USA could have very easily made the 2018 World Cup (it was just one goal or a few bounces away from doing so). The problems highlighted here would exist whether the USA made or missed this World Cup. The the full context surrounding this USA soccer disaster must be examined. A somewhat one-off event of failing in a few CONCACAF World Cup qualifying matches means as much in the grand scheme of things as an improbable run to the quarterfinals of a single World Cup.
However, one-off events can serve as wake up calls for those unaware of big-picture American soccer issues. This is why many people were just fine with USA missing this latest World Cup. While USA soccer’s failure to qualify is a painful experience in the short term, it can serve as a great long-term learning and re-thinking opportunity for the long-term future of American soccer.
A disaster of this magnitude shook USA soccer to the core, so it is only right for the program to examine its very foundations in order eradicate the root cause of failure. There are surface-level observations which predictably catch the attention of the masses first:
- USA soccer is a “rich” sport – The best training and playing opportunities for youngsters cost a lot of money (pay-to-play).
- There is not a big enough soccer culture in USA – Other U.S. sports are overshadowing soccer, not enough kids are playing pick-up soccer, and not enough are following MLS (D1).
One must understand the “whys” behind what is seen on the surface.
These perceived “problems” are just symptoms or byproducts of one root U.S. Soccer governing federation policy: a closed system which excludes and kills incentive for most constituents in the USA soccer ecosystem (more on this topic here).
There’s always a chance of failure even if a system is set up correctly. Global soccer powerhouses like Holland or Italy also missed the 2018 World Cup. But remember, in the larger context, these nations will be contenders to win the entire tournament most World Cup cycles. While systems do not directly determine results, they do have a massive influence. Look at USA soccer’s big-picture record on the international stage:
USA’s World Cup record since 1930: six wins (one every 14 years).
The 2018 U.S. national team is very similar to the team in the 1990s: good enough to qualify for a World Cup but not a serious contender. At the turn of the century, many people believed that USA would grow into a World Cup contender by around 2010. Where is the progress? The competition USA is trying to catch is only increasing the gap, and nations behind are catching up. It is clear that the current system is not a sustainable trajectory.
A national team player pool relies on the production and development success of its domestic clubs. National team programs are not responsible for developing players. Observe how heavily the U.S. national team has relied on exclusively or partially foreign-developed players. Despite its 330 million population, USA resorts to scouring the globe to recruit dual-citizens such as Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones. Key players such as Christian Pulisic leave U.S. programs in their teen years and spend their most important development years in foreign, open ecosystems. The quality produced from USA’s main, domestic player development pipeline is quite lacking.
The USA has 24 million soccer players (FIFA census in 2006). There are so many players in the hat yet so few top-level talents are produced in the end. What if America’s 9,000+ soccer clubs had the opportunity to win promotion to USA soccer division 1? Currently, one single club, Major League Soccer (MLS), has a protected monopoly on the USA first division. An anti-competitive market is awful for investment and innovation. Opening the USA soccer market means that these 9,000+ clubs have incentive to pour money into their infrastructure, sign players and coaches, form scouting networks, and build and sustain free-to-play training academies. The hope of winning promotion is critical to the existence of any lower division soccer club.
With its massive population, the USA by default ends up with a few handfuls of players that are good enough to cut it in top first-division clubs around the world. The mild success of the U.S. national team pool today happens despite a toxic domestic club soccer system. Without many clubs producing top-level talent, the U.S. talent pool will continue to be mired in mediocrity. Adopting an open-market soccer ecosystem is not a wild conspiracy theory. All you have to do is observe the other 99% of the soccer world today. It is time for USA to run its soccer the normal way.
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