Fixing the Faulty Fortunes of American Football

Jun 8, 2017; Commerce City, CO, USA; United States midfielder Christian Pulisic (10) celebrates after the match against Trinidad & Tobago at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever lived next door to a party you were not invited to? I am talking about one of those big parties where everyone seems to be having the time of their life. Everyone except you because you were not invited.

Well, that is how the United States men’s national soccer team (USMNT) has to be feeling. All they had to do was show up with their invitation, but they lost it when they suffered a 2-1 defeat to Trinidad and Tobago last October.

Now, America has to be wondering what could have been with one of the most chaotic World Cups in recent memory as Germany failed to advance past group stage play while Russia and Japan surprisingly made it through. In addition, one of soccer’s young stars in Christian Pulisic missed a chance to show the world just how special he really is.

Pulisic is only 19-years-old, but so is France’s Kylian Mbappe. The young French attacker is showing no moment is too big for him as he put an end to a listless Argentina squad with two goals in a Round of 16 victory for France.

America needed to qualify for the World Cup to continue to earn the respect in the soccer world as they lack the rich history of a Germany or Argentina. Their best finish in World Cup play came during the tail end of the prohibition era, 1930, when they finished in third place. To make matters even worse, the USMNT failed to qualify for the tournament for 40 years, 1950 to 1990.

Since the first year of “The Great Depression” (1930), the USMNT’s best finishes came in 1994, 2010, and 2014 as the Americans made it to the Round of 16. Pulisic and company were supposed to be the golden crop that could go further than that.

Not qualifying for the World Cup shows that America still has a long way to go.

It starts at the youth level.

In just about every sport, America has physically gifted and athletic players. For a lot of those players, it is in their DNA or they pick up such skills at an early age. Go take a gander at your local park or gym and you will see youngsters that are as fast as Speedy Gonzalez, jump like they are on a trampoline, and might make plays like a tenured pro. In addition, those kids are HUGE for their age, making them even better.

The problem is that such physical attributes or athletic resourcefulness is relied upon too heavily as the players grow with age. It shows in soccer when those same kids grow up to play for the USMNT’s u-17, 20, and 23 teams. Those junior American teams have not enjoyed much success since 2000.

At every level of American soccer, players lack a couple qualities.

Physique and athleticism has granted America a great deal of success in basketball, football, baseball, and even golf now. In soccer, technical adeptness and footwork breeds winners. Explosive teams like America, Jamaica, and just about any African team have better athletes, but fail to develop the aforementioned characteristics.

Three of the final four World Cup teams in France, Belgium, and England have some special athletes in Mbappe (FRA), Eden Hazard (BEL), and Kyle Walker (ENG) while Croatia manages without one. Some of the things you notice from players on each of the remaining teams include footwork and technique. You see such skills on display in their set pieces and penalties converted. These are small dynamics in the game of soccer, but dynamics that create champions.

The soccer system, for the youth, is as flawed as AAU basketball where there are too many teams and, as Kobe Bryant highlighted, kids are not cultivating the rudimentary elements of the sport like others around the world.

The young players in America need to be taught the technical aspects because they are vital in today’s game. More importantly, those skills could become second nature for them as they grow older.

Next, competition needs to be emphasized to these young kids. MLS teams have academies as a way to see the young up-and-coming talent, but they have too many teams. The USMNT has that same issue as well.

Both the MLS and the USMNT need to have just one or two development teams for kids instead of several. Reducing these academies, both at the club and national level, would foster more competition. Competition brings the best out of people, especially kids, as fighting for a roster spot would show kids that making the team is an honor and not some privilege.

Once players start to show a great deal of promise in the youth academies, they should be eligible for the MLS and/or USMNT’s junior level teams. This means they would be one call away from playing with the big boys. There should only be two of these teams as well with American soccer officials separating them by age. Most national teams have under-19 and under-21 junior squads.

What happens when they turn 22 and have not made it professionally? Well, soccer just might not be their cup of tea as you cannot wait too long for a player to develop. Not unless we want to enter another 40-year World Cup drought.

The NCAA needs some minor adjustments.

