WHY HASN’T THE UNITED STATES produced a world-class player in the men’s game? That question might as well read like Enrico Fermi’s intergalactic quandary, “Where is everyone?” I imagine physicists and astronomers looking up into the vastness of the night sky and wondering, “Where is everyone?” and, “Are we really alone?” in a similar way people tuned into the American game wonder about the when’s, where’s and why’s regarding the possibility and absence of a truly dominant American player. The argument is frustrating because the premise – at its core – gets mangled-up in the misunderstandings of a sport with a truly global talent pool.
The idea that the United States should produce a world-class player is different than if it could produce one. Of course, the US can produce a great player, but this is where the argument encounters the first threshold of many flawed arguments.
It’s likely that the US could produce a world-class team before it produces a world-class player. After all, without a heightened level of competition, producing a world-class American player that’s culled from the masses is nothing more than an exercise in marketing semantics. For years, Major League Soccer, its media, and American soccer media have peddled out marketing collateral suggesting that the US will skip right to the highest standard on display by producing “the American Messi”, which has been refuted.
Truth be told, looking out into the vastness of the American sporting landscape full of hyper-organised youth programs, urban hotbeds of athletic output, top-notch universities and academies, and countless estuaries of available, infrastructure-strongholds capable of fostering sporting excellence is a lot like looking out into the cosmos and wondering where that higher form of life is hiding. Here’s why: The premise of the Fermi Paradox is a bit confusing without some context.
To date, we have only scanned 0.00001 percent of our own galaxy comprised of trillions of stars of its own out of billions of galaxies for around 50 years. Therefore, the argument shifts from “we must be alone in the universe” to a more interesting spectrum: we don’t know how to look for said life – and we’re just not there yet, technologically and fundamentally.
There are many factors that make the search for world-class American talent on the men’s side a true paradox. One hypothesis could be American players just aren’t good enough in all the areas and competencies of the game the world excels in. However, it’s more likely that the talent is there, but the mechanisms aren’t viable to identify and foster that talent.
With regards to American soccer, it often becomes a case of looking but not listening. Moreover, it’s a case of looking for the wrong signs of higher skill. Where the world looks to the creative yet small of frame player; the US looks at the corn-fed, top-heavy ‘super athlete’ whose first touch leads to a second, third and the inevitable loss of possession.
The reality is that the great players in the US are playing soccer but get priced out of playing, are never identified (but they do exist) due to a paltry scouting attempt by the United States Soccer Federation, are playing other sports, or are discarded and lost once they enter the American soccer system.
I recently spoke to Terry Michler, a man whom I consider a coaching mentor and whose accomplishments at the youth and high school level extend well beyond trophies and championships. He has produced players that have gone on to succeed at all levels of the game as players and coaches, which is more valuable and telling of the quality of his instruction and coaching.
Michler routinely brings players and coaches from the Netherlands to train and integrate within the St. Louis community and in exchange, he takes groups of players over to the Netherlands to learn, experience the culture, and to train and play against academies there. The core of Michler’s coaching is centred on attention to detail, application, and keeping the game simple – a stark contrast to American soccer at-large.
After returning from his most recent trip to the Netherlands and Germany, Michler said: “One word stuck with me over there and that’s ‘Foundation’. I want you to think about American soccer in the context of a house. You have to start with something that has a solid foundation. Then, you have to frame it and add all the required components that make a house functional. After all that is done, you put the roof on the house. Here, we’re building houses starting with the roof; without a strong foundation – which is fine until it starts to rain and the wind starts to blow. Once that happens, with no strong foundation, that house begins to fail.”
Here’s the flawed blueprint of American soccer development. Generally, a player enters the game at the recreational level and is subject to a myriad of well-intentioned yet often misguided volunteer coaches and parents keen to thrust them into as many activities as possible. In some respects this may be a case of “too much of a good thing” as exposure to a variety of sports and activities quickly turns into overexposure creating a nation rife with soccer players who are jacks of all trades but masters of none.
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These activities cost money and that cost is leveraged by the player’s family. Youth soccer is an enterprise that generates billions annually. Unlike what happens around the world, in the US parents are customers. There is no subsidised sporting mechanism that makes grassroots soccer free, or at the very least inexpensive. This limits access. It also filters out players whose families are subject to financial strife – opportunities disappear when finances begin to thin.
The system in place is comprised of funnels. In essence, the better a player becomes the better the team or club he must play for. Without hefty sponsorship and funding the cost to play increases. By the time a player shows promise, families must make tough financial decisions. This occurs throughout a player’s journey until they’re either recruited by a collegiate team to play a four-month season loaded with regulations, training limitations, heavy travel, and a full academic schedule; or they’re scouted to play for a United States Soccer Development Academy team (provided there is one where they live) or by one of the 20 Major League Soccer franchises.
But how does that work? Well, there is no dedicated scouting network in the United States that scours the parks, parking lots, playgrounds and streets looking to unearth talent. Why? Simple: there is no real incentive to reward development in the American system since solidarity payments and training compensation are not paid out and Major League Soccer takes the money.
Proper development in a true academy or club setting requires full-time, professional coaches. In the absence of solidarity and training compensation payouts, the ‘rewards’ for developing talent to pass-on (because they can’t be sold-on) impose a ceiling on the game. However the pay-to-play system shifts the dynamic of the youth game. To those working within and for the academy system, wins and losses might not matter as much as performance. To the parents funding this adventure, wins and losses are everything.
