American exceptionalism falls flat when it walks onto a soccer pitch.
In a nice feature piece in the New York Times on United States men’s national team coach and technical director Jurgen Klinsmann, there is this bit from Bruce Arena, who occupies a dual role as former USMNT coach and Klinsmann foil for a journalist looking for “balance” in a piece on the current holder of the seat:
Bruce Arena, who coaches the Los Angeles Galaxy, told me recently that instead of trying to get American soccer to mimic European culture, U.S. Soccer officials should simply look inward. Italy’s team is coached by an Italian and has a core of players who play in Italy, Arena pointed out. Spain has a Spanish coach and players primarily based in Spain. Germany is led by a German coach and mostly features players on German teams.
“I believe an American should be coaching the national team,” says Arena, who led the national team for eight years. “I think the majority of the national team should come out of Major League Soccer. The people that run our governing body think we need to copy what everyone else does, when in reality, our solutions will ultimately come from our culture.
“Come on,” he says. “We can’t copy what Brazil does or Germany does or England does. When we get it right, it’s going to be because the solutions are right here. We have the best sports facilities in the world. Why can’t we trust in that?”
Arena is probably uniquely qualified to have this view, as the squad he led to a surprise finish in the quarters in 2002 was probably validation. (The squad he had that flamed out in the group stages four years later, well…) But when we talk about solutions for the American development (or lack of it) in soccer, we need to talk about what the countries who do what Arena says — draw from their own leagues a majority of the time, hire coaches solely from the country’s ranks — because Arena is making an apples-to-apples comparison.
(One can argue it’s in his interest to agitate for a uniquely American solution — Arena’s career path from collegiate coach to US youth team coach to MLS coach to USMNT HC and back to MLS is a testament to and shining example of what the problem is, which I’m about to get into.)
Part of the excitement among the fan base for Jurgen Klinsmann’s arrival at the U.S. Soccer Federation was based on this trenchant analysis after Bob Bradley’s US team lost to Ghana in the Round of 16 in 2010, where he basically said we’re doing it wrong: soccer being a middle-class sport, dominated at youth levels by traveling teams and college teams, set us back before we could even get going.
(Relying on collegiate athletics to refine the pros of the future is a problem for all manner of American professional leagues, save baseball and hockey [the latter obviously being Canadian]. Soccer merely puts it in starker relief.)
It is absurdity on its face to accept Arena’s comparison, because the way the American youth pipeline for soccer works puts it far behind countries like Spain, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Argentina & Brazil where professional teams develop players at the youngest ages. Rising stars in world football are talked about making breakthroughs at the ages of 19, 20, 21. At that point, most American players are getting out of college and entering MLS. There are certainly exceptions (Donovan, Altidore, Michael Bradley) American soccer players reach their potential much later and have less time to exploit it to the fullest. It is no coincidence that the most lasting contribution of the USA to world soccer is its goalkeepers — they generally reach their primes later and can keep going well into their late thirties at high levels.
Facilities and sport science only get you so far before you have to look at the pyramid and how you instruct the next generation to play. That wall was dinged by Arena’s 2006 team. Bob Bradley’s 2010 team managed to avoid it in South Africa for a time because of Donovan’s excellence against Algeria and the flub heard around the world by England’s Rob Green. But Bradley Sr.’s 2011 Gold Cup squad hit that wall head-on against Mexico, where the physical conditioning of the US team reached its limit against Mexico’s more talented and tactically aware team in the final. I still have difficulty believing that game was only a 4-2 defeat. It felt worse than that, and it’s probably why Sunil Gulati fired Bradley Sr. afterward.
(This conditioning over technique is coming home to roost with the women’s team, too, as the rest of the world caught up with the women bolstered by Title IX into soccer and who won two World Cups on those advantages.)
This is why Jurgen Klinsmann has a contract until 2018 (noting that all contracts aren’t always worth the paper they are printed on), because while American soccer is on the rise as a domestic sport, it is broken as far as competing internationally goes. It will remain so until the USSF gets its shit together. That means MLS teams need to develop their own players before the NCAA gets to them and the instruction at those academies needs to be the best it can offer.
Otherwise, we will be recruiting dual-nationals until the end of time because they are the only ones receiving serious instruction at the time one needs it to be remotely world class in the sport, relying on them and the next Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey to pull us out of trouble instead of creating a pool deep enough where we don’t have to rely on one or two stars.
There is no way forward until the USSF upends the entire structure — and it’s in part why I’m not terribly concerned about how far the 2014 edition of the USMNT goes this year in Brazil. We still have a lot of catching up to do. Drawing on our unique culture means stagnation.