Thursday, July 15, 2010

Special Comment: The Future of U.S. Soccer

Following the United States Men’s Soccer Team's performance at this years World Cup, I cannot help put wonder what's next for U.S. Soccer. This team's successes were tremendous, but it continued the failings that have haunted American soccer for quite sometime. This team, undoubtly the best U.S. team ever, won the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Finished first in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, and finished as the runner up at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. Given all that this team accomplished, was just reaching the Knockout Rounds an actual success, or did this team fail to live up to its potential?

It is a bit of a loaded question, but I believe that this team failed to live up to its potential. I'm not claiming that this could have or should have won the World Cup. I am saying that their performance in the South Africa, while exciting, really wasn't really that strong. At the time the 1-1 tie against England seemed exceptionally impressive, but looking back at it now, was it really? While the English team certainly looked loaded going in to the World Cup, it became pretty clear that England was in poor form. Then came the spectacular comeback against Slovenia. The U.S. played quite well in the second half in this game, but had major failings in defense that lead to the 2 goals for Slovenia in the first half. The U.S. scored 3 goals; one improperly disallowed late in the second half that should have given the U.S. the victory. While it is regrettable that a blown call took the victory away the United States, I don't feel the U.S. have the right to cry foul. They allowed two cheap goals in the first half and put themselves in a position where that call was allowed to matter.

The Game against Algeria was probably the best total game the United States played in the World Cup. It may seem odd that a 1-0 victory in the final seconds over a Nation that is not held in high regard when it comes to soccer was the best performance, but I really think it was. With the exception of one major mistake early that should have led to an Algerian goal, the back line played pretty well. Along with that there were many chances created by the U.S. team, which was impressive considering how defensive and cynical the Algerian play was. How it took until second half stoppage time for the U.S. to finally take the lead 1-0, I do not really understand. The U.S. won group C with 5 points, which was the first time the United States had won a group at the World Cup.

Ghana scored early against the United States, which had proven to be a theme for the U.S. team. This time it was a turnover committed by Ricardo Clark in an area of the pitch where a team should never, ever, turn the ball over. Ricardo Clark, shortly after that, proceeded to get a Yellow Card on a challenge that should have earned him a Red. While, I think Bob Bradley did a pretty good job tactically during this World Cup, going with Clark over Edu was a horrible decision. Edu and Bradley in the central mid-field had proven to be a very solid tandem in the prior two games, so I do not understand why Clark got that spot back in the Starting Eleven. Clark's poor performance led to him being substituted for with barely a half-hour gone in the match and that basically meant the U.S. was wasting a Substitution. The U.S. played much better in the second-half and created chances and eventually equalized on a Donovan PK. Five minutes into extra, another major screw up in Central Defense let Ghana score an incredibly cheap goal on a ball that was just a hopeful clearance. It was clear at that point that the U.S. team was exhausted and Ghana passed and dived their way through the rest of extra time for the victory.

That was it. The United States was eliminated from the 2010 World Cup in a very disappointing fashion.

The primary culprit for the United States leaving South Africa early was the poor performance of the central defenders. During this World Cup the United States used 3 central defenders, Jay DeMerit, Carlos Bocanegra, and Oguchi Onweyu. They made mistakes that led to 4 of the 5 goals allowed by the United States in its four games at the World Cup. Onweyu was clearly out of form and had to be replaced by Bocanegra, who is not a natural Central Back, in the final two games. It was failings of communication as well as marking in the central defense that proved to be the undoing of the United States' chances. The mistakes that were made by the U.S. central backs are entirely unacceptable at this level of soccer. It is incredibly rare to see the types of mistakes frequently made by U.S. defenders at the International level.

The midfielders are certainly not without fault of their own. While the midfield is filled with the best the U.S. has to offer in terms of soccer, its failing contributed to the opportunities, which led to opposition goals. Poor marking of runners through the midfield and turnovers in the defensive midfield have been continual problems for U.S. Soccer. Those errors are also unacceptable at this level of soccer.