Without a robust scouting network, the talent that does persevere and ‘make it’ does so in spite of a severely fragmented system or due to the player having parents with enough discretionary income to fund their advancement and continuation in an increasingly expensive sport. The scouts that are out there aren’t enough. US Soccer has about 80 scouts, many of whom are also collegiate coaches (not full-time scouts) looking for and identifying talent – not even two scouts per state. Let’s say that number is closer to 100 scouts now, it’s still not enough for the landmass of the United States.
In terms of coaching education and the quality of that education, the US is still years away from where it needs to be in order to shift the paradigm from a trajectory of stagnation to one of upward progress. To that end, these scouts and coaches need to provide valuable, detailed, usable and relative feedback and player evaluations in a newly created scouting industry that functions in complete juxtaposition with the standard player evaluations of decades past.
Culturally, even if these scouting numbers were increased ten-fold, identifying talent would still be difficult in the absence of players taking to the parks, courts and streets of America on their own to play pickup games the way they do in other quintessential American sports. This is another threshold limiting the game.
Without a societal and cultural tie to the game, one that melds soccer with day-to-day life, a nation of 330 million will find it difficult to produce world-class talent in the men’s game. When American players become agents of their own progress by logging hours of play unsupervised, unprompted and uncoached, skills like creativity, leadership, problem-solving, resilience, all of which can’t be coached into a player, but are regularly coached out of a player, will shine through.
So, American soccer must recognise that scouting, accessible and improved coaching education, and player development are true industries and then it must leverage those industries to maximise the potential of talent identification by providing teams for those talented players. This likely requires an open system – at least on the regional level – where teams can compete within their geographical proximity to maximise the competition within that talent pool. This robust and open regional system of leagues would logically funnel upward into the three main professional leagues: USL, NASL and MLS.
On many occasions when the United States Men’s National Team or a MLS team plays regional competition, a predictable narrative plays out. Two teams take the field; one hailing from a country of relative wealth, immense infrastructure, and opportunities for some (but not all); the other comes from a place of less opportunity, more poverty per national capita, and arguably more ‘have nots’ than ‘haves’.
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One team almost feels entitled to win; the other team comes ready for a street fight. The battle on the pitch is more cultural than many think or even want to believe. Over the years, when the United States – the world’s superpower in most things, but not soccer – loses a game (be it a friendly or one of meaningful competition), a series of questions fly around, which these days are admittedly more out of intrigue than frustration.
Why is everyone so surprised at the losses?
Much like the right-wing of the political pendulum breathes an odd, yet somewhat vitriolic narrative of “Make America Great Again”, the notion forces one to wonder – when was America greater than it is now? Fifty years ago, civil and social rights, education, inclusion and information were all limited, and integration on the social – and to an extension – the sporting level was a struggle. To put this in a soccer context, some speak about the United States Men’s National Team and the overall level of the men’s game as though it was world-class until now. It has never been close.
It’s also never been more apparent that the system has always been nothing short of fractured. American sporting culture covets winners. American sporting industry demands performance spliced with the spectacular. The glitz and glamor of the four major sporting leagues are full of entertainment and well-paid talent both on the roster, in the scouting networks, and in the front offices. Regarding American soccer, the whole narrative revolves around coveting the result without fully understanding the process.
Removing soccer from the equation for a moment, it’s important to understand the American sports industry as it relates to leagues like the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League (to name the most popular, wealthy, and talent-rich leagues). Money is pumped into the arteries of each sport to ensure the pedigree on all fronts is top-notch. When such a manufactured, heavily-sponsored force of sporting power aligns with the fabric of the country’s culture the phenomenon dulls the senses away from the inner-workings of a sport like development, scouting, etc, and focuses those sense on the results column with an adderall-induced focus.
The very nature of the American soccer system rewards performance over development. Standings and trophies trump skill acquisition and application. The American (and Canadian) soccer player is unlike any other on the planet in that they must navigate through a web of sporting ideologies that sing the praises of the bigger, faster, stronger and best athletes should play soccer mantra while trying to excel in a fringe sport.
Another threshold limiting the progress of American soccer is the reliance on the collegiate system to produce and yield players capable of competing with the world’s best. At one point in time it might have been possible to compete, but the rest of the world did not stand still regarding player development.
Professional-track players need to be playing with and coached by professionals early and often, something college soccer does not allow. Whereas other American sports happily rely on the NCAA – a form of indentured servitude where amateur athletes generation millions for their respective universities – soccer cannot and should not follow suit. Massive reform at the collegiate level is necessary, ranging from extending the college season to increasing the number of scholarships for players to ensure the collegiate game can better prepare players for the professional game.
American sports culture doesn’t fully understand soccer. It does, however, appreciate it on several levels. There are pockets of the country that embrace the game before all others, and for them this is nothing new. There are coaches, players and fans that understand the world’s game on a cerebral level, but they too must oscillate between mainstream North American sporting culture and a new breed of soccer culture – one that pretends it’s on par with the rest of the world.
It’s natural to compare the problems of today with those of the past, and it’s important to stay true to the promise and paths of progress. American soccer is an enigma. To others looking at soccer existing in the American sporting landscape from afar both geographically and intuitively it’s a pleasant, almost amusing sight – this sport daring to exist in a land of closed leagues, which ensure they are the goliaths of their respective sports.
There’s a phrase I used in one of my first published pieces on the game that states, “The more you learn, the more you find you don’t know.” In Corporate America clichéd self-help pontifications are bandied about, not to mention in coaching seminars (doesn’t matter what sport). One stands out: “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Bringing this full-circle, there is no shortage of potential or existing talent in the US; but much like mankind’s search for life beyond Earth, American soccer’s Fermi Paradox might just come down to the fact those would-be world-class players are here, undetected and there’s no real mechanism by which to identify them. And so, the search continues.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3