U.S. Soccer’s problem is focused at the youth level
“It can never happen” turned into “it was never supposed to happen” on Oct. 10, when the United States men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Since then, many think articles have been written about how and why the United States failed to qualify; a feat that, at this stage in the development of United States soccer, and in this region of qualifying, should always be reached.
Although, that question fails to address the much larger picture and problem as to why the United States, 27 years after qualifying for the World Cup in 1990 and 23 years after the formation of Major League Soccer in 1994, is still miles away from being among the world’s elite.
The World Cup qualification aspect is insignificant to the larger problem. This absence will hurt the growth of U.S. soccer immensely, no doubt. Fans who become engrossed in the sport when the pageantry and excitement of the tournament comes around will not become attached to the sport, like young kids who have become inspired by one seminal moment, now won’t be given the initiative to kick a ball around and become the star of tomorrow. The effects are impossible to calculate, but the wound for not qualifying is undoubtedly deep.
That being said, the issue with the national team is not about the team that failed to qualify for 2018, but about the systematic failure that is player development in the United States.
Coaches in the United States, from a young age, value characteristics such as height and strength, components of raw athleticism over the skills and techniques that truly make a great soccer player.
It would be like training someone to be a chef, but only worrying about how well they can operate the oven and stove, failing to care about their creativity and ingenuity with ingredients.
The examples of these failures are everywhere, and one of them is right here at Seton Hall in Pirates women’s soccer player Eva Gonzalez. The sophomore from Mesquite, Texas, plays for the Mexican national team, as her dual-heritage allows her to do so. Although, it was not always going to be that way for Gonzalez, who could very easily be playing for the stars and stripes right now.
When Gonzalez was growing up and playing with youth teams, she met with a United States national team scout, who told her that the people above him wanted height and speed.
“You take one look at me and…that’s not me,” Gonzalez said in an interview last year with The Setonian.
People will point to the flawed pay-to-play system of youth soccer, which makes it hard on low-income families to have their kids make it to the top level, leading to the belief that there is a team of international-caliber players slipping through the cracks. Whether that is true or not, the bigger issue is the fact that America too often fails to find the players who will make the difference for the national team.
Once the players are found, the job is still there to develop players, a role that the United States struggles doing in more ways than one. U.S. players often change positions once they reach the top level, with players who were forwards throughout youth soccer becoming center-backs, players who were categorized as attacking midfielders shifting back to be defensive midfielders, or even outside backs, and so on.
This is something that is certainly improving to a large degree with the establishment of MLS academies, which are allowing top level teams in America to control the development of players from start to finish more than ever. It is important to note, within all the doom and gloom, that the United States is still yet to see the first generation of players from these newly established academies come up to the senior national team.
Still, the reach of those academies can only stretch so far with 22 teams in MLS. The league is growing, but no matter how big it eventually gets, the academies will never be able to reach every market and unlock every player that could make a difference for the national team. That is part of the reason why a nation of over 300 million finds itself behind the likes of Spain, Germany and Belgium, who, while smaller in number, are denser and therefore more ideal to find and match players with those teams that best suit their skills.
In one of those small European countries, a player can choose from a handful of professional clubs within a reasonable distance from home and choose whichever academy best suits their goals and skill-set. However, in the United States, players may have one professional team’s academy within driving distance. There is no choice between what team best fits their game, but a simple acceptance as to what club is closest to home.
And so, when the MLS academies are unable to do their job, traditional youth teams, coaches and scouts need to be able to discover players and identify how their skill sets best translate at a much younger age than they are now. Without this change, the U.S. can still count on qualification for future World Cup’s, but by the same token, will never reach the pinnacle that at the moment is nothing more than a distant dream.
James Justice is a broadcast and visual media major from Caldwell, N.J. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.