd things at their own children.
It happens at the top, too. The Union hired a very young Jim Curtin who has had to learn on the job during three full losing seasons. He was also given zero resources to work with, which is another story entirely.
We definitely need to emphasize coaching education and raise the standards here.
7. A lack of promotion and relegation hurts domestic competition
No, it doesn’t.
The standard of MLS play continues to grow without pro/rel. There are problem owners, like our very own Jay Sugarman, who hurt individual clubs, but there are organic ways to remove those obstacles without installing a crippling pro/rel system.
We’re just not ready for it yet, nor do we need it to be successful. U.S. Soccer didn’t fail because fourth-division Stockade FC was disenfranchised.
8. We deserve this because we voted for Donald Trump
It’s true that some Mexican players said they were extra motivated to beat the United States because of comments our president made about their country.
But here’s the thing; if you need extra motivation to play against your arch rival in World Cup qualifying, then you’re not worthy of wearing an El Tri shirt in the first place.
We didn’t qualify for the World Cup because we’re in a weird transitional phase affecting both U.S. Soccer and MLS. A generational gap is partly due to a broken development system that needs to be reworked. We have three-hundred million people in this country and should not be losing to tiny island nations like Trinidad and Tobago. But we also have to admit that our regional opponents are improving.
That’s about it. It’s not the end of the world. It’s actually a good wake up call, because sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before realizing how bad it is. We’ll figure it out.
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