We are not the answer…
I heard this rumor while sleeping: José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola are secretly in a bidding war to take over the job as USMNT (United States Men’s National Team) coach before the 2018 World Cup.
Each coach promised USSF (United States Soccer Federation) president, Sunil Gulati, they can coach the U.S. men to World Cup victory using only American-born, MLS (Major League Soccer) players.
Mourinho recently upped the ante by saying “The Special One can achieve World Cup success with U.S. born, MLS players who are only left-footed and all three of my substitutes, in each game, will be goalies so each can say they triumphed in my presence.”
Not to be outdone, current USMNT coach Jürgen Klinsmann informed Gulati that he was making himself available during the January transfer window in order to re-join VfB Stuttgart so he can regain his form and be the first ever player-coach in World Cup History.
Then I woke up.
Americans, I am one of them, always like to say “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and yet we immediately call for the coach’s head when his team is in the middle of some meaningless losing streak. America is an “I want it now” society. Patience is not in our cultural fabric when it comes to sports. Consequently, the recent glut of commentary on or about how the USMNT is somehow falling apart under Klinsmann is, unfortunately, to be expected.
Joe Lago of Yahoo Sports recently wrote a very insightful piece on the current USMNT titled: “When will Jürgen Klinsmann take the U.S. men’s national team forward?” In it, Lago correctly laments that the USMNT is in almost the exact same position today as it was when Coach Bob Bradley left the club.
But Lago’s title begs an answer and there is a very quick, easy response to the question: not for a very long time. However, you would be fooling yourself to think Mourinho or Guardiola, or anyone for that matter, could do any better now, next year or in three years.
The simple reality, euphemistically speaking, is that no one can teach elephants to fly, not because the elephant does not want to, but because the elephant simply does not have wings.
I appreciated many of Lago’s points, but the end of the piece really stuck with me when he said:
The USMNT should be going forward, literally and figuratively in its tactical approach. Instead, it is perpetually stuck in neutral, the way it was when Bob Bradley was in charge.
The reason the USMNT is “stuck in neutral” is that it has always been in “stuck in neutral”. The fact is, the USMNT of today is really no different from the USMNT we have been seeing for the past 20 years or more and it has absolutely nothing to do with coaching.
To think the USMNT is just “one great coach away” from consistent World Cup or international success is pure soccer psycho-babble and reminds me of something Oscar Wilde said:
Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result.
To date, the USSF has not created the conditions necessary for a successful result.
Allegorically, the car that has always been the USMNT has really never had an engine and its wheels have been, perpetually, up on blocks since, like…forever. All USSF leadership has done with regards to the USMNT since at least 1990 is change the driver (coach), the occupants (players) and give this car a new paint job (uniforms) from time to time to keep things looking fresh.
But the car was always “stuck in neutral” and with no gas pedal, clutch or gear stick in sight; no coach on planet earth will be able to move the beast now or in the foreseeable future until fundamental, long-term changes are made to the entire youth development system.
In fact, Gulati, whom former USSF president and MLS founder Alan Rothenberg called “the single most important person in the development of soccer in this country” said in 2006, on replacing the most successful USMNT coach in our history, Bruce Arena, that the U.S. was seeking a “fresh approach”.
The “most important person” then put Bob Bradley in charge of applying a new colour of paint to the aforementioned vehicle that the “most important person” has still not put an engine in or wheels on.
Then in 2010, the “most important person” told Bradley he had to give the paint can and brush to someone else. One begins to wonder when the “most important person” is found out to be not that “important” or effective in his role atop the USSF.
As we stand, Klinsmann is trying to actively find said engine, tires and occupants (foreign or otherwise) in an effort to get the car out of neutral. He is even going so far as advocating a paint job that screams ”nasty” even if some of the occupants are uncomfortable with the new style. But he is still stuck by no fault of his own. But a lot of “nasty” certainly would not hurt and does give the car a bit of swagger.
Let us be fair, objective and honest about at least one thing: the lack of USMNT success has nothing to do with the coaching, in spite of the “most important person”. It has everything to do with our self-inflicted tiny talent pool and the players from that pool. To validate the parity of our coaching consider that every USMNT team, since 1990, has been to the World Cup and has achieved the same relative success at each tournament.
Yes, qualifying in CONCACAF is not the same gauntlet as qualifying in Europe. But it would be disingenuous to say playing in countries like Honduras, Costa Rica and Mexico is anything but easy.
In any event, we cannot change the perception of the American people, when it comes to our athletic expectations, until we understand who and what we are trying to change and this requires a very brief understanding of the American mentality.
In short, the majority of us, especially those in the press, grew up believing in the underdog (the movie “Hoosiers’), the impossible (any “Cinderella” team in the NCCA Division 1 Basketball Tournament) and in “the miracle” as in (the “Miracle on Ice”). I am one of them. I am not alone.
