THINK OF AMERICAN SOCCER the way people viewed cars and technology in 1950s science fiction mail-order catalogues. Everyone thought we’d have our flying car by now, right? In essence, the quandary morphs into what I call the ‘Jalopy-to-Flying Car Theory’. The impatient and uninformed firmly believe it’s possible to go from a jalopy to a flying car without iterations. Reality and history have proven otherwise.
American soccer suffers from many ailments – one of them being perception. For the truly invested, these issues are uncomfortable to describe in the same sense as placing toothpick under your big toenail and inexplicably kicking a wall with that same foot-uncomfortable. That’s what this article feels like to write.
For the uninitiated, the sociological and sporting issues of American soccer are ingrained in the fabric of a country used to dominating in other sports in global competition. The aim is to win and fast-track accomplishment to the point shortcuts and shortcomings are ignored.
Imagine the U.S. as a nation seeking greatness in world football as a curious, yet roguish child. This child’s attention is hell-bent on reaching the cookie jar on the top shelf — so much so that interest in finding the quickest way to the top creates a diversion away from all the necessary ingredients strewn about the countertops.
The pursuit trumps the recognition that this child, with some guidance, could learn how to combine the ingredients to make what it covets so much, but that takes time and effort. Leaping on the countertop, stepping over the hot stove and knocking anything in its path aside become priorities in repeated failed attempts to reach the jar.
Perhaps a more measured approach would force them to question the process. The sheer unlikeliness of reaching the top is not due to a lack of effort, but rather a lack of understanding; and who’s to know if that elusive jar even has anything worthwhile inside?
If you look hard enough, you’ll see the game everywhere. Several years ago during graduate school while thumbing through a Modern Classic anthology titled Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies, I found one of those lines that in hindsight, accurately sums up the state of American soccer (but only under the condition that one concedes the issues exist in the first place): “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
The reality is American soccer is not some floundering mess of a sport too delicate to question or criticise; but it is a mess. Its popularity and incongruence is unlike any other sport in the United States in that it is siloed in soccer-mad hotbeds and cultural pockets — both urban and suburban — in ways that systematically create a chasm between those dedicated to the improving the game and those taking a more pedestrian interest in the game. Where one city or state prides itself on the caliber of the players and teams it produces, others have no idea what the local soccer scene looks like.
This is American soccer. The ingredients (players), instructions (coaches and curriculum), environments (available playing space, leagues) — it’s all there. The process and application (systemic reform top-to-bottom), however, lacks refinement. American soccer exchanges have truly become a pissing match between: “We should not…” and “Yes, we should…”. What comes after the ellipsis doesn’t really matter, just the fact the conversation occurs in the first place.
So, what is holding American soccer back?
In short, American soccer needs to smash through its self-imposed ceiling. The low-hanging fruit is addressing the system, which full of barriers, self-imposed ceilings, closed leagues, all in massively competitive sporting landscape with an equally massive landmass.
American soccer is defined by the fiefdoms it is composed of and their collective ability to work against one another to ensure progress comes secondary to unnecessary stagnation. The more troubling truth is the domestic leagues, which were created to presumably help develop the American player, are indulging more than developing.
It’s entirely plausible that the domestic game has reached a point of diminishing returns and is at risk of holding the professional American player back. Historically, this hasn’t been the case. Past iterations of US Men’s National Team rosters were a good mix of players who had to take the journeyman route to the professional level. Hell, some of them weren’t even considered ‘professional’ or lacked a club and were ‘employed’ or contracted by USSF due to a lack of opportunity.
These players hemmed their development together by scraping through an underfunded, fragmented system, which usually led them to the crucible that is college soccer and ultimately to the professional level as relative underdogs and nobodies. They did all of this when there was no money in the domestic game, a paltry level of support, and a collective negative biases toward the sport from the mainstream demographic.
