Scuffed, Vol. 29: What’s wrong with American soccer and can it be fixed?

We knew these would be dark days. The coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team for next month’s friendly against Portugal will be Dave Sarachan, an uninspiring appointment. He’s a Bruce Arena assistant serving the remainder of his contract along with the rest of Arena’s staff through the end of 2017. Presumably nobody (including Tab Ramos) wanted the gig as interim manager of a team that has no meaningful activity on the horizon and may not get a permanent manager until next summer. All of this is a tedious, sad, cruel reminder that we will not be playing in the World Cup, and nothing about men’s soccer in this country matters all that much for the foreseeable future.

With that in mind, and the church bells of reform ringing across the Internet, I’ve gotten requests to take a more substantive look at the structural problems in American soccer. I hesitate, because as I said last week, I think the Trinidadian fiasco was a precise, micro failure by the men involved, and for me the 10,000-foot view is simple: soccer is not yet popular enough in America for us to produce the world class men’s talent we need to be a dominant soccer nation. The sport is not ingrained in the culture of the south side of Chicago, or hill towns in eastern Oklahoma, or the Georgia coast, or corn and soybeans country in Ohio. So the great, bordering-on-neurotic American competitors of the 20th century — Isiah Thomas, Mickey Mantle, Jim Brown and Roger Clemens — were point guards, center fielders, running backs and pitchers instead of central midfielders, target strikers, right backs and goalkeepers. Basketball, football and baseball are still the big three in the heartland, brothers and sisters. That fundamental truth explains why we only have about a half-dozen Americans starting regularly in the world’s best soccer leagues, and why three of those grew up in Germany.

However, things are moving in soccer’s direction. Atlanta United, who hosts an MLS playoff game tonight, will put 70,000 fans in the stands. A lower-division club, Cincinnati F.C., pulled more than 30,000 per game in its U.S. Open Cup run. Overall MLS ticket sales were up 16 percent in 2017, and American soccer fans can now watch dozens of matches in Germany and England on Fox and NBC affiliates on weekend mornings. Meanwhile, the U.S. is developing more good players, more seriously, than ever. Every MLS club has a youth academy. Our youth men’s national teams seem to have turned a corner in the past decade. I’ll be surprised if we don’t have 15 players starting for top-flight teams in Germany and England by 2022. So even though hearts and minds in Cape Girardeau and Sioux Falls are yet to be won, help is on the way, is my big picture view.

Still, I’m going to try to write a series addressing some of the common demands by American soccer fans in the wake of Trinidad. We’ll call it, “What’s wrong with American soccer and can it be fixed?

Part 1: Promotion-relegation

Soccer leagues around the world are organized differently from professional sports in America, and the difference is promotion and relegation. In England, Germany, Spain, Italy and everywhere else, clubs are sorted into divisions, and each year the worst teams from each division are relegated to the division below and the best teams from the division below are promoted to the division above.

For example, in England, the three worst clubs in the 20-team Premier League last year — Hull City, Middlesbrough and Sunderland — are now playing in the second division, called the Championship. The three best clubs from the Championship last year — Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield — are now playing in the Premier League. Every year, three teams go up and three go down. A similar relationship exists between the Championship and the third division, and the third division and the fourth, and so on down to the semi-professional regional leagues in the eighth division. Presumably, a bunch of fellas in a beer league could, within seven years, win their way from the eighth division to the Premier League. That never happens, but the built-in fluidity of professional soccer gives upstarts and newcomers a chance. See: Leicester City.

Personally and in the abstract, I’m for promotion/relegation in America. Relegation battles at the bottom of the table are fascinating, carrying the intensity of the most desperate playoff game because failure is punished by exile. On the other hand, winning promotion can be transcendent. See: Reims.

And perhaps most importantly for the purposes of American soccer in this dispiriting era, the possibility of promotion incentivizes clubs in lower divisions to develop players as a way to work toward promotion, and robust lower divisions offer young players the opportunity to play high-stakes first-team soccer before they turn 20. Both dynamics would contribute greatly to the pool of players available to the national team.