The first issue that comes up after any World Cup is what to do with the Manager. I have tremendous respect for Bob Bradley and believe he has done an excellent job with this team. That being said I do not believe his contract should be renewed when it expires at the end of this year. Bradley has advanced the cause of U.S. soccer amazingly well since replacing Bruce Arena following the disastrous 2006 World Cup, but it is about as far advanced as he can take it. The United States' Men’s National team needs to move in a new direction if it is ever going to be able to compete at an elite level.

Bob Bradley is gone. Now what? I believe the U.S. Soccer Federation needs to look for managers that don't come from the American soccer school of thought, but rather Europe or South America. I'll drop a name. Dunga. Dunga, the recently fired manager of Brazil would make an excellent manager for the advancement of United States soccer. The major failures of U.S. soccer have been those of discipline and organization and manager like Dunga would address those problems very well. While, it will probably be impossible for the U.S. to actually land Dunga or someone else of his stature, it is important that they hire someone in that school of thought in order to fix the major tactical problems the U.S. have been facing.

Another problem facing U.S soccer becoming elite is the system itself. The apparatus for player discovery and development is very poor in the United States. There are some nice programs like Project Nike, which are getting some of the best players developed and turned into professionals early. For the most part however, the way talent is discovered is through College soccer. To really make changes it will require a paradigm shift in how the development of athletes is done. In American football, it is high school to college to Professional, but running that system in soccer doesn't work well. It leaves U.S. soccer players far behind their counterparts from other countries. The U.S. Soccer Federation needs to find a way to get the best American soccer players into professional environments much earlier.

Having fourteen year old soccer players turn professional may seem strange to common American sensibilities, but it is the way of international soccer. High School, club, and College soccer puts U.S. players behind players from other countries.

If the system in the United States changes regarding soccer development, another important step is development of domestic soccer leagues. MLS, considering the popularity of soccer within the United States, has been quite successful. It has recognized the realities of soccer in the United States and has provided a good product without bankrupting itself. The significance of MLS in the advancement of U.S. soccer over the past 20 years cannot be understated. While the interests of MLS and U.S. soccer may not seem entirely mutual, it is clear that a strong MLS helps U.S. Soccer and strong U.S. Soccer helps MLS.

It is important to keep MLS viable, but it is also important to expand professional soccer in the United States. Actual MLS expansion probably is not the best option right now as there has been recent expansion and it is yet to be seen whether or not MLS can support these new franchises. A solution to add quality professional soccer teams to the U.S. would be the development of a genuine 2nd division. While there are some other domestic leagues, most notably the USL, in reality those leagues are little more than hobby leagues. A true 2nd division that would be affiliated with MLS, but not the direct financial responsibility of MLS, would add roster spots in visible positions for more American players. That would help improve the chances of finding talented players who may have fallen through the cracks.

This second division could be a USL that is put into a position to be a more viable league. It could be a new league that would have new franchises in larger markets than the USL. An affiliation of whatever becomes the 2nd division and MLS is very important and could be done in a few ways. It could be done like what is in Baseball or Hockey where each MLS franchise has their own farm team in the 2nd division. While that would be a way to do it, I believe the preferable way to have an affiliation between these two leagues would be a promotion/relegation alignment. In this alignment the top two teams from the 2nd division move up to MLS at the end of each season and the bottom two teams from MLS would be relegated to the 2nd division. I believe it would add credibility to the new league and provide greater competition.

MLS must also recognize that it will be little more that a stepping stone for the best American players. It will never be able to compete with the major European leagues and obstructing the moves of Americans to those league hurts American soccer and in turn the MLS itself.

If the United States ever wants to compete at the top levels of international soccer consistently, it is critical that changes are made. The complete overhaul I have suggested may be unrealistic, but it is still important to keep progressing.

Thanks for reading and if you have made it this far why not leave a comment.


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