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The national team players from decades past knew struggle, ate failure on a daily basis, and showed back up at the buffet line of adversity for second helpings. When it came to competing with better footballing nations, those generations of players may have lacked the skill, tactical nous and overall ability to play teams off the park, but they weren’t outworked or out-fought.
So what has changed? But the game is more than grit and grinding out results. Football has evolved and so have the values and requisite skill-sets. There is a whole generation of American fans and players that grew up supporting the players who eked by for the chance to ply their trade in a sport the country ridiculed at every opportunity. They know the very sports channels broadcasting soccer today made a mockery of it less than a decade ago.
Players of previous generations weren’t just tough, they were more akin to global footballer than many of the Johnny-come-lately’s who show up to US soccer watch-parties clad in American flag bandanas soaking up the Budweiser-infused sweat oozing from their pores would ever know simply because people ignore the past.
As much as Major League Soccer was designed to help produce and develop the American player – which it did in the first phase of its existence – it can and should be argued that the league has at least partly marginalised this development with expansion, and constructing rosters that have at least (if not more) foreign players than domestic products. Additionally, the marquee foreign players are well-passed their prime. Sure, a few have played well and made a positive impact on the field and helped popularise the game for fans, and this cannot be ignored or devalued. However, they’ve already made their name and their money, and yet, Major League Soccer is relying on a tried and tired business model to sell season tickets, merchandise, and attract casual eyes to its product. In short, MLS is opting for a business model over a sporting model.
In essence, for as much progress as Major League Soccer has made as a business and to a lesser, but very important extent, in the realm of player development, the stark reality is the US is producing capable players, but not the type that can compete and excel in the right competencies the world’s game demands. Additionally, the increase of teams in a league created to further the development of the American player has seen the overall talent level diluted.
Expansion is necessary for any growing league and the implementation of second and third tier leagues plus development leagues to complement the collegiate system – which is going nowhere – is steady progress, but it doesn’t seem to be ticking the right boxes enough.
There’s something lurking in the shadows in American soccer that needs to be exposed. The opportunities and sheer exposure for today’s player in a world that has eyes on everyone and blistered thumbs clicking away at smartphones on social media have done a few things.
Firstly, it’s made every prospective talent a self-appointed celebrity, ensuring they read their own press. Too many young players think they’ve arrived. This makes sense as most of the players in the current system have the money or are the benefactors of those with the funds to help their progress and live in areas with the right coaches and teams.
Secondly, it’s shown players a universe of high-quality play abroad that players 10-15 years ago could only read about, dream about, or see by stepping on a plane bound for destinations unknown with a pocket full of calling cards, a duffle bag and passport in one hand, their hopes and dreams in the other.
The US is producing excellent players; it’s just not producing the right kind of players. And this isn’t about producing blue-collar, terriers who will chase the ball like drones. This is about producing players — the kind that can differentiate between decision-making and problem-solving on the fly. The kind that wants the ball to feet so they can outplay the opponent while retaining possession instead of blasting it out-of-bounds or up the pitch to the other team.
Sure, bravado and bravery are assets, but with the resources, finances and exposure to great soccer in today’s game, the US ought to be producing a lithe blend of capable, complete players that will battle and compete. The American game needs players who will be technicians but who are also willing to become ruthless in the pursuit of victory.
So how do we improve? For starters, one must understand the truly global football ecosystem is a world that cannot be ‘nurfed’. Like many principles governing the natural order of life, the strong tend to feed off the carcasses of the less resilient; burrowing their snouts in the body cavities of the weak. The same is true in football. World football is indiscriminate. Players learn difficult yet valuable lessons growing up on a voracious diet of cutthroat street and park-based sessions.
In this global football ecosystem, the most talented, ruthless and resilient are eventually and inevitably snapped up by feeder clubs through dedicated scouting networks that refine these rough-around-the-edges players into more polished footballers; perhaps even candidates for top academies where talent and all the intangibles of playing ‘Jumpers for Goalposts’ until their feet were raw, their eyes became sullen and mad with passion to play one more game of ‘next goal wins’, and panels of the ball were worn off will pay dividends. This collective experience of struggling and developing an insatiable desire to compete is a player’s currency.