Some think America should do-away with collegiate soccer. That is not fair to those that may be late bloomers in comparison to the lucky crop that made it to signing professionally with a junior level team. NCAA soccer should remain an option for young athletes only if they never signed professionally.

Now, to the bigger issue.

The Division I men’s soccer season is simply too condensed as it operates for three-to-four months with two games a week and sometimes three if Mother Nature interferes. The schedule has remained the same since 1959.

Sasho Cirovski, men’s soccer coach at Maryland, said, “It’s a model whose time has come.” Cirovski holds a prominent role on the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA).

With soccer being a non-stop affair for 90 minutes with only halftime to serve as a break, players are put into a bind especially at the NCAA level. Two games a week means there is less time to perfect their craft in practice. The footballers are forced to sacrifice skill and technique if they want to win games according to Milton Joyner, former goalie at Saint Francis (PA).

Not only does a jam-packed schedule sacrifice a player’s growth and development, but it raises the risk of being injured.

Now, you are probably thinking that this is no big deal because these guys are on scholarship and that is the life they chose. However, MLS teams generally play once a week as the season is prolonged over a six-to-seven-month period. The NCAA emulating the professionals’ schedule would precipitate monumental benefits to the young adults.

Stretching the collegiate season so that there are rarely two games a week would give the athlete more time to focus on academics. Second, it would give them a chance to nurse any nicks and bruises they have to prevent severe damage. Lastly, players would have the chance to practice more. After all, the adage goes “practice makes perfect.”

“The initiative is a well-thought through model that will serve their game and student-athletes well,” stated Florida’s Becky Burleigh who coach’s the Gators D1 women’s team. She too helps govern all of soccer as a prominent leader in the NSCAA.

The year-round proposal was submitted two years ago, but it remains a matter unsolved.

The MLS is good, but things could be better.

The MLS needs more money. However, the money the American soccer league generates is chump change compared to other leagues around the world.

A financial report ran by Sportcal noted that America’s soccer league had generated 32 million during the 2017 season. Sounds like a lot of money right? Well, not in comparison to the other leagues.

Revenue generated by each soccer league in 2017:

  • Barclays Premier League (England) – $331 million
  • The Bundesliga (Germany) – $194 million
  • La Liga (Spain) – $179 million
  • Serie A (Italy) – $130 million
  • Ligue 1 (France) – $103 million
  • Brasileirao (Brazil) – $73 million
  • Chinese Super League (China) – $69 million
  • Russian Premier League (Russia) – $55 million
  • Turkish Super Lig (Turkey) – $51 million
  • J-League (Japan) – $33 million
  • MLS (America) – $32 million

The best way to generate money for the MLS is to continue to sign old, aging international icons. The Los Angeles Galaxy did it with England’s David Beckham from 2007-2012 and are currently doing it with Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The New York Red Bulls stole a page out of the Galaxy’s book as they acquired France’s Thierry Henry, 2010-2014, while D.C. United just welcomed Wayne Rooney.

Signing old stars generates much-needed profit for the MLS as fans have more of a reason to witness legendary players. Also, it increases the MLS’s exposure and the game of soccer to Americans.

Improving the profit is one thing, but the play on the field needs to be improved too in the MLS. A 34-game season is fine and yes the season spills over into the NFL’s early stages, but an advanced playoff structure could get fans tuned in more.

The MLS has 22 teams and 54 percent of the league makes the playoffs, 12 teams. Instead of that funky playoff system, the American league should look to only allow eight teams to make the playoffs. To help set the conference semis, the eight teams should be split into two World Cup-style groups in which each team plays three group games with the top two teams from both groups advancing.

The group stages would emphasize the importance of winning two or three games and increase the tension as the final games in group play approached .

From there, the semifinals would be set with “win or go home” matches until a champion is crowned. This too would create “must-see-TV.”

America deserves that kind of competitive nature to be implemented in the MLS and it would intrigue young kids around the US to take a liking to soccer and understand how competitive it really is.

For the players in the MLS that make the USMNT, playing in group stages and sudden death matches would be nothing new to them when it comes time to qualify or play in the World Cup.

Soccer seems to be nothing more than a hobby in the USA. If we are not in it to win it, then why bother having a national team?