None of that is how it works in the United States and unfortunately it won’t, for a long time. Anybody arguing for an immediate transition to promotion/relegation is unmoored from reality. Two reasons: 1) The powers-that-be are opposed to it because it wouldn’t be fair to owners who paid huge sums of money to buy into Major League Soccer. 2) Lower-division soccer in the U.S. isn’t ready. Time — as in, several decades — will be the only cure for these realities.

Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, explained the first obstacle to pro/rel in America in a conversation with Grant Wahl earlier this year: “It’s not the rules of the game that people bought into when they made investments, whether it’s in the USL, the NASL or MLS. It’s not the rules that we set out when teams came in…if the leagues get together and say we should look at this, are we willing to help facilitate that discussion? Sure, we’d be willing to. But if you make an investment today and the next day the government — in this case, us — changes the rules completely and changes the value of your investment? That’s going to lead to some serious problems.”

Let’s take for instance the ownership group for Minnesota United, an expansion MLS club that just finished its first season. The owners paid a $100 million franchise fee and they’ll pay $150 million to build a new soccer-specific stadium, basically a league requirement right now. Would they do that if they thought they might be relegated to a lower division after a bad season? No. And to switch things up on them wouldn’t just be bad form, it would almost certainly lead to serious, protracted litigation. Getting rid of Sunil Gulati won’t change this dynamic. Any head of U.S. Soccer would face the same dilemma.

The only way this starts to change is if the United States has another 20 or 30 professional soccer clubs who could compete with the MLS clubs financially and on the field, and if there were a money-making prospect in the second and third divisions. At that point U.S. Soccer would have much more reason to think seriously about pushing for an open system. We’re not at that point. In fact, lower-division soccer in the U.S. is a mess.

The North American Soccer League and United Soccer League are competing over who gets to be the second division in U.S. soccer, and the NASL is teetering on the edge of non-existence and suing U.S. Soccer over its troubles. Most importantly, while attendance for many of these clubs is improving, it’s still low. The English second division had 10 clubs pulling 20,000 per game or more last year. The NASL and USL had one, Cincinnati, which is a candidate for MLS expansion. Until U.S. Soccer establishes clear, stable second and third divisions and those leagues develop serious fan-bases and real stadiums, any talk of promotion-relegation is academic. And the growth of those second and third divisions depends not only on legal resolution of the NASL’s claims, but on the growth of the sport in small towns and inner cities across the country.

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Speaking of promotion, promote Tyler Adams! To Europe. In the January transfer window. The 18-year-old converted wingback has become a dominant force for the resurgent New York Red Bulls. Watch this video of his performance against Atlanta United on Oct. 15.

Defensively solid (especially for his age), polished on the ball and quick as hell. Adams and the Red Bulls smoked the Chicago Fire in a playoff knockout game on Wednesday, 4–0. Adams got the assist to make it 2–0, which was the back-breaking goal, demonstrating his explosiveness and precision. Still not the finished product, but you can see he’s a dynamo and he’s becoming a lock for the USMNT. For comparison, consider the case of DeAndre Yedlin, the current starting right back for the USMNT and Newcastle United in the Premier League. When Yedlin was 18, he was playing for Akron University. Adams is already dominating the right flank against some of the better sides in MLS. If he makes the transition to Europe and to the position of right back (he came up as a central midfielder), then for my money he will surpass Yedlin for that starting spot by 2022. That’s what we want. Iron sharpening iron.

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Major League Soccer held a full slate of simultaneous matches Sunday in the final day of the regular season, and there was a lot of drama. The best was in Atlanta, where Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley were visiting with Toronto F.C. Altidore and Bradley were booed loudly every time they touched the ball. And then this happened. Altidore scored, a fan threw a cup of beer at him, and then Sebastian Giovinco picked it up and drank it and tossed the empty back. Altidore and Bradley were in for the abuse because of the way the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup, and while I agree with the many people condemning the throwing of objects at players, I’m glad to see the two brand-name Americans scrutinized and pressured. To be jeered by 70,000 every time you touch the ball has to hurt. Good! It should hurt. Hope they get booed throughout the playoffs. It adds theater and edge to the sport, and that’s what the people want. Blessings on Giovinco for crushing that beer, too.

