10 Things United States Soccer Needs to Improve

October 28, 2011

Any fan of the United States Men’s National Team, or United States Women’s National Team for that matter, knows the roller-coaster ups and downs of cheering for a team that can both lift your soul and crush it, sometimes doing both in the same tournament, the same week, or even the same game.

Here are 10 things that will help improve the consistency and excellence of soccer in America.

Involve High School Coaches in College Recruiting

Like it or not, in America, the college game has become the de facto development league for American Major League Soccer players and an increasing number of foreign-born players.

The positives of the college game are that players get a college education, especially for the vast majority of them who will not have a successful professional career, and it gives them a few more years to mature rather than attempting to send them to a professional team’s academy as a teenager as often happens in other countries.

However, many talented players go unnoticed by NCAA Division I teams, weakening the level of play at that level. Players whose parents cannot afford the expenses of elite club fees and club travel schedules, players who live too far away from an elite Development Academy club for it to be a viable option or players whose parents don’t want to subject their children to the negative environment some elite clubs have fostered get ignored by most Division I programs.

This is not meant to an indictment of club soccer. The value of the newly formed Development Academy is that it helps consolidate talented players to make their identification easier, but this system ignores essentially every player who plays for a mid-level club and/or their high school.

While there are certainly plenty of high school coaches who are poor, most of them have a deep knowledge of the game and, perhaps, more importantly, as the vast majority are teachers, a better understanding of a player’s character.

Many high school coaches will also tell you that the players who get recruited DI are often not their best players. They have simply benefited from a better club pedigree.

Involving more high school coaches in the recruiting process, as is done almost universally for collegiate football recruiting, would help boost the level of Division I play by bringing in talented players who go unnoticed because they lack exposure through no fault of their own.

Continue to Streamline the Club System

The Development Academy is the latest attempt to consolidate the U.S.’s club system and looks to be a step in the right direction.

However, it has left in its wake several other systems which were developed for the same purpose.

ODP was originally created to help identify the nation’s best up-and-coming talent and the regional leagues of U.S. Youth Soccer were created just a few years back to try and put the best club teams in each region in one more competitive league. Now U.S. Soccer has several simultaneous systems operating with the same problem; the over-dissemination of the talent pool.

Try to find a club soccer program today that doesn’t brand itself as “elite.” There aren’t too many. U.S. Soccer needs to come in and reorganize the system from eliminating unnecessary overlaps and the current, scattered organization.

The current academy system has also created a bizarre scenario in many cities where the Major League Soccer academies are competing with other local clubs for the area’s best talent. In this scenario, the talent pool is spread too thin.

Better Identification of Talent at the Youth Level

Another area where U.S. Soccer is attempting to improve is talent identification. U.S. Soccer now holds “Training Centers” each month throughout the country in which top club players can be selected to attend a training session run by U.S. Soccer staff.

While this is a good idea, it does little to identify the players who, for whatever reason, cannot or choose not to play with their area’s elite club.

This is especially troubling when one considers just how much of the current national team pool is from parents who were first-generation immigrants to America and the most likely to not be participating on an elite club. It is also worrying when one considers how many good American players have been identified outside this type of process, perhaps the most famous example of which is Jozy Altidore, who was “discovered” while playing in a pickup game in a local park.

Expand Generation Adidas

Generation Adidas, originally started as Nike Project 40, creates a safety net for those players who want to go pro straight out of high school or even before.

Players have money held for them in an escrow to pay for their college education, should their professional career not pan out. This makes the decision of going pro a little easier for those who, at a young age, appear ready to start a professional career, knowing that they have a backup plan.

However, the program typically only has about a dozen members each year. To make an expansion of this program work, Major League Soccer teams will also have to increase their commitment to the MLS reserve league to give those players on expanded rosters the opportunity to get games while they work their way onto the senior team, much as is done on professional teams in other countries.

This expanded option of going straight to the professional ranks could be combined with MLS’ new home-grown rule to encourage MLS clubs to devote serious resources to their academy teams in order to see a return on their investment.

Continue to Expand/Revamp the Residency Program

The U.S. residency program brings in 40 U-16 and U-17 players twice a year to play in its development academy. This number is up from 20 players at its inception, so it has moved in the right direction.

It should continue to expand from there.

Competition for spots is the ultimate motivator and when players are brought in, they know they are one of the top 40 players and will be for the next six months before they have a chance to be replaced.

