Time & Space: Football in the United States

It has been a few days since the tragedy in Trinidad unfolded to a worldwide TV audience. The official twitter account of the USMNT lay dormant while it prepared to offer up the singular tweet Friday, that Bruce Arena as expected, had resigned. Friday, Sunil had a phone call with some friends where he said a lot, but did not really say anything other than “he’s not fucking leaving.” It really is just beginning to full sink in that the United States have the summer off for the first time in over 30 years. The reactions have been unanimously one sided in that changes need to be made from top to bottom even though current USSF President, Sunil Gulati and former USMNT manager stated on the night of elimination major changes need not to be made. These are some of the changes and issues I see relating to the game in this country. The operative word here is accountability.

The System

It is time to break up the family. The marriage of the USSF & MLS needs to end and its stepson, Soccer United Marketing, needs a major rethinking. While MLS has no obligation to develop quality players for the national team, the USSF needs to cease calling in MLS players for what appears to be for quotas sake. Over the twilight of the Klinsmann era there was a steady uptick in MLS player call ups per a percentage of the roster and it reached PEAK levels during Arena’s second failure. This should not happen in the current state of the MLS, they just are not good enough. It doesn’t hurt when Don Garber, head of the MLS sits on the USSF Board with getting domestic players into the team. The top needs to be split a little further than it currently is. We need a President who represents the US to FIFA, and a general manager who operates the program, not one person to do both.

Developmentally, the United States has been making incredible strides, especially in youth players. However, development seems to stall in our young players during their prime years 17–21 and there is no development for players over that age as they plateau into mediocrity. We have missed two Olympics’, two confederations cups and now a senior World Cup this decade. Developmentally it’s hard to replace these competitions for players of all age groups in the US system and it’s rearing its head in a missing generation of players in our player pool. College soccer. Do away with it as a farm for developing players. They have unlimited subs for Christsake. They are playing against peers instead of people who are better, stronger and faster than them and can sharpen their own abilities. Leave college to club soccer and intramurals. For all the good the IMG Academy has done via its soccer residency program, it completed its last semester & now must turn over the domestic development to the MLS academies and the US Soccer Development Academy. Things are improving regarding youth player development, but senior player development is lagging behind with so many of our senior members plying their trade in a second-rate league.

Credit Twitter: @bwfast

A league that is void of promotion and relegation. #ProRelForUSA has been one of the most popular hashtags in US Soccer for years and the recent lawsuits and now failures will only gather the momentum. Major League Soccer is run very similar to that of other pro sports leagues in the United States. 99% of the world operates on a promotion and relegation system of some sort. These systems create pressure. Inability to respond to that pressure is what had the USMNT choke on applesauce on October 10th. Promotion and relegation, rewards you for your successes and holds you accountable for your failures. Most of the US players are made men and don’t have to even fight for their jobs, let alone their team’s status in the football pyramid. This lack of pressure breeds this continual state of comfort. The mentality has gotten weaker over the past half-decade or so for the domestic US player and it has started to infect the national team. Look, I get why Pro/Rel doesn’t exist currently in the US. What owner is gonna invest $150M+ into fees to get a team into MLS, then see them dumped out the first year that promotion and relegation is instituted? The short answer is none. Most of the teams lose money as is. So where does all the money go?

Not much can be said about pay to play. It stinks. We all know it stinks. The system does not really allow the academies to make money off youth player sales so it’s kind of stuck in neutral. The USSF is the wealthiest federation on the planet, so the fact we don’t do more to help developmentally is downright criminal. We are losing out to foreign academies that swoop in and pluck out any our talents in the ripe ages of 16–18. We are pricing players out of the country with travel teams and we do the same thing as far as coaching. Coaching in the US is a for profit deal. Get as many kids as you can instead of taking the ones we have and making them more effective. The license process is also expensive for American coaches. I recently began the journey of getting my coaching licenses. Tallying it up it will probably cost me $12–15K to climb from my current F license to A license. The system not only limits most of the players to wealthy families, the coaching follows the same path.

The Media

Taylor Twellman unleashed his infamous rant on the night of elimination which in the moment was great, but the overwhelming issue with it, is why didn’t this happen sooner? The USMNT has operated with relative impunity for the better part of forever. Accountability is rarely ever brought up by US Soccer media and those tough questions are rarely ever asked. Fox spent some $200M on the English rights to this World Cup, an investment in which I’m assuming they figured the US would be there. Where were Lalas, Kyle Martino, Phil Schoen, Rob Stone et al. in protecting Fox’s investment? That’s right they were kissing the ass of Bruce Arena and USSF for the escape jobs that littered this Arena tenure and papered over the cracks. Too timid to fully call out the federation or the system for fear of losing access to the team, and even MLS. Revoking media credentials is really clown shit, which isn’t surprising from the USSF/MLS. Do you think any other footballing power would let the results get to this point when they don’t qualify without heads rolling? Now imagine the hysteria if they didn’t qualify. No other nation that is about its business is littered with so many “yes men” in the media and a federation that rules by fear of access.