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Over time skills like creativity, leadership, toughness, intelligence and malleability – which often cannot be taught – are mechanisms of a barter system that serves to funnel out even more footballers. Players are tested to such a degree that the process turns formerly Charmin soft kids who play football into footballing Frankenstein’s foaming at the mouth, ready to be unleashed in the competitive feedlots governed by a ‘best versus best’ ethos. This environment weeds out what cannot compete.
For the US to truly become a powerhouse in the game it must adopt similar principles the world is governed by regarding player development. Borussia Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel is one of the most progressive minds in the modern game. He, like his predecessor Jürgen Klopp, never played at the highest level of the professional game, which is likely a major factor in their ability to understand how to get the best out of young players. Tuchel pointed to a few inconvenient truths regarding youth development in an article featuring the development of Leo Messi.
“We are giving young players such spoon-fed solutions and excellence and luxury in their professional and private lives that we are in danger of breeding formulaic footballers — players who can’t problem-solve, who can’t deal with adversity, who don’t know how to cope when things get tough or unpredictable.
“I’d like to make youth team players’ conditions harder: Make them clean boots, ensure that their bus might break down every so often, turn off the dressing room air conditioning, make them play on bumpy, challenging pitches.”
American players don’t normally experience such an upbringing. The journey of the American player has trace elements of this rawness, but historically it typically takes place in the other sports where young players have to claw their way to the top.
Generally, this isn’t the case with American soccer. The sport is based on unique governing and societal principles that have seen it become viewed as an affluent sport since many with money can continue the journey, which all too often dictates who progresses through the ranks of the youth game more than talent and resilience.
Regardless of nationality, all players learn the football journey is a fairy-tale indeed. The reality, however, is for 99 percent of aspiring players anywhere in the world, it’s a fairy-tale that lacks a storybook ending. It is precisely the understanding of that reality the United States needs to grasp. Beyond the semantics, marketing and purchased playing time, when a player emerges from the American system, regardless of their potential, marketability, age, or even ability, the global game and its corresponding standard awaits – and it is unwavering.
To this end, the journey for the American player might be a fairy-tale gone wrong. Beyond the borders of a paradoxical version of the sport, the global standard awaits. One that demands a national playing identity, which is dependent on the type of long-term player development defined by learning over winning at the youth level so that winning is an expectation at the older levels. Perception, again, is everything.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of American soccer the collective incautiousness of a country that pursue the world’s game with a ‘paper over the cracks’ approach. For a nation with an alarmingly dominant sporting pedigree and history, it’s astounding how many simply cannot, will not, and do not understand the implications of two non-negotiables of world football. The first: the process is simple, the application is hard; and the second (really an extension of the first principle): setting goals and meeting goals is a simple thing, but it’s not easy.
American soccer’s origins date back to the 1860s, yet for some reason the US seems to believe all good things come to pass with a fractured system and the accommodation of anti-competitive league models and winning over development practices. Such a notion is akin to the infinite monkey theorem, which metaphorically states that a monkey randomly mashing the keys on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will eventually produce a given text like the complete works of William Shakespeare with a degree of certainty. Under the current practices, this is American soccer (recall, if you look hard enough, football appears everywhere). It cannot and will not reach a higher level without a more dogged approach that ties the top to the bottom.
Perhaps it starts with accessibility. Turning unused real estate into soccer cages, free for any and all to play, which takes initiative and city planning, can be done. It might take more corporate funding to help staff and stock clubs and academies with dedicated staff or the freeing up of monies to help alleviate pay-to-play, which is not going away. The promising aspect of these elements is they are being discussed and even addressed, just not on a national scale yet. The Development Academies are starting to produce the talent expected from that system subset, which will raise the baseline level of talent across all spectrums of the game.
