It was very exciting to watch the US Men’s National Team overachieve during this summer’s World Cup. But as Klinsmann’s men showed the world that the American spirit of determination, courage and relentless effort can lead to a place in the next round, it became painfully clear that the overall quality of the US field players was not enough to put them into contender status.
Punching above your weight is not a viable long-term strategy, so if we want the US to do better in future World Cups we will need better field players. Jurgen Klinsmann has started scouring the globe looking for players with dual nationality who qualify to play for the USMNT. Using “Oriundi” in World Cup competition has been an honored tradition ever since Luis Monti won the World Cup with Italy in 1934 after winning one with Uruguay in 1930. But that approach is simply treating a symptom, not curing the disease. The truth is that we need to develop better soccer players right here in the US.
According to FIFA there are almost 4.2 million registered soccer players in the US, (second only to Germany) and another 20 million unregistered players for a total of over 24 million soccer players. You can see the FIFA study here.
In comparison, fellow CONCACAF team Costa Rica has a population of 4.7 million and a total of 50,588 registered players. Two-time World Champion and 2010 semi-finalist Uruguay has 41,300 registered players while US World Cup nemesis Ghana has 27,500. Yet all of these countries have more representatives playing in the Top 5 leagues in the World than the USA. (See table below, league data from transfermarkt.com). 3 of the 13 US players are keepers, a disproportionate 23%.
The MLS is a better league, both from a sporting as well as a financial standpoint than the domestic leagues in Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ghana, which might explain why some US players don’t feel the need to move abroad, but there have been plenty of US players who went to Europe in the hope of plying their trade in the best leagues in the world, only to find out that they don’t make the grade.
The data from transfermarkt.com shows that the 20 EPL clubs carry five Americans on their rosters, three of them goalkeepers, with only two of them (Howard and Guzan, both GKs) starting weekly. (The other three are Friedel, Altidore and Cameron). There are a total of 41 Americans active in the German league, but only 6 of those play in the Bundesliga. The majority of the players in the lower leagues have lived and played in Germany for most of their lives, and have not been developed in the US domestic system.
If we add Dempsey and Bradley (both of whom have proven they can play in the top leagues) to Guzan and Howard we come up with a current total of 4 top-class domestically developed players….out of approximately 2.5 million (the other 1.7 million that make up the 4.2 million USA total are female players). Of the 2014 USMNT squad only 3 domestically developed players will be under 30 in 2018 (Altidore, Gonzalez and Yedlin) compared to 5 “Oriundi” (Brooks, Chandler, Diskerud, Green and Johansson)
Organizations like the NSCAA and US Soccer are doing a great job producing well-educated coaches. US Soccer players have year-round access to the best equipment, the best support, the best facilities and the latest sports performance research and technology in the world. So why can’t the US produce world-class men’s soccer players, and why are US keepers doing so much better than their countrymen in the field? Having coached in the US for well over a decade, it seems to me that there are three main reasons that the US System is ineffective as well as inefficient: money, organization and short-term mindset. The three are inextricably linked which only complicates devising a solution.
If there are so few US prospects in the pipeline, it is mainly because there is no pipeline. Want to drive an engineer crazy? Have him draw a flow chart of the byzantine American youth soccer league structure. (And when he finishes, the chart will be obsolete because leagues fold and start up with alarming frequency)
To begin there are very few soccer clubs in the US that use the integrated vertical development model commonly used in the rest of the world, and although this seems to be slowly changing, very few teams have adult teams associated with their youth program. The vast majority of clubs consists of a bunch of separate teams that share (public) facilities and a common club name. Each team is responsible for its own practices, development, game, league, and tournament schedule.
The absence of a clear organizational structure, on the national, regional and club level creates a void. And if there’s one thing Americans are good at, it is filling voids in the market place. As a result the youth soccer coaching market is booming in the US. There are some excellent organizations among these companies, but there are also (too) many who are little more than expensive babysitters with a bag of balls and a stack of cones.
In any industry where the product sold is a commodity, it is crucial to differentiate your product from those of your competitors in order to be able to charge a premium. You have to justify your price. Unfortunately, very few coaching schools or camps stress the development angle. Instead, they stress the theory that the best coaches produce the best teams and obviously the best teams win the most games. A team’s success is measured by how it performs not how well it develops players. Many of the “elite” teams consist of players not developed over the years but recruited from other clubs, put together not unlike a Chelsea or Manchester City. Results are more important than development. Of course, this is particularly discouraging for those clubs in the same area, which do try to develop their own players only to see them poached away.
This need to justify the high, sometimes exorbitant, fees being charged by some teams / organizations, means that there have to be elite tournaments, and leagues and rankings, the participation in which also costs money. In order to maintain a sufficiently impressive ranking, a team has to play in as high a league a possible, play in as many games as possible and attend all the “right” tournaments. Since some leagues only run a limited schedule, teams have to enter multiple leagues whose schedules overlap, while simultaneously playing in a variety of tournaments.
Players pay for their own development.
These performances don’t come cheap. With each team in a club making their own decisions as to which coaches to employ at which price, the economies of scale associated with having a few coaches share equipment and train multiple teams is lost. In addition, the time commitment involved with traveling to and from multiple practices and games every week can be significant, especially in a country where efficient public transportation is the exception, not the norm. As a result, playing in an “elite” team does not just require a large time commitment by the player, it requires a lot of time and effort by the parents who are shuttling the player back and forth to practices, games and tournaments. For a single parent this is almost impossible to do.
