“That’s right, folks! Step right up and get your miracle elixir! Cures everything from chronic flatulence to an inability to qualify for the World Cup or Olympics from CONCACAF!”
Doesn’t work that way. The problems have deeper roots. A dash of snake oil isn’t going to make the U.S. men’s team (or women’s, which has some similar issues and some very different) magically better.
Among the pet programs that won’t make the USA follow France’s path from qualifying failure to World Cup champion in four years:
Ramping up “pressure”: Consider how Trinidad and Tobago played in their cozy, bumpy stadium with the soothing hum of generators or pumps or whatever created what little “atmosphere” existed last night. They were loose. They were having fun. Only Christian Pulisic, who’s too young to have been through the battles of his teammates, played with any flair to match what the home side brought to the marshland of Ato Boldon Stadium.
If anything, the U.S. players seemed too tightly wound. Michael Bradley, the captain, was raised in a family that lives for competitive pressure. Jozy Altidore has dealt with the wrath of the global soccer media in the midst of a relegation fight, and yet he was probably a lot better before all that, back in the 2009 Confederations Cup and World Cup qualifying that year.
Which brings us to this …
Promotion/relegation: I dealt with this in the pro/rel series. Pro/rel doesn’t magically turn every club into Barcelona. It doesn’t make clubs run awesome academies — in fact, you might end up with some major gaps as major cities’ clubs lose Division 1 status and have to cut funding.
And can we cut the nonsense that players in MLS clubs aren’t playing for their jobs? North America is littered with MLS washouts. (Some of whom turn around and score against the USA in CONCACAF play.)
Dismantling MLS: The league needs improvement, sure. But it’s worth noting that the goals that eliminated the USA — from Panama and Honduras — came from guys with plenty of MLS experience.
Costa Rica is going back to the World Cup. MLS players scored 11 of their 14 goals in the Hexagonal.
And the oft-derided MLS-USL partnership has created an alternate pathway to the oft-derided college game. Go to an MLS academy. If you’re ready to go pro at age 17 or 18 but not quite ready for the first team, play for the reserves in USL. Then up to MLS.
Clubs have made these investments because they’re financially secure. They feel confident that they’ll be in the top division for the foreseeable future. Any change to that structure needs to be made very carefully.
Let’s put it this way: If you dismantle MLS, you’re also dismantling most of the free academies that exist in this country. How is that supposed to help?
Having the “passion” to hurl rotten fruit at players when they return: Sure, let’s make the notion of being a professional and international soccer player less attractive in a country that has a ton of sports options. That’ll work.
Along those lines …
Telling people how to live their lives: Remember when everyone was telling Landon Donovan to abandon his family and move to Europe for our own satisfaction?
Two issues with that:
- That’s not going to inspire future athletes to devote themselves to soccer and international play.
- Couldn’t the U.S. men have used a Landon Donovan last night, no matter how many years he spent in MLS instead of the Bundesliga?
Hiring a savior: One guy isn’t going to turn around the men’s national team, let alone change the entire culture in this country. Jurgen Klinsmann had no idea how to change youth soccer other than the vague imposition of things he knew as a child in Germany.
The people working to change the culture are working at the U.S. Soccer Foundation (different from the federation) and other organizations trying to make the sport more accessible.
Turning the sport into a job for which only the elites may apply: Eastern Europe in the Cold War had a bunch of sports machines that culled the top sports talent at an early age and herded them into camps. Brazil and other countries thrive on street soccer. Which group has had more success?
Reading too much into one World Cup, either 2002 or 2018: Was Bruce Arena a genius in 2002? Somewhat, but it helped that Portugal collapsed and the ref didn’t notice John O’Brien’s handball against Mexico. Was he suddenly an idiot in 2018? Somewhat, but it helped that Panama scored a phantom goal and Honduras (and T&T) got a couple of flukes.
Wins amplify good decisions. Losses amplify bad ones.
* * * *
Here’s what WILL help:
“Incremental changes at multiple levels”:
Reducing the “travel” in travel soccer: Even if you have tons of scholarship money, explain to me how a kid with two working parents who don’t control their own schedule are going to get that kid to every practice and game all over a five-state region?
Related to that …
Ending the turf wars: We have an arms race. Club A is in the Development Academy, so Club B has to be in the ECNL. Then Club C has to travel to multiple showcases everywhere from Disney World to that massive soccerplex in Indiana that’s hosting everything these days.
Remembering that we’re still competing for players and fans: Quit telling 9-year-olds that the stuff they’re doing now will pay off when they’re 16-year-old pros. Quit pretending we can drive people out of the sport as children and expect them to be paying customers when they grow up.
If soccer was so deeply ingrained in the USA that we would put up with all this, fine. The truth is that we’re still fighting attitudes like this:
And that is a Democratic Congressman. His voters surely include a lot of immigrants and a lot of soccer fans. And yet he feels secure in bashing soccer. In 2017.
Education: I’ve had the chance to see more than 100 paid coaches at the U9-U12 level. Maybe 20 of them are people I’d be happy to have coaching my kids. Another 20 or so seemed OK. The rest are screamers, joystick coaches and assorted cretins.
I’ve also worked with about 100 parent coaches. Some of them are trying to learn what they can and apply what they’ve learned. Some can’t be bothered to do the two-hour online F license.
Listen: Everyone’s talking and no one’s listening. Not just on Twitter. Also in Chicago, where the most basic questions about the Development Academy or anything else get brushed off and ridiculed.
The USA has a lot of smart people. Not just one, not just a small group. And as Steve Gans found on his “listening tour” before declaring his candidacy for the U.S. Soccer presidency, they’re not being heard.
Maybe we should all do a listening tour.
And then keep some perspective. No one died here. That’s happening in Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and California. We’re talking about a sport, one in which the better team doesn’t always win. The USA probably wasn’t one of the top eight teams in 2002, and they probably aren’t outside the top 32 right now.
Let’s not set up an East German-style sports machine. Let’s not take the fun out of this sport and assume good athletes are going to want to play anyway.
Embrace diversity — in all senses. Embrace accessibility. Calm down and think.
And then we can do the same thing next year when the women don’t qualify for France 2019.