People involved in the program have commented on the complacency this has created among the players knowing that once selected, their place is cemented for the next half-year.

With a larger player pool, or more frequent quarterly tryouts, there would be more urgency among the players to gain and keep their spot.

Get American Kids to Watch Soccer on TV

Talk to almost any American kid (even the most ardent soccer lover) and ask them if they saw a certain English Premier League or La Liga game and the answer is going to be either “No” or, at best, “I saw the highlights.”

Ask that same kid if he saw his local NFL team’s game and he will say, “Of course” and be able to follow it up with all sorts of analysis and commentary.

While the U.S. has made some progress in turning soccer from one of its greatest participatory sports into a popular spectator sport, it still has a long, long way to go. While soccer kids will buy and sport jerseys of their favorite soccer players, it is almost impossible to get them to watch anything more than the goals from a game on TV, even when it’s a matchup of the EPL’s Big Four or even El Clasico.

Increase Streetball Opportunities

Most of the world’s best teams have become just that because soccer is the sport of the lower class in that country. Much like the NBA in the United States, becoming a professional footballer in many countries is seen as a way out of poverty. The world’s greatest player of all time, Pele, famously learned to play the game barefoot using wadded up newspapers for a ball.

Meanwhile, in America, to gain any sort of exposure, a child must have parents who can afford expensive club and travel fees to participate on an upper-level club team.

The type of creative free-play that occurs in pickup games is also something sorely missing from most American players’ games.

America’s youth has an extremely regimented lifestyle where all sporting activities are organized and run by adults. American players are overly regimented, often directed by coaches who think they should be able to have an almost video-game-like control over their players.

Relegation and Promotion for Major League Soccer and the United Soccer Leagues

Relegation and promotion is a feature of almost every league in the world, except in America. While the concerns of franchise owners and the financial dangers of relegation are legitimate, the lack of this widely used system has several negative effects on American soccer.

First, near the end of the season, the fates of many teams are already decided. One of the beauties of promotion and relegation is how exciting the end of the season becomes. Teams at the bottom are struggling to avoid relegation and teams near the top are battling for the title and/or qualification for the Champions League.

In this type of system, the MLS could be merged with the USL to be promoted and relegated. The USL has proven that MLS has missed the mark in several soccer cities in the past, as the creation of the Portland and Seattle MLS franchises were built on the success and culture generated by their USL predecessors. This would also increase excitement in many USL cities as their teams fought for promotion to MLS.

This type of promotion/relegation system could be coupled with two other revisions of MLS, either the transformation to a single-table system used by most leagues, or the creation of a promotion/relegation playoff system like used in the English Championship Division.

Take the CONCACAF Champions League Seriously

Over the course of MLS participation in the CONCACAF Champions League history, many MLS squads have tended to treat the CCL as an annoyance rather than a reward. Fielding weakened teams, MLS sides bow out early, choosing to instead emphasize their league games.

Real Salt Lake changed that a little last year, as they were inch-close to winning the CCL. Since then, some MLS teams have followed RSL’s example, but MLS teams are now strong enough to put a team in the CCL final each and every year and that has not happened.

The winner of the CCL gets to go to the FIFA Club World Cup and face off against the best teams from around the world. The Los Angeles Galaxy facing off against Barcelona in the FIFA Club World Cup would draw a great deal of interest, helping to increase the American fanbase and draw continued attention to MLS.

Stop Trying to Be Someone They’re Not

Every nation develops its own style. The Spanish are known for tiki-taka, the Dutch for Total Football, the Brazilians for Joga Bonito. With the recent success of the Spanish national team after many, many years of underperforming, tiki-taka has become en vogue.
However, not every nation is built for that style, nor should every nation try to adopt that style. The U.S. is no different.

With the recent hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann as national team manager and Claudio Reyna as youth technical director, they are attempting to implement a more free-flowing possession style to the national team and youth levels. While this is to be commended and it is certainly more entertaining to watch beautiful football, it is not the right style for the U.S.

As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Even with the emergence of players like Mix Diskerud, Jose Torres and others, they are nowhere near the level or Xavi and Iniesta, nor will they ever be. The U.S. is not built for tiki-taka, nor will it be any time soon.

As Klinsmann himself has said repeatedly, a nation’s style of play should reflect its culture. Is there anything more American than a style built on strong defense, organization, hard work and athleticism? The bottom line is winning. While some might see this as a regression, realistically, it is what the U.S. is best at and what it is built for. Jurgen would seem to be the perfect man to do this, combining two German football hallmarks: solid, organized defending and lightning-quick, deadly counters.

