Why no Soccer Superstar and no World Cup for the U.S.?

Here are three reasons why we still don’t have an international soccer superstar and no World Cup success:

  1. College soccer
  2. Insufficient coaching and opportunity to learn “more”
  3. A young league and young teams/clubs that have to grow slow and need to adjust to the requirements of international soccer.

College Soccer

The major reason why we don’t have a soccer superstar in U.S. soccer is college! College soccer is also the major reason why the U.S. has not managed to win a World Cup or reach consistent significant success at past World Cups.

Of all major soccer countries, which the U.S. is, despite the lack of international success, the U.S. has the most talent available. The exception may be Brazil and Argentina. There is no European country, or soccer power house, that has the same pool of youth players to chose from, not only by numbers, but in quality. American soccer talent up to U18 is enough to create 3 world class teams with a number of super stars.

In 2000 I started getting involved in a program called ODP (Olympic Development Program). I have been told the program has been founded to prepare the U.S. for coming soccer World Cups. As a European coming from one of the major forces in world soccer (Germany), I had to smile. I couldn’t believe the U.S. will ever have a chance to take a serious shot at a soccer World Cup. My opinion changed quickly. When I went to the regional tournament of Region 1 (the U.S. has 5 regions), which was held at Ryder University in New Jersey, and saw the quality of youth soccer, I was stunned. Looking at the talent in all age groups, I was convinced the U.S. has a serious shot at the World Cup, possibly earlier as 2010.

While the ODP program had major flaws, for one it wasn’t able to pull all the talent this country has, it produced more than enough players to work with and be successful. One of my classical claims is, with the show ups of a NYC tryout for an ODP program, you can create a World Cup winner in any age group. The problems in American youth soccer turn up later, when the players turn 18 and go to college. American college soccer  is by far not as competitive as programs the rest of the world has in place for players age 17 – 23. While here in the U.S. the players “run around” in college teams, European players in that age group are playing and practice with the big shots in soccer. The learning experience made in Europe during that very important stage of a soccer career, can’t be made up by college soccer. Over the years of college, American players lose so much quality, and much more, do not add to their quality, that it can’t be made up afterwards.

Lionel Messi is 23 and a superstar in soccer. Make him join the American college program would have been a waste for soccer AND the player. To become what he is today, required him to leave his country and move to Spain. This is what young American kids have to do in order to advance and become superstars in soccer. They need to go abroad to keep learning and establish themselves in professional soccer.

Over the past years American youth soccer has incorporated an Academy program. While the program has the advantage that it brings the top youth players of an region together earlier and lets the players compete on a higher level of quality, the major problem remains. Comes college time, the most are lost. For those that stay around and join MLS teams, the limit is that, MLS soccer, which is not top notch soccer, yet.

In a Wall Street Journal report from June 17th, 2011, Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, made an interesting statement:

Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, said he would have expected a U.S. player to become a stalwart for one of the world’s top clubs by now, but that he’s not “shocked” it hasn’t happened. “There are so few players at that level,” he said. “I believe it’s something that will happen over time.”

Gulati said the U.S. is better off building a broad base of excellence and a system that can nurture greatness rather than enduring a Godot-like wait for an American soccer icon. A country has its best chance of producing a Nobel-prizewinning physicist, he said, if it has a collection of top research universities housing 50 great scientists.

His statement tells me that he is aware of the problem, but because he won’t be the man that will change it (and neither will I), he goes with the flow and relies on the sheer numbers of talent. One or two will finally make it. He is right. It will happen, but that superstar or quality of the national team will not come out of college soccer.  With the increasing number of players that take a risk and go to Europe, rather than college, one or more of these kids will make it big. Those that don’t make it big, will at least make it bigger than those that stay and go to college. If you take a look at the U.S. national teams over the past 10-15 years, the number of players that played or play in foreign countries is increasing. So it will go on, and so the quality of the team and the players will increase. One can take a look at every soccer superstar in the world, they all took a risk at one point and made the decision to become a professional player, rather than getting educated first.

Education is big business in the U.S. and so it is sold as the most important invention since the wheel. Education has turned into a powerful industry and is treated, similar to housing, as an “American dream”.  While education is important and should be pursued by soccer players, and all young athletes and kids, it is also possible to obtain college level education at a later time and even while playing professional soccer. There are more than enough examples for such. One of the most prominent examples for this is the German ex-international goalie Oliver Kahn. He finished his education while stopping shots for Bayern Munich and the German national team. Also, being a professional player is a business and provides players with plenty of comparable experience. With the right attitude and approach, a professional soccer career provides more practical experience and business skill than any college.

Insufficient coaching and opportunity to learn “more”

In the same report of the Wall Street Journal, Eric Wynalda, the former U.S. international stated:

“We are a country of overcoaches. The talents and abilities of our players now exceed the knowledge of the coaching, so the result is stagnation”.

Coaching of the more advanced youth teams in the U.S. is insufficient. While many of the coaches have a long list of certifications under their belt, the practical experience and understanding of the game on a higher level is lacking. With that, a major ability to read games and adjust quickly on the field is missing. Many coaches that coach decent youth teams are unable to play more systems than one or two. Special situations, as they occur multiple times during a game, will not, and cannot, be addressed. The same counts for the majority of college soccer teams and even many youth teams of MLS teams.

Taking a decent youth soccer team in the U.S. to the next level remains a major challenge. Parent involvement to the disadvantage of the team, over emphasizing of officials, adjustment of rules and other actions that are meant as good turn many good soccer performances and important experiences into a major problem and hold the players back from creating and learning a winning attitude. This attitude is needed in order to be successful on an international level. Many players are so “protected” by parents and coaches, that they are unable to develop important skills needed in international competition.

Eric Wynalda’s statement is certainly true when it comes to the U.S. national team. With players like Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donavan and others, the experience on the field by far exceeds the experience “on the bench”.  It is important for U.S. soccer, in order to advance and further close the gap to the world class teams in the world, to have a coach and management that has significant international experience, as a player, coach and management overall.  The problem can be found on the junior level as well, where very often the players exceed the experience of the coaches and get stuck.

A young league and young teams and clubs that need time to grow and need time to adjust to the requirements of international soccer

While the MLS is steadily improving, the league is depending on players coming over from other foreign leagues. Professional players that are near retirement seeking a last payout in MLS. Sounding rather negative, it is a very important part of the MLS and will continue to be for quite some time. Even if these players are not playing on 100% anymore, they still have to offer a lot young American players can learn from, not only on the field, but also off the field. Shining examples are David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez. Playing with such personalities can only help players like Tim Ream from the New York Red Bulls, and many others, to get better and prepare them for a possible move overseas when the chance presents itself.

The MLS is suffering from the major U.S. soccer problem, college soccer. MLS and soccer are losing the best and most hopeful players to college. While the number of players that decide to go with soccer is increasing, the quality of the MLS is still taking a hit. In the current system, it will take a long time until the league will reach top international class.

What to do?

With the current structure, there is not much U.S. soccer can do. It is probably next to impossible to change the system to improve soccer. Too many chairs have to be moved, or removed, to make such changes. The improvement will come from individual decisions, as always, by single players. Someone, or like in this case, many players will turn their back to college and chose a soccer career. Some will make it big and at one point the U.S. will have a superstar or more. The sheer number of quality youth players will also give the U.S. a shot at every World Cup. One day, the number of quality players and improved coaching will break the structures that held the U.S. back longer than necessary.

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