The extent to which an organizational culture is effective can be tied to three ambitions: organizational change, culture management, and leadership development.
Let’s consider a sporting example: the United States Men's National Team (USMNT). Yesterday, the US 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 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 deeper cause for failure, and even a successful qualifying campaign would have masked what is still the single most limiting factor in terms of America’s progress as a “footballing nation” - America's soccer culture.
The United States is remarkably 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 acronyms 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. It’s a pay-to-play paradigm that stretches from the U4 little kickers in our local clubs, to the arms race for collegiate talent, to the league entry fees and the resistance to promotion and relegation at our MLS, USL, and NASL professional levels. This is not to say that as a nation we have not made some positive progress, but where most other “footballing nations” have a fairly well-developed and predictable path to becoming a top player, our leaders tend to be more focused on financial results instead of developmental outcomes.
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 experienced a tremendous amount of success in international competition as a result of significant investments they made in identifying what it means to be an Icelandic player. For the record, Iceland has approximately 300,000,000 people LESS than the United States. Identifying good national team players isn’t so much about how much you enjoy their game, but rather how well their game can enable the way that nation plays it. Any American can identify that Christian Pulisic is a good player, but I defy anybody to explain to me what makes him a good American player. And 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.
Identifying a national style comes right down to the tactics. Soccer people can identify trends in the great national teams - a certain way the players move, at certain times, and into certain spaces. The characteristic that all of the greatest-ever players share is intelligence, but matches aren’t won and lost by individuals - even those who can solve the most complex problems quickly. Intelligence at the team level manifests itself in terms of anticipation, expectation, and gut-feelings. When you see Brasil march out a dozen different forwards over the span of 5 friendlies, the team plays the same because they all know how to play like Brazilians. When you watch Costa Rica or Uruguay defend, they've all been doing it a certain way since they were little boys. These are players that collectively have been developed by coaches who can take certain tactical things for granted because they are more or less universally known in their countries. In Brasil, you will find consistency between what is taught by a father or mother to a son, and in feedback from an uncle or a neighbor, and from the youth coaches, through the clubs, and into the national set-up - the Selecao. In the heat of the moment, they don’t need to wait, or guess, or look to see if a teammate will overlap, he can almost always be right just by playing the ball into the ‘right’ space.
American players don’t have this advantage. And it isn’t because we’re 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 Panama. The common tactics aren't innate for our players because we do not have an American identity to call our own. In the United States, youth players may have a mom or dad that either doesn’t know the game or knows how the game was played in the old country, physical education teacher that offers some general guidance, a volunteer youth coach who teaches in a way consistent with his or her culture, and a youth club or ODP coach who teaches something different. Then they might get to high school where the coach needs results to save his job, and then onto college where adherence to yet another style can mean the difference between winning or losing a scholarship. This is why the United States continues to struggle against regional CONCACAF rivals with mere fractions of the resources available to the USMNT. In these terms its a small miracle that we can compete at all.
Our culture failure has been an inability to define what it means to be an American player. Until we can identify the traits that define our player, and then teach relevant techniques and tactics across the whole of the American soccer apparatus, we’ll always been a step behind. Bravery. Commitment. Integrity. Hard work. These are the characteristics that we espouse to our players. They stand as our measures of success for players who were important members of our greatest teams from 1950, 1994, and 2002. Beyond that, we copy - just as my coaches did using a soccer book by a Brazilian named Pele.
But in order to identify the American player and then build players to that model so that we can play the game at an intellectual pace consistent with the standards set in Germany and Brasil, and even recently in Iceland, these characteristics must describe our nation’s soccer leaders. Without leadership, we cannot effectively change the soccer apparatus or the culture conditions in which we develop players.
Recognizing the problem isn’t that challenging, but implementing this solution is a massive endeavor. After some frustrating results in the 1990s and 2000s, Germany brought its greatest ‘footballing minds’ together with scientists and behavioralists to consider what they needed to do differently to complete. Quite the contrary to the United States, Germany had a wildly successful pedigree in international football having claimed 3 World Cups and 3 European Championships at that time. As opposed to not having the courage to reorganize a system that had not produced success, Germany were guilty of having rested on their laurels. Even so, the Germans reorganized. They reconsidered what made great German players great. They may have even overcorrected in their new application of science and data to the way that Der Meinschaft would play the game moving forward. The point is that they changed - they evolved, and they again came to terms with what worked for German players and for Germany. Across half of Europe and half of the Atlantic Ocean lies Iceland. Historically a speed bump on the qualification path of other European soccer powers, Iceland have just qualified for their first ever World Cup finals. This qualification and an inspired run into the knockout stages of the 2016 European Championships are the outcomes from another commitment to change. Iceland reviewed a program that had been largely ineffective, they evaluated what it would mean and take to develop Icelandic talent in Iceland, and they changed most of what they had been doing to pursue a new direction.
These are just two instances where an appropriate alignment of organizational change capacity, culture management, and leadership have produced favorable outcomes in footballing nations.
And so leaders of American soccer, while we appreciate the changed coach and players at the Estádio Dr. Magalhães Pessoa, in Leiria yesterday, we understand that our real limitations sit much deeper than the first team. Just about any 2 or 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. In a recent article for the Player's Tribune, Pulisic is quoted as saying "And for a soccer player … man, ask anyone and they’ll tell you — those age 16–18 years are everything. From a developmental perspective, it’s almost like this sweet spot: It’s the age where a player’s growth and skill sort of intersect, in just the right way — and where, with the right direction, a player can make their biggest leap in development by far." As a former college soccer player and proud member of the 1995 Williams College Men's NCAA National Champion, I love my college soccer experience with a capital "L"... but those who are responsible for the identification and development of the American player must ask if the current structure is helping or hurting the US as a footballing nation.
If we want to come anywhere near a World Cup final in our lifetime, we need to give them a path. That path is paved with a commitment to player development first. We recognize that such a path must be financed, but if the financing takes priority over the development, than progress will never be made - except for the investors. The path also needs guidance. The only guidance that matters is what it means to be an American player. This should be the only purpose for the USSF - to identify and build the infrastructure with and in which coaches can develop the American player. When every coach in American understands the blueprint for the development of American players, only then will we be in a position to reach a final and eventually win a World Cup.
The USMNT represents the pinnacle of the American soccer apparatus, and that organization is no different than any other organization. Organizations must demonstrate the effective pursuit of a shared purpose. They must evolve with current 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. There is no substitute - 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 double for coaches and leaders because not only must you enjoy the experience, you must 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. It's time to lead. It’s going to take Bravery, Commitment, Integrity, and Hard work. I. believe. that. we. can. win.
PS. As a father of two female players and a long-time coach of girls, I appreciate how many people will be ready to remind me that our USWNT have won three World Cups.
While there are some tactical nuances between the men’s and women’s games, this success changes nothing in my opinion. I believe that our female players also lack an American identity and have been fortunate to take advantage of other aspects of the game to achieve their results. This assessment takes nothing away from those accomplishments, rather it serves as a warning that if we don’t make changes (like Iceland) and force ourselves to evolve (like Germany), we might not continue to compete against other women’s national teams like France and Japan, who are consistently developing their players to lift the Cup.