But when it comes to football and our USMNT; the fact is, Clint Dempsey will not be given a tape measure to confirm the size of the goal before any big game “a la Hoosiers,” the World Cup has not had a “Cinderella” winner since, well…never and the “Miracle on Ice” was called a “miracle” because the very definition of the word, as it relates to events, means it happens only once in human history.
Consequently, in order to address our future, we need to acknowledge that our existing sports ethos does not apply to when it comes to elite-level international football.
So is there really any pragmatic hope, any grounded optimism on the U.S. football front? Yes, in the form of Doug Andreassen, Andres Hurtado and Scott Leber at iSoccer.
On a national level, the “most important person” is not someone I generally associate with the term “leader,” but the USSF does have a task force led by a gentleman of proven actual leadership by the name of Doug Andreassen. You probably have not heard of Andreassen but he is the chairman of U.S. Soccer’s Diversity Task Force.
In a recent Sports Illustrated article written by Stanley Kay, Andreassen’s plan is to find the very best underserved soccer youth across the country. To do so, Andreassen is moving towards the creation of something akin to a 12,000 person scouting network of respected community leaders and coaches who can find and identify kids with talent or potential.
The task force headed by Andreassen is significant, in my opinion, for three reasons:
One; it gives the USSF a swinging chance of finding all possible talent that exists.
Two; in addition to improving U.S. soccer, finding and developing underserved kids may lead to improving their educational prospects in the form of potential soccer scholarships to college.
Three; when the USSF makes a firm commitment to finding and developing all the talent there is to be found we are, by default, committing ourselves to ending the “pay to play” system in the United States.
However, this is not to say our existing pay-to-play soccer clubs should be abandoned or replaced. To the contrary, the clubs need to exist, as viable, profitable business entities in order for the new “no pay to play” model to become reality. How can this dichotomy exist?
In short, club teams and their dues, from “Socceroo” to the U13 age level will 100% subsidize every player who is good enough to play on their club’s elite or USSF Development Academy team at the U14, U15/16 and U17/18 levels. But how do we address the underserved youth within the “Socceroo” to U13 age groups who cannot afford to pay to play during these years? Enter Coach Andres Hurtado.
Coach Hurtado, Director of Coaching at the Kirkwood Soccer Club in Delaware is a role model on how we can address the underserved youth from six years of age until U13 when he started the “Urban League”.
A native of Colombia, Coach Hurtado started the Urban League to give Hispanic and other underserved youth a very affordable soccer outlet in and around the Wilmington, Delaware area.
Started by Hurtado in January 2009 with 100 kids playing indoor soccer, the league now tops 700 boys and girls playing outdoor in the spring and fall and indoor during the winter. The cost to play a season is only $40. Eventually, with the support of Kirkwood SC Executive Director, Joe Mills; the Urban League, and its $40 per season fee, were made a part of the larger Kirkwood Soccer Club without having to assimilate into the existing pay-to-play club structure.
It is easy for everyone to talk about how U.S. players lack the elite technical skills on the ball necessary to compete with our international peers. But Scott Leber and iSoccer are on the front lines of this issue and actually doing something about it. With the idea of significantly improving every youth player’s technical skill on the ball, Leber created iSoccer.
iSoccer is a technical skill training program that focuses on individual player development through measuring, setting and achieving goals and improving a player’s technical skill in 16 focus areas in a fun and rewarding environment.
The best part is iSoccer achieves results. I have seen it with my own eyes in countless kids who became elite players because they diligently applied themselves to improving their game via iSoccer. If you have a son or daughter who has any sort of football aspirations, you owe it them to learn more about this program.
Above all, we need to exercise patience as a country. Everything described above takes significant time; in fact, it will take years before we eliminate the pay to play structure, it will take years before we start finding, integrating and developing all the potential talent we have in this country.
How much time will it take for the USMNT to become an international factor is hard to say but Klinsmann got it right when he recently stated “…we are not there yet. Quite a way to go.”
Unfortunately, Americans are not patient. How else would you explain why Jozy Altidore left a team and a league where he played nearly every minute of every game and led the league in scoring to go to a team where he sits every minute of every game and leads the team in bench warming? You can talk about money all you want but no professional ever became such solely because of money.
You can talk about the fame and prestige of playing in the Premier League, but trying to keep up with soccer “Jones” always leaves one party bankrupt. At the end of the day footballers want to play and need to play every match because no one ever got better warming a bench.
Perhaps Jozy should have stayed in Holland, perhaps he should have gone to a lesser known Championship side in England, perhaps he should have exercised some patience on all fronts and did what was best for his game and not worry about his ego, his national team coach or his pocketbook. Let us hope there is still time for him to resurrect a career full of potential.
The Chinese have a saying:
If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.
Doug Andreassen, Coach Andres Hurtado and Scott Leber at iSoccer are growing people. The USSF and the “most important person” should follow suit and exercise patience. Klinsmann may not the blessing we hoped for, but he is far from the curse some people have made him out to be.
The outcome of Klinsmann’s tenure remains to be seen. Let us hope patience is exercised and, ultimately, rewarded.