The reasons given for the United States’ World Cup qualifying failure funnel down to one or two issues: We simply don’t have the talent. Or we don’t properly develop talent.
The youth system in this country isn’t ideal. The pay-to-play structure has produced a discouraging participation rate as measured by income. Only the upper-middle-class and rich can consistently afford the thousands of dollars a year it costs just for one child to play club soccer.
On top of that, player development loses out to the focus on winning. Bigger and faster players often take priority over skills as a result. But I’m skeptical of the focus on (mostly European) developmental structures as the cure-all for America’s soccer woes, at least in the short term.
The Difficulties of Increasing Production
Plenty have advocated following Germany’s model for success. The Germans revamped their program following an extremely relative lull in the early 2000s (such a time of struggle that they made the World Cup final in 2002). That effort looks worthwhile, with World Cup and European U-19 trophies in 2014.
They also enjoyed European U-21 and Confederations Cup championships this summer, with the Confederations Cup victory coming despite missing a majority of their A-team. It’s a remarkable amount of dominance in such a short time.
But “Die Mannschaft” have made at least the semi-finals in major international tournaments with startling regularity for decades. Perhaps the revamp led to their recent success. Perhaps the early 2000s were the exception that proved the rule: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”
More broadly, European countries only have to scout and develop eligible talent the square mileage of one or two states. That’s with dozens and dozens of professional clubs (England alone has nearly 100) who have development academies. Many have a century or more of entrenchment in their community. Soccer also competes with maybe one or two other sports in terms of popularity. It will grab the best players in Europe almost by default.
The only successful soccer nation that even compares in size and population to the United States is Brazil. We’ll just never have the soccer culture they enjoy. And we do not want to mimic their club system.
Of course, competent youth systems that encourage development help. But the United States is a nascent soccer nation. Soccer does not enjoy the financial stability at any level that football, baseball, or basketball does. Neither U.S. Soccer nor Major League Soccer benefit nearly as much from an essentially free development league in college like the National Football League or National Basketball Association.
CEO of U.S. Club Soccer Kevin Payne says parents in his organization spend around $1.5 billion annually on soccer. That certainly isn’t the only club soccer organization in this country. Who foots that bill to end pay-to-play? U.S. Soccer has a $130-140 million surplus. Put all of that into U.S. club soccer and you’ve chipped away at 10 percent of the cost for a single organization.
The United States and Canada have around 60 professional clubs with MLS, the United Soccer League, and North American Soccer League that cover the size and population of the United States and Canada. “Modern” top-flight soccer in this country is only 20 years old and has only flourished (relatively speaking) in maybe the last decade. The professional apparatus won’t grow significantly unless the sport takes off in popularity or adds a (highly unlikely) promotion-relegation system. And we’re facing a dilution of talent and coaching as it is.
MLS academy systems that mostly eschew pay-to-play are finally starting to see results. But the league itself yields far too much power in determining player sales and the percentage the front office keeps for sales. Unlike in most countries, youth clubs also don’t necessarily make money on the back end if they produce a successful player. So-called “solidarity payments” let clubs enjoy some portion of a transfer fee if one of their products is sold from one club to another.
As a recent example from Europe, the £23 million transfer of Pedro from Barcelona to Chelsea netted Pedro’s youth club £320,000. A case involving DeAndre Yedlin’s former club could go a long way to changing the system in America. This would give youth systems in America a financial incentive for developing talent instead of simply winning.
Or We Could Just Hope for Better Luck
Often, national team success seems to come down to so-called “Golden Generations” of great players who happened to be born around a five-year span. Spain shines as the most recent example, with two European championships bookending a World Cup trophy in 2010. France enjoyed one nearly two decades ago, and have a World Cup and European Championship to show for it.
But this doesn’t guarantee success either. England’s golden generation from the early 2000s is mostly known for their underachievement; they didn’t even qualify for the 2008 Euros. The same can be said of Portugal’s side in the late ’90s and early aughts, save for their second-place finish in the 2004 Euros (that they hosted). Most international managers would kill for Belgium’s current squad, yet they’ve disappointed with quarter-final exits in the most recent World Cup and European Championship.
Perhaps it is that simple. The United States is struggling right now with a lost generation. We have an embarrassing dearth of players who should be in or approaching their prime. The next generation looks promising; the U-17s have made quite an impression at the U-17 World Cup. Maybe Jurgen Klinsmann’s efforts to reform the youth system in this country are bearing fruit. Or maybe we were just unlucky this cycle.
We should certainly seek to end pay-to-play club systems and increase focus on playing the game properly. I just don’t think it’s going to be that easy or quick to fix.