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  • Writer's pictureChris Smith

One Nation. One Team?

Updated: Jun 7, 2020

This essay was initially drafted on November 15, 2017, and has subsequently been updated.

Yesterday, the United States Men's National Team (USMNT) played its first game since the devastating defeat in Trinidad & Tobago, which contributed to their elimination from the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia. The American media had exploded with assertions of how such a thing could happen. We blamed the coaches, the players, perceived American values and behaviors, and even [former] Sunil Gulati, the President of the USSF (United States Soccer Federation). In many such scenarios, we as outsiders look to the members of the organization to be accountable for results and outcomes.

But in this case, as with many, it would be short-sighted to look to the players or the coach, or the referee, or the water-soaked pitch at the Ato Bolton Stadium, or the even participants in the Panama, Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica matches for fault. These are effects of a much fundamental cause for American’s unique soccer shortcoming - its culture.

There’s an old expression that asks - How do you eat an elephant? And the answer is - One bite at a time. Fixing American soccer, which I will also call football in this post, is a massive and complex undertaking, which will demand three kinds of ‘bites’: ability to change, clarity of purpose, and effectiveness of leadership.

US Soccer must reconsider the ‘pay-to-play’ model. The United States is surprisingly limited in terms of its capacity to change its soccer infrastructure. We may change the names, the leagues, and the badges, but we still more or less organize soccer players in the way we always have - financially. Former coach, Jurgen Klinsmann appeared to wrestle with this on many occasions.

The “if you built it, they will come” model for provision of youth soccer services is alive and well - flourishing even. Here in the Washington, DC metro area, the “DMV” for locals, it is easy to find soccer for your kids. CCL, DA, ODP, ECNL, NCSL/WAGS, ODSL, and EDP are just a few of the alphabet soup options available. Which one is the best? Hard to say, but each one is profitable. And that’s the point. There is no clear path or clear structure to developing players - rather too often good players and their teams are simply marketing tools for the provision of more services, more elite services, and more premier services.

Unlike most others around the world, America’s is a pay-to-play paradigm that stretches from the U4 little kickers in our local clubs, to the league entry and tournament fees, to an arm’s race of college scholarship money, to sell-on fee’s for MLS players into international leagues. ‘Pay-to-play’ is not limited only to parents paying money for their kids to play. It is also awkwardly obviated by the stiff “business-focused” resistance to promotion and relegation standard, maintained in nearly every respectable league around the world save for American’s version of MLS, USL, and NASL.

This is not to say that American’s administrators prioritize financials over talent development where other leagues don’t, but rather that they prioritize in a way that is different from other leagues around the world, where the successful development of talent is a driving factor in club success.

US Soccer lacks a purpose in developing the American player. A culture is a system of behaviors and rewards that, when managed effectively gets people doing the right things the right way and for the right reasons. The single biggest failure of American soccer is that we have no idea what an American soccer player looks like. Ask anybody who knows the game what it means to be a Brazilian player. Ask the same about German, Dutch, Italian, and Argentine players. Now find somebody who really knows the game and ask about Icelandic players. Iceland has recently been enjoying a statistical anomaly of international success. The reason for this stems from a series of investments made to develop players that are quintessentially Icelandic players. That started with a question: What type of players would it make sense for a frozen rock (of an island) in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to try to develop sustainably? Well, I won’t go into the technical and tactics assessments here (Go watch Iceland play…you’ll thank me later). Safe to say, this is not a process that America has embraced. And yet, with 300 million people fewer than the United States, they’ve got a better and more readily repeatable football formula for success.

From a soccer perspective, that which makes America great is also a soccer Achilles heel. I grew up playing the game. I was coached by an American, an Italian, an Irishman, a Mexican, a German - Austrian, a Czech, a Hungarian, a Philippine, and an Englishman. Each of these coaches “knew the game.” It is a poorly kept secret that people with accents in the American soccer world seem to get credit for knowing the game. Most of those people probably do know the game, and that’s where things get complex.

In his thought-provoking book Inverting the Pyramid, Englishman Jonathan Wilson writes of the impact that national cultures have on their football philosophies. So when a young player born just east of Amsterdam starts to kick the ball, the influences, advice, and coaching he (or she) receives are fundamentally Dutch. This isn’t to say that what Michels and van Gaal teach are precisely the same, but there is Dutch in both of them. The same can be said for the kid who grows up in the mean streets of Napoli or the favelas of Rio. He also alludes to the fact that you could put 11 Argentines on a field and tell quickly that they are Argentine even if you couldn’t see their jerseys or hear their voices, much as you could for Germans or Italians, just by the way that the players and the ball move. The United States is different.

