Pink Floyd unwittingly summed up the current state of U.S. (United States) international football back in 1979 when they wrote “The Wall.”
If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?
When it comes to America’s dream of developing elite footballers: if you don’t play against elite international talent you can’t become an elite football player. But how can you become an elite football player if you don’t have the opportunity to play against elite international talent?
The recent verbal scuffle between USMNT (United States Men’s National Team) coach Jurgen Klinsmann and MLS (Major League Soccer) president Don Garber and most, if not many, of the owners of MLS clubs is beginning to highlight the real underlying problem with why U.S. players, and the USMNT, are, at best, “average” when compared to their international counterparts.
It is no secret amongst the sporting world; to be a great player, and thereby create a great international team, you and your teammates need to consistently play against the best competition all the time.
Last week it was discovered that Klinsmann was actively telling up-and-coming U.S. players to play overseas in order to improve their game. From Klinsmann’s coaching perspective, this advice makes perfectly good sense. Garber, however, was understandably pissed off upon hearing this news.
MLS team owners were also visibly frustrated that the man who, in addition to being the USMNT coach, is also USSF (United States Soccer Federation) “Technical Director” and is seemingly undermining the fabric of the very youth development system he is charged with improving without any regard to MLS teams that are actively addressing the lack of elite U.S. talent through their development academy programs.
The debate between Klinsmann and Garber is covered in other media outlets in more detail. This article offers, perhaps, a more realistic view of why U.S. soccer and its’ players have not climbed, and may never climb, the mountain of football greatness, as a team, or as individuals, from an international perspective.
It is a great idea, in principle, to tell young American players that in order to improve their game they must go play overseas. But there are three roadblocks with this “idea.”
First; few young Americans possess the technical ability on the ball required for elite-level international football. American youth football is 100% focused on team results: not individual development. The rest of the football playing world takes the opposite approach. The players’ individual development, not the team’s success, comes first.
Second; for those few Americans that have the technical skill to play abroad; there is a very unfortunate bias against American players. It is no secret that most clubs will take a “good” Argentine, Chilean or African player over a “very good” American player (save our goalies!); I do not blame most clubs for this built-in bias. We do not have a proven track record of player development success like other countries do. It is not fair, but the bias exists and persists to this day.
Lastly, and most importantly; very, very few American’s possess the EU (European Union) passport that is the number one prerequisite for playing on most European clubs. Of course, it is not absolutely essential to have an EU passport but is extremely helpful.
The alternative is finding a club that loves an American player so much that they are willing to sacrifice time and money getting the necessary paperwork filled out so this player can join the club. England makes it almost impossible for an American to play there.
For example; DeAndre Yedlin, who is scheduled to join Tottenham Hotspurs in early 2015, is trying to find some distant relative that is somehow a former UK (United Kingdom) citizen in order to get the required work permit to play in England. If that does not work he is going to try to apply for the UK work permit under the “Exceptional Talent” visa clause.
DeAndre is a talent for sure. He has a ton of potential. But is he “exceptional?” When it comes to his speed, he is “exceptional.” Everything else about his game is a work in progress. But Yedlin is exactly the type of player who would benefit tremendously from playing with the elite talent in the UK professional system. It is too bad he may never get the chance due to his U.S. citizenship.
The bottom line is that while America is making significant headway in the world of international football, it is still a very long way from producing consistent elite-level talent.
The big joke in soccer circles across America is that Lionel Messi would have never been discovered if he was born in America. But this is really no joke. Because of the persistent American penchant for winning games, especially at the youth level, size and athleticism wins out. Individual development is an afterthought at best. Messi would have never stood a chance.
How else can it logically be explained that a country of 300 million people have never produced a great football talent in its history (save the Goalies!)? Say all you want about the “best” athletes being pulled away to play the more popular American sports; but the math, statistically, does not add up.
Add to this conundrum the fact that more boys and girls play youth soccer than any other sport in the United States. So how is it that our USWNT (United States Woman’s National Team), and its individual players, ends up superior to our men on the international stage? (This is a story for another article)
The truth is, American players like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, etc. are just “good” players when compared to their international peers. Make no mistake; there is absolutely no shame in being a “good” professional player in any sport. All of these players have “million$” of reasons to play in the U.S.
However, they are nowhere near the pantheon of greatness in the realm of professional football. Being “average” professionals is really not their fault…the American soccer system made them that way.
Having avidly, and actively, followed U.S. youth soccer and the USMNT for the past 30 years, it has become readily apparent the USSF could not find their own backsides with both hands never mind the next great crop of talent when it comes to the USMNT. Why?
