Will the U.S. Ever Truly Master the ‘Art’ of Soccer?

By | February 16, 2016

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.”

Bibliography:

Alex Johnson. “Soccer by the Numbers: A Look at the Game in the U.S.” NBC News. December 21, 2015. http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/fifa-corruption-scandal/soccer-numbers-look-game-u-s-n365601 (accessed on February 10, 2016).
Amanda Ripley. “Can This Man Save U.S. Soccer?.” The Atlantic. March 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/03/can-this-man-save-us-soccer/426858/ (accessed on February 10, 2016).
Brian Blickenstaff. “Inside Double Pass: The Best Kept Secret in Youth Development is Coming to America.” Vice Sports. June 30, 2015. https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/inside-double-pass-the-best-kept-secret-in-youth-development-is-coming-to-america (accessed on February 10, 2016).
Jeff Carlisle. “Americans in the Premier League—why have numbers dropped recently?.” ESPNFC. March 24, 2015. http://www.espnfc.us/blog/espn-fc-united-blog/68/post/2331121/americans-in-the-premier-league—-why-have-numbers-dropped-recently (accessed on February 10, 2016).
Liviu Bird. “Double PASS and its plan to change U.S. Soccer.” Sports Illustrated. February 8, 2016. http://www.si.com/planet-futbol/2016/02/08/us-soccer-double-pass-youth-academy-development (accessed on February 10, 2016).
Liviu Bird. “How France is helping mold MLS academies, coaches.” Sports Illustrated. February 9, 2016. http://www.si.com/planet-futbol/2016/02/09/mls-academies-french-football-federation-coaching-development (accessed on February 10, 2016).
Liviu Bird. “U.S. Soccer overhauls its coaching license standards.” Sports Illustrated. February 10, 2016. http://www.si.com/planet-futbol/2016/02/10/us-soccer-coaching-licenses-guidelines-nico-romeijn (accessed on February 10, 2016).
MLS Soccer. “MLS sets new attendance records, Seattle hold highest average in league.” MLS Soccer. October 26, 2015. http://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2015/10/26/mls-sets-new-attendance-records-seattle-hold-highest-average-league (accessed on February 10, 2016).
U.S. Soccer. “U.S. Soccer Coaching Department Adds Nico Romeijn.” U.S. Soccer. June 25, 2015. http://www.ussoccer.com/stories/2015/06/26/18/48/150626-coaching-dept-adds-romeijn (accessed on February 10, 2016).

One thought on “Will the U.S. Ever Truly Master the ‘Art’ of Soccer?

  1. Seth Johnson

    The discussion of American soccer as a development issue, rather than a publicity or access issue, is very relevant to the way the sport has taken longer to achieve the prominence enjoyed by other sports in U.S. In the aforementioned example about baseball, particularly in the way that Galeano presents it as home in America the discussion of development is key. Consider that Major League Baseball’s “farm system” is arguably the most extensive development program for aspiring professional athletes in the nation. The “farm system,” or just “farm,” is the term used by baseball players and the league to describe the extensive minor league system for the sport and all of the players that inhabit it (“Comparing,” 2014). In the major leagues alone, there are a litany of different aspects to the farm, including: AAA, AA, High-A, Low-A, Short-Season A, Advanced Rookie, Rookie and seasonal leagues, such as the Fall League (“List,” 2016). Because of this large pool for talent development and access to the sport, major league baseball has come to dominant the sporting arena to the extent indicated by Galeano’s claim.

    As the argument pertains to soccer in the U.S., building a system similar to this development, or at least closer to it, would certainly help younger athletes and American players become more competitive and increase the success of the sport. Using the baseball analogy again, consider the Los Angeles Dodgers. When the team had a great farm system, it succeeded on the big stage. From 1979 to 1982, the Dodgers produced the Rookie of the Year. In 1981 and 1988, the franchise won the World Series. From 2010 to 2014, the average farm system ranking for the team was 18.6. In that span, the team won two West Division titles, but never the National League Pennant (“Building,” 2015). Therefore, it appears that higher development is correlated to better performance, at least at the team level. I contend that this would also carry over to the level of sport in general as well.

    In terms of soccer, if the sport can develop a farm system or the academies that it is currently working towards as stated in this particular post, I agree that the sport will be able to develop more competitive teams and gain international respect. The reason baseball players stay is because the U.S. has the best system. The reason soccer players leave, as Robbie Rogers mentioned, is because development is better outside of the U.S. If the sport’s development moves in the direction presented in this post, then I think we will see something more similar to baseball with soccer in the U.S., and as this post mentions, may actually become a future powerhouse, or at least be competitive, for Americans.

    Bibliography:

    “Building The Farm: Dodgers System Returning to Prominence.” Dodgers Nation. January 31, 2015. http://www.dodgersnation.com/building-the-farm-dodgers-system-returning-to-prominence/2015/01/31/ (accessed on February 16, 2016).

    “Comparing the Top 3 Farm Systems in MLB.” Blog About Anything. March 26, 2014.
    https://sites.psu.edu/anythingblog/2014/03/26/comparing-the-top-3-farm-systems-in-mlb/ (accessed on February 16, 2016).

    “List of Minor League Baseball leagues and teams.” Wikipedia. Last edited February 12, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Minor_League_Baseball_leagues_and_teams (accessed on February 16, 2016).

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