Our young players grow up with a wild set of nuances, many of which contradict each other in a game where the ability to process information and demonstrate technique in the most expeditious manner while under pressure characterizes the talent from the kids who are just getting a run. The mixing bowl of nationalities that give American its uniquely delicious flavor also create a paradigm that is just as uniquely unrepeatable and unsustainable for developing the American player. This isn’t to say we don’t have good coaches or good players. We have both. What we’re missing is a well-defined, consistent, and repeatable process for developing players. Any American can identify that Christian Pulisic is a good player. But, what makes him a good American player? Please don’t tell me that ‘it’s because he works hard.’ I love that we love our American spirit, but if we really don’t think that other players are working just as hard because they aren’t wearing a red, white, and blue kit, then we’re missing something.

This might not be as big of an issue in other sports, but in a fundamentally player-driven sport where stars have a lesser impact than stars in other sports, American players too often forfeit the advantage of a “sixth sense.” The color commentators talk about this frequently and it sounds something like this “…the Americans seem to be all over their opponents today, and they must be scratching their heads about how they are behind by two goals.” It isn’t because American players are less intelligent or lack creativity. It is because at crucial moments we have to do more tactically than CONCACAF opponents like Mexico, Costa Rica, and even Trinidad and Tobago. The common tactics aren't innate for our players because we lack that default identity that might be inherent to many other national teams and their national programs and influences some of their most subtle movements. No matter how fast we run, we’ll always be slower than the best teams in the world if we have to work harder intellectually to compete.

US Soccer must consistently appoint leaders who prioritize our most valuable resources - our young players. Leaders of American soccer have too often embraced the business and political sides of the soccer apparatus. I’ll spare you the litany of evidence available that supports this conclusion, but here is the main argument: regarding pay-to-play AND developing the American player, our leaders have consistently fallen short, and they have done so with the time, resources, and authority to have done better. This does not only include the executives in Chicago. There is a vast array of leaders from NCAA college programs to USSF Development Academies to the clubs in your neighborhoods who continue to reward team results over player development. This is NOT a binary relationship. Ideal conditions for player development fundamentally require competitive environments that can only be provided with good teams, and the way we determine which teams are good is for them to play against each other and have a winner. But leaders can chose what is measured and what is prioritized. We used to say in consulting, ‘What gets measured, gets done.’ If the coaches who win the most, make the most money…. Well, you see how it works, and how it works is classically American.

Our leaders should know that just about any 3 year old capable of strapping on a pair of boots could be a candidate for the USMNT. Most of them will play soccer, in fact statistically speaking, more young players will play soccer than ever before AND more young people will play soccer than any other sport. What must America’s soccer leaders do to provide for the American player?

If the Unites States wants to come anywhere near a World Cup final in our lifetime, we need to redefine our approach. We need to reengineer a system that isn’t biased towards financial resources - at either end of our developmental spectrum. We need to determine what about being American makes us particularly able to compete in the game of soccer. And we need to entrust leaders who are ready, willing, and able to take on the responsibility of challenging the norms and institutions that have constantly been a burden. Our leaders need to stop acting as if they have won four World Cups like Germany and Italy, if only because our Women’s National Team has won four World Cups… quite possibly in spite of their leadership.

US Soccer is no different than any other organization. Organizations use the resources available to demonstrate the effective pursuit of a shared purpose. They must evolve with changes in climates and industry trends. They must consistently fill themselves with the right people, and find ways to promote in those people values consistent with the organizational purpose. And finally leaders must enable a remarkable experience. Here there can be no substitution - it is not possible to be an impactful participant if you don't enjoy what you're doing. That goes for soccer players, but it goes doubly for coaches and leaders because you too much enjoy the experience in order to provide for the participants to enjoy it too. US Soccer needs such leaders now more than ever. Identify what it means to be an American player. Change the development paradigm. Enable the culture. Incentivize coaches and administrators who are doing the right things. These are the steps that all successful organizations take. It's time for US Soccer to lace 'em up.


I. believe.

I. believe. that.

I. believe. that. we.

I. believe. that. we. can. win.

I. believe. that. we. can. win.

I. believe. that. we. can. win.

I. believe. that. we. can. win.

I. believe. that. we. can. win.

Chris Smith has played soccer since he was a little kid for coaches who learned from Pele’s Book of Soccer Tactics. There is a neat story about how he got from there to Williams College and the 1995 NCAA Champions. He has since coached youth boys and girls for Arlington Soccer in Virginia for the past 18 years. Over 100 of his players have gone on to represent their college teams in NCAA competition.

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