In Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano proclaims the United States to be “the home of baseball” and sarcastically describes efforts by the American media to herald soccer as “the sport of the future” during the 1994 World Cup.
Americans, however, do not necessarily appreciate soccer to a lesser extent than others. As of 2014, 3,055,148 young athletes are members of U.S. Youth Soccer leagues—more than are members of similar leagues in any other nation and 89 percent more than were members in 1990, the year during which the U.S. men’s national team qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1950. An average of 21,574 fans attended Major League Soccer matches during the 2015 season—more than attended Primera División, Campeonato Brasileiro Série A and Ligue 1 matches in such nations as Argentina, Brazil and France, respectively, and 24 percent more than attended matches during the league’s inaugural season in 1996.
Rather, Americans play soccer less successfully than others, perhaps because they are less versed in the art of the game—its subtleties and its technicalities. The men’s national team, for instance, has experienced difficulty competing internationally, its best result being a third place finish in the 1930 World Cup. On the other hand, writes Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic, the women’s national team—having recently won its third World Cup—owes its success “more to speed and athleticism than to technique. With powerhouses like Germany and France finally getting serious about girls’ sports,” she continues, “the American women will likely face stiffer competition in the years ahead.”
The International Centre of Sports Studies recently found that the U.S. ranked 25th in its development of players who compete in the World Cup, behind such nations as Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras and Iran. “It’s the reality that European clubs don’t look to the U.S. as a place where players are being trained and developed,” says Jérôme de Bontin, the former director of the Association Sportive de Monaco Football Club and the former general manager of the New York Red Bulls.
“If you are the head of scouting, if you are a head coach and you’re looking at beefing up your roster, you’re more likely to go to Ecuador, Costa Rica and Honduras and not the U.S. That’s an unfortunate reality. The American player is not one that is highly prized, or for which there is an underlying demand in Europe.”
Indeed, Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Robbie Rogers explains in his memoir, Coming Out to Play, that his decision to attend the University of Maryland was made despite the constant reminders by his coaches and his father that the level of play there would be inferior to the level of play in the Netherlands, where he may have instead played for Philips Sport Vereniging or Sportclub Heerenveen. Similarly, Christian Pulisic, Emerson Hyndman, Junior Flores and Rubio Rubin, among other former U.S. Youth Soccer players, currently play for such European clubs as Borussia Dortmund, Fulham Football Club and Football Club Utrecht rather than for American collegiate teams or clubs.
That Americans play soccer less successfully than others is indicative not of their inferior athletic abilities but, rather, of their inferior development. As a result, in 2006, U.S. Soccer Federation executives reviewed the institutional development of elite soccer players worldwide and subsequently established the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, a league which emphasizes personal training, rather than competition, and endeavors to develop players for the men’s national team. The Academy includes 79 youth clubs from the MLS, the North American Soccer League and the United Soccer Leagues and has developed more than 180 professional players since its establishment in 2007. Nonetheless, the Academy is only one component necessary for the United States to master the art of the game and, thereby, compete at an elite level internationally.
As a result, the U.S. Soccer Federation has hired Double Pass, a Belgian auditing firm which had evaluated and reformed the youth development academies in Belgium and Germany, both nations of which have recently reaffirmed their status as elite national teams. Double Pass began evaluating German youth development academies in 2005, reviewing their finances, infrastructure and playing philosophy and conducting on-site visits in order to observe and interview their managers and players before, during and after their matches and practices. The firm then assigned ratings to each of the academies it evaluated, suggesting various reforms for improvement. For instance, the firm assigned Eintracht Frankfurt a two star rating, suggesting that the club improve its facilities and hire more experienced managers. Today, the club ranks among the most successful within Germany, its players competing within the best of facilities and coached by the most experienced of managers. More significantly, the German men’s national team, ranked 16th by Fédération Internationale de Football Association in 2005, would win the World Cup in 2014. By mid-2017, every MLS club and every youth club within the U.S. Soccer Development Academy will have undergone the Double Pass evaluation process. Double Pass has thus far evaluated such clubs as the Los Angeles Galaxy, the New York Red Bulls and the Portland Timbers, the most recent winners of the MLS Cup.
Video of Double Pass trailer published on YouTube April 24, 2014.
Moreover, in 2013, MLS fostered a relationship with the French Football Federation, requiring the directors and managers of its youth development academies to complete the Elite Formation Coaching License administered by the federation. The licensure process spans an approximate three years and requires 320 hours of classroom and field instruction, held both domestically and internationally. “Coaches are trained to pass the finer points of the game onto their players, which naturally means the coach must know the game inside and out,” explains Liviu Bird of Sports Illustrated. “The first thing is—as an educator and somebody who needs to teach kids to play football—you, yourself, have to be a master of these principles,” says Mike Muñoz, a former Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder and the current Galaxy Academy Under-14 and Under-16 team head coach.
“If you can’t recognize any of those moments [in the game], there’s no way you can teach your kids that. First and foremost, it’s becoming a master of the game. Then the next big piece that they try to get across is how to teach it. You’re the educator, and without telling the players the answers, how do you guide them?”
The federation has also employed French academy players not signed to professional leagues at American colleges, within which they are responsible for developing training programs modeled after those instituted at the academies which they had attended. In 2015, the U.S. Soccer Federation, under the leadership of Nico Romeijn, similarly improved its coaching licensure standards, increasing the number of licenses available and differentiating those licenses based upon differences in age group and athletic ability. (Romeijn, now the director of coaching education for the federation, once served as the head of education for the Royal Dutch Football Association.) The Federation also requires its coaches to be continually educated and to, therefore, complete a predetermined number of credits every four years in order to retain their licensure.
As demonstrated by its recent establishment of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, as well as its recent relationships with Double Pass and the French Football Federation, the U.S. Soccer Federation has, indeed, made significant efforts to address the disparity in the development of soccer players within the United States, perhaps slowly altering the reality that “the American player is not one that is highly prized” and ensuring that future players—the likes of Flores, Hyndman, Pulisic, Rogers and Rubin—will decide to play for American collegiate teams or clubs rather than European clubs. “The impression is that it’s just a matter of time before the U.S. will come up with a world class talent,” says Tor-Kristian Karlsen, a Norwegian football scout. “Soccer is on the rise in the U.S. The structures and coaching are improving. Inevitably, the country will sooner rather than later start producing top players.” Perhaps, much to the chagrin of Galeano, soccer is indeed “the sport of the future.”