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The U.S. U-17s on Saturday crashed out of their World Cup when they ran into a clinical and frequently dangerous England side. We gave up two goals early, couldn’t equalize despite a good run of play in the last half-hour of the first half, and ended up losing 4–1. I think the game could have gone differently, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. England beat Brazil in the semifinals on Wednesday to move into a final against Spain. They’re good. Brian Sciaretta has a nice look back at the tournament from the U.S. perspective here. Looking ahead, I see four, maybe five teenagers from this group who will make an impact with the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Josh Sargent is still the surest bet. He looked rusty in this tournament, and would have scored twice in the first half against England to make it 2–2 had he been more composed. He glanced a half-volley off the crossbar and pushed a difficult, off-balance header over the bar. But I still have faith. He’s a humble kid, can score with either foot or his head, and he’s got the strength on the ball, intelligence and technique to be a quality №9 in one of the big European leagues. He doesn’t possess blazing speed, but that’s OK. He’ll get his chance this spring when he turns 18 and joins Werder Bremen, an historic Bundesliga club where he’ll have the opportunity to prove himself.

Andrew Carleton could be the greatest American soccer player of all time or a complete bust. The whole continuum is possible, honestly. Much will depend on whether he has the internal drive to develop consistency. When he’s on, as he was against Paraguay, he’s a level apart. His pass to put Akinola into space for that game’s first goal was something we’ve rarely seen from an American player — vision, instinct, technical brilliance. But when he’s off, as he was against England, he loses the ball a lot. A good sign that he’s coming along and developing into a trustworthy professional will be for him to earn first team minutes next summer at Atlanta United, a club coached by Argentine master Tata Martino. Martino deploys a lineup full of South American talent and showed last year he won’t be giving out minutes for charity. Carleton will have earned it if he plays. The next step will be to become a regular, influential starter in the MLS.

Chris Durkin was the U.S. MVP of the U-17 World Cup. The defensive midfielder was clean and clever on the ball, decisive in the tackle and alert to danger. His ability to turn defense into offense was one of the keys to our success. He slotted in at center back more often than not, since the team had no natural central defenders, showing off his versatility. Durkin, like Carleton, needs first team minutes at his club, D.C. United, or he needs to go to Europe. We won’t know much on either front for a while.

Chris Goslin, the other starting defensive midfielder for the U-17s, was probably the team’s second most valuable player behind Durkin. He’s quick and strong and, while not as clean on the ball as Durkin, was certainly more effective in the middle of the pitch than anyone else on the field for us. Goslin missed the England match because he earned too many yellow cards up to that point, and his absence was felt. Watch for him in 2018 with Atlanta United.

Fullback Sergino Dest was also promising, more for his defense and speed than his on-the-ball contributions. Tim Weah got a lot of hype because of his name, club (Paris St. Germain) and hat trick and screamer against Paraguay, but I’m not sold. The rest of the guys are mostly unremarkable.

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Weston McKennie
got his first minutes with Schalke on Tuesday after a hamstring injury sidelined him before the international break. He helped see out a 3–1 victory over a third-division German side in the domestic cup. He was active, from what I can tell, got off a shot, drew some fouls, committed some fouls. Playing time is not a given for McKennie. Schalke is on a run, they’re 4 points off a slumping Dortmund at the top of the table in the Bundesliga, and they have several good options at central midfield. They face Wolfsburg on Saturday.

Christian Pulisic is in a slump. He stayed home with a knock Tuesday as Dortmund traveled for a 5–0 win in the domestic cup. After hurtling out of the gate on opening day with a goal and assist against Wolfsburg, the American has scored once and not assisted any goals in 11 appearances, 7 of them starts. Dortmund looks certain to crash out of the Champions League and unless they find their form they’ll concede first place in the Bundesliga to Bayern Munich in the next few weeks. Let’s hope for a return to form from the young American.

John Brooks is back in the roster for Wolfsburg after three months out with injury, and rode the bench for a mid-week game in the domestic cup. A little bit late for the USMNT, but hey, we only have to wait five years before another World Cup.

Apologies for the long letter. See you next week.

Scuffed is a weekly soccer newsletter focused on the U.S. Men’s National Team, and the players who could one day make it better. You can sign up here.