With no one to hold the USMNT accountable in the media, the program can ebb and flow forever until the ultimate authority in the form of points by wins and losses comes to collect. While on the subject of broadcasters, ESPN, NBC, Fox, beIN should do a better job in getting people access to the game in all its glory. No way can we have all these sports channels and we have World Series of Poker or drone racing league on instead of football. Less talk shows, more live games. It’s time to start challenging people, calling people out and acting like adults. The sports media has NO issue calling out NBA, NFL, MLB, College Football players yet our nation is too apprehensive to hurt anyone’s feelings if they play soccer. We are no longer this new soccer nation, we are now mature and our attitudes and expectations should consistently reflect that yet we fall short consistently in that regard. Why did it need to take this type of event for anyone with a voice in US media to speak of the ills in the system? Because, this is what the culture allows.

The Culture

Football culture in America is for lack of a better word a JOKE. There’s the segment of America that co-opt football for the fashion at cookouts, another segment that only cares every four years, and another segment that just regurgitate points they heard from someone else. The culture in the US is generally lackadaisical, uninformed or lazy. I like to call myself an extremely ardent US team follower as I watch most U17/U20/U23/Senior team matches. How many people know our U-17s are currently in India playing well? How many people know our U20s have made back to back quarterfinals in the Under-20 World Cup and won the CONCACAF U-20 Championship this past February for the first time ever. Did you even watch the last two failed U-23 Olympic campaigns? I bring this stuff up because I’ve watched it and I understand some of the issues surrounding the failed Olympic campaigns in 2012 and 2016. Some of it comes down to just unfortunate scheduling of the qualification tournaments. MLS youth players make up most of the rosters for these qualification tournaments due to them occurring outside of FIFA calendar and we are now in a position where I feel more comfortable with relying these youth players vs needing our European based players to qualify. These tournament misses were huge in getting us to the point we are now. I do not expect it to continue.

These broadcasters give us pretty good access to international level football, it’s a disservice to yourself as a national team fan to not check it out. Watching the underage teams is much more exciting than the senior team, at least in the last 3–4 years. Our youth teams are getting better and our young players are being more represented across the globe. To say we don’t have good players is ignorant, but it requires you do to research beyond what is spoon fed to you or who is called up to the senior national team. You are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least take a casual interest in younger players, who eventually make up the senior team. A good outlet would be following @natsabroad on twitter. It’s up to us as supporters to know that we see these talented young players and mention them when old dogs consistently get call ups based on name alone.

Another extremely lazy and irrelevant talking point utilized frequently when discussing US men’s soccer is comparing the USMNT directly with the USWNT. I don’t know why the women are brought up in any discussion regarding the men as if they exist under the same competitive climate. Make no mistake, our women are good, frighteningly good and arguably one of the greatest sporting programs in world history. However, the women’s game is much sparser when it comes to quality let alone good teams. Financials play a massive role in the women’s game as evident in the best teams in the world are all wealthy, world political powers. The biggest change in the women’s game is the USWNT is slowly being pulled back closer to their wealthy rivals. So here is hoping that we can have discourse about the men’s team without bringing up the women’s team.

Future & Outlook

Lady Liberty loves fried chicken legs too.

So now we have arrived at this point. Most are now finally calling for total overhaul and systemic changes. this process will be slow. Promotion and relegation isn’t happening anytime soon unless forced by FIFA and the courts, so don’t hold your breath there. Changes in the cost of playing the game at youth level will crawl at a snail’s pace. I think the best most effective change that can happen more readily is alterations to our coaching education. No longer should younger coaches not be able to afford their licenses. With more quality international level coaches, we can help make the players we already have better. After we sort that situation then we can work on the cost for the players to capture more of the players that slip through the cracks here. We have an incredible Latino population in the United States as well as other inner city ethnic groups that just are not exposed to what is seen as a suburban sport, the gap must be bridged. We have a promising pool of youth prospects, and now is the time to build a deck around that pool & maybe get a hot tub too. Sunil is not resigning, so he has to be beaten in an election that’s slanted toward him winning again. I am personally not holding out hope of change actually happening. We have an opportunity here to make big meaningful impacts, but we must be smart about the ones we make and implement them properly. Now we WAIT, as we have the time & space.