US could yet become a world leader
If you have been around American soccer for any length of time you'll know that there are only two questions that matter about this sport: Will the USA ever be able to win a World Cup? And secondly, when will the USA produce its own Pele?
This is actually the same question, and it points out one of the greatest failings in American soccer development. Why can't a country that produces point guards, quarterbacks, home run hitters, and top hockey players figure out how to produce elite soccer players?
Now, the United States has produced a handful of top soccer players. Almost all of them have been goalkeepers — in fact, folks with long memories will recall that a Philadelphia goalkeeper named Bob Rigby graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at a time when most Americans didn't know what a soccer ball was. Since Rigby’s star turn in 1973, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard have all cemented the reputation of American keepers around the world.
What the United States has not come close to is producing a world class-level field player. Landon Donovan is very good; Clint Dempsey is probably the best attacking player of this generation; and John Harkes, Alexi Lalas, Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna were all ahead of their time. Not one of them would ever be listed on an all-World XI.
When explaining why America cannot do for soccer what it has done for other sports, we must start with the obvious. Soccer simply isn’t close to the heart of American sports culture. Americans, for whatever reason(s), revere coach-controlled contests that are heavy on physical contact (basketball, football, hockey); and this is without mentioning America’s favorite pastime, baseball.
Glory days: Football royalty George Best (L) and Pele (R) helped boost the NASL's credibility during the 1970's. (Photo by Tony Duffy/Allsport)
When the North American Soccer League arrived in 1968, soccer was seen as a "recreational" activity, good for off-season conditioning, perhaps, but little else. It enjoyed regional popularity and has some deep roots at east coast colleges, but it had long been eclipsed by the other “big four” sports. It’s worth noting that when the NASL finally caught on, it was heavily stocked with European players and continental ideas. American sports fans were willing to watch a top-level product, even if they weren’t real sure how to pronounce all the players’ names.
But — and this has bedeviled the sport ever since — the youth development that followed in the NASL’s wake didn’t have the same European ideas at the root.
In the 1970’s, American coaches set up their youth camps and junior teams based not on European or South American academies, but Little League baseball. That structure created a huge dependence upon volunteers. It was a fundamental damaging miscalculation. Volunteer coaches work fine for Little League, since most Americans grow up with baseball. But, it didn't work at all for soccer. The result was that outside the ethnic enclaves of major cities, kids were being “taught” the game by people who knew next to nothing about it.
A second issue clouded US development: The growth of the sport coincided with equal rights for women in sports. Soccer is the only major American sport where resources have been shared from the start. Girls still aren’t allowed to play baseball, girls' basketball is a recent phenomenon and girls' ice hockey is playing a very long, slow catch-up game. Not so for soccer.
As a result, it’s no shock that Americans have produced most of the elite women's players and that the United States has dominated the women's game. The women’s national team has also gotten far more attention and money than anybody else in the world and have used it relatively well. Perhaps most importantly, the women were able to define themselves free of comparisons.
The men, however, have never had that opportunity.
Unfortunately, some of that, Americans brought on themselves. A great example is Americans’ incessant fussing with sport’s rules: no NASL match ever was played according to FIFA statutes; MLS used to have ridiculous tie-breakers with countdown clocks and silly flags; college soccer has its own rules, the most significant being its substitution policy; and school and youth soccer is still played with free subs.
Interestingly enough, the NASL (and even MLS at its start) never believed you could sell pure, un-Americanized soccer to the US public. And, to this day, there are many college officials and youth coaches who still believe the game can be “improved” with American ideas. The effect has been to turn a creative game of endurance into a platoon game that prizes raw speed and bulk above polish.
The results have been hugely damaging. American players grow up playing a sport that resembles soccer — but isn’t. That’s why the vast majority cannot master the real thing. How could they if they cannot play it regularly until after college?
Then, there’s the question of coaching and the role it plays in American sport. Patrick Barclay, one of the world's most renowned football writers, once quipped that “the United States is like the Soviet Union. You'll figure out how to produce a million players, none of them memorable." That was in 1979.
Paul Gardner, one of the deans of American soccer journalism, spent much of his career railing at the unfortunate influence of coaches on what is a free-form game. He also has long asked the question: “if you are going to coach players, why not at least coach them to play like Brazilians?” He was inducted into the Soccer Hall of Fame without ever getting an answer.
Outside perspective: Current US national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has criticized America's convoluted soccer system in the past (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
It's pretty obvious, in fact, that America’s “coached” players don't turn out to be as good as players who simply grow-up with the game, playing pick-up style. American basketball players aren't taught how to dribble, after all — they start that on the playground. Kids throwing footballs in the street aren't taught how to chuck a perfect spiral either. True coaching, in all our other sports, actually comes after kids show a modicum of talent and attract some attention.
The result is that American soccer, as our current national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann memorably said after the 2010 World Cup, has its development pyramid upside down.
Fixing this problem isn’t going to be easy. You need a brush-hog to clear away the obvious obstacles: coaches make money from camps, travel teams are pay-to-play operations, college coaches are loath to give away their autonomous game to the lords of FIFA — and we haven't even come to what might be the biggest issue.
That is, like it or not, America's best athletes aren't playing soccer once they figure out there is no “big” money to be made. I’d venture to say that half of the players in the NBA or NFL today all played some soccer growing up, be it in school or in some youth recreation program. Many of them were undoubtedly prospects, but all of them didn't need much prompting to discover that America's "other" sports are worth a lot more.
The remedy is not the one most American soccer boosters want to hear: time.
In another generation, everyone under 60 will have grown up with the sport, and Major League Soccer will be a league capable of competing for the best talent. And, in another generation, because soccer is a worthwhile pursuit, the youth, school and college games will either be played by the world rules or have been completely replaced by the pro team's own development system. Can we wait that long?
It does feel as if a shift is coming at last. For example, I was struck by how defensive Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski was when he was questioned at this year’s NSCAA Convention. Cirovski actually claimed that the short college season was an advantage because his players could play “pickup games.” The only reason people didn’t burst out laughing was because his audience in the room was cut from the same cloth — many were coaches clinging to their jobs knowing that they’re not very good at it.
Also telling are the number of top coaches who will now admit — even if they’d like you not to print their names — that the system is broken and they are part of the problem.
Then there’s the folks who run the MLS-affiliated academies that may one day supplant the college game. These men have no illusions about where they are right now. I was struck by how frank the likes of the Chicago Fire Academy’s Larry Sunderland is — he is withering not only on development but where his own program is. Such sober talk hasn’t been heard in years, if ever.
A generation ago, NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam proclaimed early and often that “the next Pele is growing up in the United States.” He was by all accounts, dead wrong.
But a generation from now, I have a feeling the next Lionel Messi may very well be. He might even be an American.
At least we can hope.