Thursday, October 12, 2017

US Men's Soccer: Why Believe that We Will Win?

By Ryan Bowman (@_ryanbowman_)

Sitting here typing this piece, I am at a loss of words with how to describe what I saw on Tuesday night. Disappointing? Obviously, but surprising? Sadly, no.

For the first time in my lifetime, I will not be watching the U.S. Men’s National Team play in the World Cup. This was an outcome brewing ever since the USMNT lost its first two games of the qualifying stage under former manager Jurgen Klinsmann back in the fall of 2016.

I, along with countless other soccer aficionados in the states, was ready for the national team to take a hard look in the mirror and make some serious changes. Klinsmann was fired in November of 2016 and, while that took care of one immediate problem, US soccer's issues turned out to be much deeper than a simple coaching change could fix. The problems are spread out within the entire organization, ranging from the youth development program, the players themselves, and ending with Sunil Gulati.
Taylor Twellman nailed it on the head on SportsCenter immediately following the game, commenting that ESPN, "probably won't be talking about this in a few days."

If this debacle had happened in Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, or any other country we claim we're trying to compete with, this would be the number one sports story for weeks. Coaching, management, the Federation, players, player development, youth academies, and reporters would all be under fire. It would be inane to completely demolish the entire Federation and rebuild, but it would be incredibly naïve to say that nothing needs to be done.

America’s Rocky Relationship with Soccer

Twellman's comments, however ironic the folks at ESPN may have thought they were, spoke the harrowing truth. In general, the sports media and general public does not give a damn about soccer in the United States. If you went on the air in Germany or France and said soccer was a boring and irrelevant sport, you would be met with the same level of bewilderment as saying American Football was stupid and shouldn’t be televised every week.

If you literally step into any other country on Earth, there's a very good chance that soccer plays a much bigger role in their culture than it does in the U.S. Part of that stems directly back to the role the media plays in shaping public perception of importance. Do you know how hard it is to avidly follow the MLS in America? One or two games are broadcast a week, and they receive absolutely zero attention on SportsCenter.

For God's sake, even this qualifying game wasn't nationally televised. ESPN would rather broadcast the 2017 World Series of Poker and some uneventful preseason NBA action, and Fox Sports had “NASCAR Race Hub” on for four hours instead of broadcasting the game that shapes the destiny of U.S. Soccer for the next four years.

The lack of visibility soccer has in the US directly impacts something else I could have talked about; youth development. Obviously there is more nuance to it, but if kids aren't watching soccer growing up, why would they want to grow up and become soccer stars? Soccer is branded as “boring” here in the U.S. simply because the players aren’t running around tackling each other or getting paid an absurd amount of money to dribble a basketball around.

We need a completely new plan on how to make soccer an appealing, exciting, and visible presence in the US, and that starts with President of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Sunil Gulati. If he hasn’t made some significant, wholesale changes by the time Russia 2018 starts, he needs to resign or be removed from his position.

(Please) Start Caring about MLS

The utter lack of attention and competition surrounding the MLS makes it an unattractive destination for American soccer stars. How are you supposed to build a country that cares about soccer when your domestic league is basically the retirement league for European stars (see: Schweinsteiger, Pirlo, Kaka, Villa, Cole, etc.).

ESPNFC’s rankings at the beginning of the season had exactly two U.S. players ranked in the MLS top 10. The vast majority of U.S. players prefer to play their seasons abroad, and for good reason; the MLS offers very little competition on the world stage. Something needs to be done about the level of competition in the MLS to give it a bigger presence in America.

One idea that has been pushed multiple times in the past few years is to adopt the promotion/relegation scheme that literally every single other soccer league uses. We saw how intense the competition was when FC Cincinnati from the NASL made a dramatic run in the U.S. Open Cup this past summer and advanced to the semi-finals against New York Red Bull. FC Cincinnati’s home game saw the second largest crowd to ever watch a U.S. Open Cup Match, and the atmosphere was unlike anything I’ve seen in America.

The threat of relegation for MLS teams and hope of promotion for NASL clubs would give the game an added element of excitement and meaning to the season, instead of simply looking towards playoffs.

The overhaul of the German Football Federation after finishing last at Euro 2000 should be used as a prime example of a way of moving forward after this debacle. The National Federation, domestic league (Bundesliga) and clubs worked together to develop more proficient youth development program and academies. Players like Julian Draxler, Andre Schurrle, Thomas Muller, Mario Götze, and Toni Kroos are all products of this elite youth academy program.

Imagine having multiple Christian Pulisics grow up and succeed through the U.S. Youth Soccer Association and dominate the MLS every couple years. The U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS need to make a new plan going forward that will benefit both organizations by allowing youth players to flourish within the United States.

Stop Relying on Old Talent

I don't want to see Michael Bradley wear the captain’s armband for the rest of his career. I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying that. He had a phenomenal career captaining the US team but his time has come and gone, and it is time to step aside.

The U.S. has a bad habit of relying on older players that are well past their primes to pick up the slack in tough games, and it is really starting to show. Tim Howard is 38 years old and is not the same man who played in net during the 2014 World Cup. I think you would be pressed to find anyone who legitimately thinks Dempsey is playing the best soccer of his life.

Players like Pulisic, DeAndre Yedlin, Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola and others have shown sparks of greatness during their short time with the national team, and need to start seeing consistent playing time to further develop and create a cohesive squad. The foolish insistence on starting players simply for namesake needs to go.

The job of a starting soccer player on the national team should always be under fire, no matter who you are. There were games where Bradley played so poorly that, if it had happened on any other squad, he would not be starting the next match. But on the USMNT, the idea of not starting him at his usual role as captain was so preposterous that we were forced to deal with mediocrity. 

Why Believe?

“I believe that we will win.” The famous chant will not be screamed around the stadiums in Russia next summer. While you have every right to be mad as hell (I know I am), don’t let that keep you from seeing the awesome potential for greatness in the U.S. National Team. Pulisic, Morris, Yedlin, Acosta, and more will be in their prime years for competition, and I fully expect them to develop into superstars.

In a way, this is maybe what U.S. soccer needed. Obviously, not playing in the World Cup is inexcusable for a country like the U.S. but, frankly, I would prefer to confront the problem now rather than wait for us to get one point in the group stage and wonder what suddenly went wrong. This problem has been brewing within the U.S. National Team for the past year or two, and materialized into the abysmal performance we saw against Trinidad & Tobago.

It is time to confront it head on and bring some major changes in the way we view soccer in America, and the role the MLS has within the country.

See you in 2022, Qatar.

1 comment :

Unknown said...

Wow Mr. Bowman!!! What an incredibly well-written piece this is! Keep it up, champ!!