Blogpost, SoccerLifeBalance

Soccer In America: The Question of Lagging Behind

There is a desire among soccer fans to understand why the USMNT is “lagging” behind other nations. “We have great facilities and coaches. Why are we still behind other nations that are much smaller and less equipped?” A colleague asked me to respond to this perspective which I’m happy to do but as we begin, remember that this is not a problem of simple math where 2+2=4. This is an equation of multivariable calculus. The solution is not as simple as everyone would like for it to be but it is there nonetheless.

Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The French Hockey Variable – If you were to research all of the characteristics of the best hockey players in the world, you would most likely find that a large percentage of them speak French. Therefore any hockey club that is looking to build a superior program should teach their players French. Obviously this is a ridiculous idea. However underlying the concept is a nugget of truth that needs to be realized. French is not the common denominator but it is an indicator. The indication is that a large number of the best hockey players come from French speaking Canada. The French is irrelevant but what is extremely relevant is the cultural implications. These players come from a place where success in that particular sport is nurtured and encouraged. The love for the sport is felt through their entire existence.

Largely the United States is still learning French. We are hoping that by playing Frankenstein’s Monster with soccer that national team results can meet the expectations of the few hardcore fans. Unfortunately that is not likely to work. Cultural shifts take a long time especially in a nation as large and diverse as the US. A small nation like Iceland has a much better chance of achieving a cultural overhaul that produces notable results on the international stage. Turning a motorboat is easier than turning an ocean liner. The United States will eventually hit a “tipping point” where an avalanche of cultural practices will reap benefits at the highest level. Again my prediction is 2026 but let’s keep moving on those variables.

The Distraction Variable – Unfortunately many people within the system of soccer are more interested in personal gain rather than altruistic motives for the improvement of the sport. An Icelandic youth player is probably separated from a national team player by a few degrees. So the dream of playing for the national team is real. Also the meaning of playing for the national team is potent with pride because basically everyone in the country cares. Kids in the US have so many more “shiny objects” to distract them before the USMNT is even a consideration. Elite teams, scholarships, academies, etc. are a confusing system of hoops that have some meaning but are not particularly a path leading to the USMNT or the betterment of soccer in this country. Since the system is difficult to decipher, kids and parents need to rely upon people who know the game. Since solidarity payments are not made to developmental clubs, the motivation for lower level clubs is to gain status by keeping talent rather than selling it up the pyramid. This system is changing slowly and many of the “fākademies” are being revealed as nothing more than profit centers rather than rungs on the soccer ladder. Once parents and players can see a direct path from the youth to professional game, the inflation of youth soccer will level off.

The En Vogue Variable – Although soccer is gaining popularity overall, Major League Soccer is far behind the upward trajectory of the sport. There are many reasons for this but eventually they need to break down. At one point, the Serie A was the most popular league in the world. At the moment, the English Premier League holds that moniker. In the future, MLS needs to hit that level and I believe that it will. However before it can, the league needs for soccer fans in the US to embrace it. Lack of great players, lack of history, lack of American superstars, and all of the other excuses that fans give for not supporting this league will eventually fade away. At that point, MLS will become like Marvel. Once something becomes popular then everyone “was always a fan.”

The Generation Variable – One or more of these variables could tip and cause the avalanche that brings the results that hardcore soccer fans want. This variable could have the strongest influence but also would be the hardest to track. My father didn’t play soccer. I started that tradition in my family. So I refer to myself as a first generation soccer player. My son now plays which makes him second generation. He is more educated about the game than I was at his age. The thing about a generational impact is that it is exponential growth. A player has three kids and that has potential of 3X growth. Since the US flirted with soccer throughout the 1900’s and especially in the 1970’s, it’s hard to pinpoint the generational effect. However it exists and if it hits at the right time with some of these other variables, THE WORLD WON’T KNOW WHAT HIT THEM!

Soccer in the US is not lagging behind other countries any more than we are lagging behind in consumption of chocolate. We ranked 8th in that statistic in 2019. Switzerland led the way by doubling our per capita consumption. There are some things that are difficult to determine about the US. One that I am never in doubt about is that we will find a way to achieve whatever we deem important. At some point, we’ll decide that soccer is important and this perceived lag will be history.

USMNT World Cup Champs 2026!

Pete

SoccerLifeBalance

If The USMNT Doesn’t Win The WC By/In 2026, It’s My Fault!