Our best players are combative, athletic, fit and competitive. Even our best possession players are not going to out-possess the players from the top 15-20 teams in the world, but as Bob Bradley proved, a strong, organized defense combined with fit, competitive players put into a counterattack system can beat the best teams in the world.

John D. Halloran

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One Response to 10 Things United States Soccer Needs to Improve

  1. Dupuis on November 2, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Well done JD. I wish more folks would read your piece and think about these issues. This topic is near and dear to my heart. 30 years ago I was one of “your” combative, athletic, fit, competitive players with the old NASL. Now I’m a youth soccer coach of a pretty good team (54-6-6 last 2 years) from a “little” club in New England. I agree completely with much of what you said, but differ here and there as well.

    You could be right about HS and college soccer, but I don’t see it. In HS, there are way too many games, and the average coaching is not great – if the players don’t show up with good technical and tactical skills they don’t get them. And if you watch the Next Gen series (college age), or the EPL U18 (HS age), and compare with even the best US HS or college, the gap is on the light-year scale. So I would like to see the emphasis on the clubs, not the schools. The schools will always concentrate more on winning than development. And what we need is development, better early development and continuing that development through the teen years.

    The problem with the current (and past) youth soccer system is just as you say. ODP, Development Academy, Super-Y, Super-20, Regional leagues, premier, elite – who can sort that stuff out, in practice it all turns out to be much more about the adults than the kids playing swell soccer. I played with the young Hugo Sanchez and I think I know what constitutes promising youth talent. And I can tell you US youth soccer is full of kids who could be really good – and I can also tell you that only a few of the kids on “top teams” look quite so good. US soccer generally likes big fast aggressive (early puberty) kids. Half the kids at La Masia would not get a serous look from most US coaches – too small, too slow. The early puberty kids get selected out early and once the selection is made – well, people generally see what we are looking for. The Masia scouts select almost exclusively for technical ability, because kids develop physically at different rates it is problematic to sort that out, however technical skill takes years to develop and requires specific neuromuscular patterning that needs to start early. I think that the best way to use the club system is more tournaments, from which essentially “all-star” players and coaches would be selected to compete regionally, in tournaments, from which “all-star” playes and coaches … you get the point. The best way to see who are the best players and coaches is to watch how they play when it counts. The current system (DA, ODP, “elite clubs”) of try outs and training pools, turns out to be little more than a beauty contest and old friends club. But doing things differently would require US Soccer to change, and they are the focus of the problem. If you go to coaching clinics and courses (I keep going I guess because I’m an eternal optimist) like I do, you will hear the official US Soccer development drivel. It can be boiled down to: forget insisting on technical development and tactical development based on team play – INSTEAD drill the heck out of 1 v 1 play. Yup, that’s it. Pretty sophisticated stuff. I keep thinking they are kidding, they are not.

    I agree completely about the watching soccer thing. We start to learn things by copying. Most US kids play not knowing what great soccer even looks like. On my team, I pass out DVDs of CL games, and have given subscriptions to fox on-line – it works, once the boys know what the should be trying to do, they try it.

    I grew up in San Diego, and even in the 70s we played soccer everywhere, it was great. I think this kind of thing has to be organic, I’m not sure it can be organized into exsistence. So I don’t know about the streetball thing, maybe in NYC its da bomb.

    If you have any ideas about how to make MLS better, great. I can’t bring myself to watch it except when going to the games. You’re absolutely right about relagation/promotion, and a teired system would allow more small markets to take part – it would be good all around. However, good luck, the US EPL owners want to dump it in the UK.

    As to the residental thing, at La Masia, the kids are on 2 year cycles. I think when developing, security is a good thing, you just assume not all of them will make it. Heaping the pressure on kids feels counter productive.

    As for a unified national style, its a curious subject. In my formative years, I admired German football while playing for an English coach, mostly against Mexicans. My kids play a tika taka variant (a Liverpool pass and move variation) because half my kids have sufficient technical skill and the other half don’t. We often play against teams heavy with African imagrant kids with extravagent individual skills and abilities (how old are those guys anyways) but a little lite on team play. How we would play as a nation once our true football potential is developed and assembled? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. But my money is on it being some version of beautiful football.

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