Only in American is soccer is a pay to play sport. In a country of incredible wealth and resources we have somehow found a way to make the least expensive sport…expensive. Consequently, talented children with limited financial means are automatically unable to play for any club team that has licensed coaches because these kids and their families cannot afford the cost of club dues, kits and transportation to and from practice, games and tournaments.
But is does not stop there; those very few, potentially, great players that are somehow able to cobble up the cost to play arrive at their club only to find out that they are relegated to practicing and playing against a collaboration of average to below average talent thereby hindering their ability to improve as players.
To make matters worse, the USSF, with all good intentions, created the relatively new USSF Development Academy system for finding and developing the next crop of national team players. The USSF Development Academy system is a collection of approximately 80 clubs scattered across the entire United States.
Playing on a USSF Development Academy club team costs parents anywhere from $5000 – $15000 (£3200 – £9500) a year. While some USSF Development Academy clubs try to subsidize underprivileged kids, most do not. So, again, talented poor kids never get the basic opportunity to develop and, therefore, are never found because they cannot afford to play one of the most inexpensive sports on planet earth.
But even if USSF Development Academy teams were free, they still fail their overall mission of finding talent because so few of these teams actually exist relative to the size of our country.
For example; in London, England there are 14 professional clubs (with youth academy teams) located within 600 square miles. Every one of these clubs has numerous scouts going to every youth football game looking under every stone and in between every crack to find and develop any and all potential football talent.
Compare this to the exact same 600 square miles of a traditionally soccer-rich region of the United States consisting of northern Delaware, southern New Jersey, northeastern Maryland and southeastern Pennsylvania. In this region you will find not one USSF Development Academy team.
In fact, for any boys in this region, they would need to get in a car and drive at least 1.5 hours each way to find the nearest USSF Development Academy Club. There are no scouts, however, finding any of these geographically challenged boys.
In order for these boys to actually get on a USSF Development Academy club team, their parents would need to beg and cajole the coaching staff at these clubs to give their son the opportunity to try-out since many of these teams are already established based upon the age-old American tradition of legacy (or if your father is on the Club’s Board of Directors).
As a result, the USSF Development system fails, first and foremost, by not finding every potentially great player there is to be found due to money and geography. Consequently, hundreds, if not thousands, of elite boys go forever missing in the USSF development system.
One can only guess how many “Messis” this “London-sized” soccer region in America, alone, could have produced if only they were discovered in the first place.
Sadly, but truthfully, the entire past, present and future of U.S. soccer can be broken down into very simple math:
We are a country of about 300 million people.
The existing USSF Development Academy system fully excludes at least 60% of our entire population due to our “pay to play” system.
The USSF then excludes, at least, another 30% due to geography.
Of the 30 million remaining citizens in America, let us assume 50% are boys and of this group the U.S. Census Bureau says 10% are in the youth soccer age category. From the remaining 1.5 million boys, the USSF has identified approximately 3000 players from which our future USMNT will be selected.
So in a country of 300 million people, we are, effectively, pinning our entire future soccer hopes on a system that only looks at .5% of our entire population from which we select less than .001% to develop for “greatness”. I do not think Oscar Wilde was a football enthusiast, but I swear he had the USSF in mind when he wrote:
If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism.
Compare this sobering statistic with the fact that countries with not more than 5% of our total population such as Belgium and the Netherlands produce superior talent and exceptional national teams on a regular basis.
Even better, extremely small countries such as Wales and Ireland, whose population is about 1.5% of the entire United States, produce many world-class players our country can only dream of developing.
It is mind-boggling how America can be so incredibly inept at what every other football country finds so incredibly easy. We find and develop the greatest basketball and baseball players on planet earth one hundred times over, but we cannot find and develop one great soccer player in our entire county (except…the goalies)!
The vast potential for U.S. soccer was validated recently when none other than Pep Guardiola surmised, while touring the U.S. this past summer:
The United States has the most important sports in the world. When they are focused on basketball, tennis or golf, they are the best. So when this happens, when they are focused on football [soccer] and develop it, they’ll make it better, better and better.
In order words, if we put all our effort into soccer, statistically, the US should dominate the sport simply due to the sheer number of people and resources it has at its disposal. But, of course, this is unrealistic.
Until we fundamentally change, or take a lesson from our incredible USWNT, the world’s club teams will still take the “good” Argentine over the “very good” American and, unfortunately, the U.S. is still a long way from producing a consistent crop of world class players no matter how much Klinsmann wants our existing youth talent to play overseas. Don Garber and the MLS can relax. There will be no mass exodus of American talent. American footballers are not going anywhere quickly.
For now, America can only look ahead to the talent we hope is yet to come while wistfully looking back at the talent we never found and the talent we let slip away, like Neven Subotić, and say “wish you were here”.