There are some things that are just NOT done in polite American society!  You don’t ask a woman if she’s pregnant.  You don’t talk politics with your in-laws.  You don’t talk about money in mixed company.  And if you’re an American soccer fan, you don’t agree with Alexi Lalas!  I am about to break that last social norm.  Alexi gave a description of the apples to oranges comparison of US Soccer’s failings to the successes of Croatia and Iceland.  I totally agree.  The component pieces of the soccer landscapes and national culture in each country are so completely disparate that comparison is a fool’s errand that is at best click bate and at worst sophisticated soccer tail chasing.  So let’s take the American soccer “watermelon*” and inspect it on its own merit to see where we’re going.

First of all, let’s take the population discussion completely off the table because it is irrelevant on many levels.  Only 2 countries in the top 20 by population have won a World Cup (Brazil and Germany).  Of that same top 20, nine nations have never qualified for a World Cup.  If more people was the answer, China and India would be in the final every four years.  The fact that the US is larger than another country does not indicate that it should be more likely to win (or perform well) at the World Cup.  So it is much more complicated than that.

The story of the nations that have won at least one or even multiple World Cups comes down to a convergence of many factors but probably the most crucial is a soccer (football) culture.  The nations that have been able to win or compete well at World Cups all have a culture that supports and/or increases their success on the field.  Culture, in very general terms, can be characterized by the statement “People like us, do things like this.”  So in those high performing soccer nations, people do several things that perpetuate the high level of play or induce improvement.  Generally speaking this is not a top down process.  Culture is a product of many little decisions made by thousands or millions of individuals, not a handful of powerful individuals making decisions.  So if World Cup success is in the future for the United States, it will follow the adoption of a soccer culture, not create one.

So even though the size of Iceland does not matter, the fact that so many Icelandic people do the Viking clap does.  It sends a message to every single player on the team and child who is adopting the game.  The message is “This matters to us!”  That message changes the daily actions of people.  Given the choice between extra ball work or not, players in those environments recognize that something important is at stake.

With that understanding well established, I will go back to the title.  If the USMNT doesn’t win the World Cup in/by 2026, it’s my fault!  This statement may seem crazy to some but if you’ve been paying attention it becomes plainly obvious.  Culture is created by individual decisions made by the masses.  It’s on ME!  And YOU!  And everyone else attached to this game in the US.  No longer can we hope that copying Barcelona drills or hiring English trainers or attending foreign friendlies on their summer tours is enough.  Every one of us that considers ourselves a part of soccer in the US needs to up their game.  What does that mean?

pulisicIt means action by the many.  In some ways this endeavor is truly in line with American culture (of the past at least).  It is almost inherently American to identify a challenge and conquer it.  For most of our country’s history, that was almost common place.  We (the people) took on monumental tasks as a collective.  Unfortunately we seem to be at a point in history where we expect other people to do it for us.  We can outsource it or it’s the government, corporation or system’s fault that things aren’t going right.  The problem lies with someone else or it’s just too hard and I can’t be bothered.  FUCK THAT!!!  We need to step up for the next eight years!  Not in some grandiose, out of reach way but in simple ways that can have a cumulative effect.  The main thing that will be required is a long term view.  So here are some of my suggestions based on a variety of perspectives.  It’s by no means a complete list but it’s a start.  Add your own thoughts in the comments.

  • Watch MLS games – More eyes = more dollars = better players = better league = better US player pool.  If you watch the EPL or la Liga but don’t watch MLS, you need to start.  I know that MLS is not as good as the top leagues at the moment.  However if we don’t pay attention now, it won’t have the monetary resources to get better.
  • Focus on players getting better  – If you’re a parent, coach, or associated with youth soccer in any other way; put progress of the player over the result on the day.  This is so extremely difficult for people to embrace because the desire for status is so hardwired into our minds.  One of the reasons that we continue to struggle on the international stage is that we are enamored with being the biggest fish in the small pond.
  • Be active – There are all kinds of ways that the US soccer culture could improve but it needs people to do.  Passivity is only going to perpetuate mediocrity.  Let your voice be heard, your actions be seen and your passion be felt.  You matter in this endeavor.

As you finish up reading this article, I hope that you have a small inkling of the feeling that I have.  It’s only a matter of time before the US wins a World Cup.  Soccer is no longer the game for everyone else but US.  The momentum of the sport in this country is well on its way but now it needs our help to reach escape velocity.  To overcome the inertia of ambivalence and low expectations, WE all must do our small part to reach the highest of heights.  But there are no guarantees.  WE must bet on the fact that together it will be enough.  And if it’s not!  IT’S MY FAULT!

Pete

 

*I’ve chosen a watermelon because it is my favorite fruit.  It’s also large but lacks overpowering flavor and its seeds are possibly potent but they are often discarded or made to disappear before they can materialize.