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As it’s come to pass, the self-imposed ceiling on soccer has defined and affected the sport in every way possible. Every generation of players produces a few raw gems that have the weight of the sport’s success or failure placed on their shoulders. These players, whose talents are perceived to be ‘world class’ to Americans – based on marketability, proximal and distal competition and player pools, and the actual eyes assessing their ability – are generally considered average abroad.
Where those hopes and dreams once broke the collar bones of a certain 14-year old that MLS turned into marketing collateral and fodder, it now turns to a 17-year old American playing in the Bundesliga. Before them, there are numerous episodes of collateral damage to potential careers strewn across modern American soccer’s storyline be it a dual-national selecting or supposedly snubbing the US.
Such a process has seen promising players flame-out once they step onto that plane to go abroad and this process is continual, cyclical and cynical. In essence, American soccer is still waiting for its own version of Superman to save it. The truth, however, is that American soccer is going to need a lot more than Superman. Why? Simply because it doesn’t need ‘saving’ so much as it needs to be tested in the waters of brutal competition both domestically with its league structure and play extending from the academy level to the professional level.
If American soccer hinges its hopes on Superman to save it, then it must rid itself of the kryptonite. In the past, that kryptonite was the nation’s perceived attitude of apathy regarding a sport championed and dominated by immigrants during a time when nationalism and patriotic pride aimed to separate Americans and their sporting ideals into a divisive “us vs. them” mentality. In his 1945 essay, The Sporting Spirit, George Orwell attempted to explain behaviour and the influential nature of sport:
“Then, chiefly in England and the United States, games were built up into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions, and the infection spread from country to country. It is the most violently combative sports, football and boxing, that have spread the widest. There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.
“Also, organised games are more likely to flourish in urban communities where the average human being lives a sedentary or at least a confined life, and does not get much opportunity for creative labour.”
Such nationalistic Groupthink is dangerous — even today. At its very core, soccer is as much a sport as it is a cultural mechanism. A culture that loves soccer exists; however a culture that demands better practices for its soccer has yet to take root in the US. The existing soccer’s directive is centred on protectionism and shrouded in self-limiting its product over all else.
For example, Major League Soccer, a single entity league operating as a central unit, controls much of the narrative of the American game. The media, the level of play, the pageantry, all of it is popular, but none of it seems authentic to American eyes that were wide open before 1996. When the assembly of American soccer fans expect national team players to have competent baseline technical ability, the league swoops in to protect the asset.
The audaciousness of the American game is also a dangerous agent. When a country’s sporting values hinge on entertaining over evolving, assumptions replace realistic goals. Many will point to the fact the United States has produced what it believes are world-class players and teams. And even more will point to unfair biases towards American players and coaches (true or not) as reasons bordering on excuses as to why the country doesn’t produce the calibre of player that can be inserted into the world’s top sides week-in and week-out or produce senior national teams that don’t just compete, but win against the game’s powerhouses.
Whether American soccer is waiting for Superman or suffering from a self-imposed, self-limiting saviour complex (or both), it’s time for the US to quit straddling both sides of American soccer’s proverbial fence, where the perception of soccer being a ‘young, vulnerable sport that could disappear if the establishment is questioned’ must dissipate, while concurrently, aggressively and foolishly expecting whomever is in charge of the sport’s direction to accomplish rapid advancement bordering on a quantum leap to reach the top levels of the game.
One thing is certain, the US must focus on looking inward instead of outward to resolve the problem, so to speak. Until it can confront the ghost – the boogeyman in the closet – by owning and aiming to correct its faults, we’ll be having these discusses in a few years when another generation of talent withers on the vine and masses of American fans look to another emerging generation’s starlets and dub one of them Superman while bottle-feeding him kryptonite.
Again, perception is everything.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3