This structure also makes it more complicated for a player to move from a recreational team to a travel or select team or vice versa since very often the coaches of the various teams in an age group do not communicate. The net result of this is that the cost of player development is transferred from the club to the players’ parents. The majority of teams don’t have the resources to provide financial or transportation assistance to players. Which means that a lot of promising players are unable to participate at the highest level, especially at a younger age when proper development training would benefit them most.
Some teams also like to showcase how many of their players went on to play in college, but again, that is not a proper measurement of development success. For the most part, soccer ability is only one of several selection criteria for college players. There are very few full soccer scholarships available in Men’s soccer. Unless you are one of the fortunate few who get a “full-ride” you first need to be able to academically qualify to attend the school you want to play at AND be able to somehow pay for it before your soccer ability even enters into the equation.
The proliferation of the so-called “College Showcase” Tournaments in recent years has been a particularly disturbing trend. The logic behind is that many elite teams competing at the same facility on the same weekend allows college coaches to scout as many prospects as possible thereby making the recruiting process more efficient. While it does make the college coaches’ job easier, the net result is that the cost of recruitment is transferred from the schools to the players’ parents.
The need to play in these tournaments adds to an already overfilled schedule. Thanks to the popular (but usually misinterpreted) adage that it takes 10,000 hours of play and practice to produce an expert, many teams cram their game and schedule to the point of overflow, which actually ends up doing more damage than good.
That is not to say that participating in these tournaments isn’t fun and that the players don’t enjoy playing in these tournaments and leagues. They do. But this doesn’t mean it is best for their development. Most players would also love to have pizza for dinner every night. From a development point of view these showcase tournaments and youth soccer rankings are utterly useless. (And before you ask, yes, all the teams I work with are nationally ranked in the Top 75)
We’re going to need a bigger net!
From a mathematical standpoint there shouldn’t be a need for these tournaments and leagues covering large geographical areas. Maryland, which is about the same size as Belgium, has 60,000 registered youth players, about 32,000 of which are boys. Virginia is the size of Portugal and has 140,000 registered youth players (about 74,000 boys) while Portugal has 132,0000 registered players TOTAL. It shouldn’t be necessary for teams from this area to travel to the other side of the country to find decent opposition.
There are 3 US Soccer Development Academy organizations in Maryland (Bays, Bethesda and DC United) all located in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Virginia also has 3 Academy teams, 2 in the Richmond area and one in Virginia Beach. Only DC United (MLS) and the Richmond Kickers (USL) are associated with a professional team. Each organization has 3 teams (U-14, U-16 and U-18) with approximately 20 players each for a total of 60 per organization. There are a 3 Development Academies organizations in the greater DC area that only field a U-14 team for another 60 slots which means that there are 420 available academy slots for 106,000 boys, all of which are out of reach for those players living outside of the Baltimore-Washington, Richmond or Norfolk areas. In comparison, Lisbon, Portugal (which is about half the size of Washington DC) alone boasts 4 professional academies fielding over twenty teams, providing training to more than 450 youth players.
As mentioned above, the US has over 4 million registered players, 75% of which are youth players, split approximately 52%-48% between boys and girls so there are about 1.56 million boys playing club soccer (or 39% of the total). The country also has 20 million non-registered players. Even if only 25% of those would be youth players this would equate to another 2.6 million boys playing soccer, more than doubling the talent pool. Many of these children are priced out of the game and cannot afford to play in the current system.
“Football is a coaches’ game, Soccer is a players’ game” – Rinus Michels
Because of the overloaded game schedules, youth leagues don’t play 90 minute games until the U-18 level, allow unlimited substitutes and play multiple games in a weekend or even a day. (the US Soccer Development Academy League is trying to avoid that, but still allows 5 substitutions per match) All of which are adversely affecting player development.
It is simply not possible for youth players to effectively play in multiple games during such a short time. The recovery time is insufficient. So players get subbed, with those that do play multiple full games during a weekend at a higher risk of injuries or burnout. Teams often have over 24 players on the roster with 18 allowed to play in a game. As a result, it is often not the team with the best players that wins but the team with the deepest bench.
Playing 80 minutes instead of 90 means game time is reduced by 11 %. Figure in a few substitutions and most players won’t be on the field for more than 50-60 minutes, coming out when they’re tired, and going back in when they’re rested. While on the sideline, players receive coaching points whereas in a game with only 3 substitutions, at least 8 of the players have to figure things out for themselves during the game, improving their soccer IQ even though it might result in some lost games.
It’s comparable to training for a marathon by running nothing but 200 yards sprints. It hurts development. Indeed, it is possible for a 21-year old player to graduate from a Division I soccer program having never played a full 2×45 minute match. At that age, the player is facing a development gap with the rest of the world that is all but impossible to overcome.
Maybe US Soccer should take a page from Feyenoord handbook. The team from Rotterdam had nine Academy products in the Holland squad that made it to the semi-final in Brazil (you can read some English language articles on the Academy here and here. If you can read Dutch, try to find a copy of Hard Gras’ “Everybody is talking about us” edition, which follows the Feyenoord U-16 team for a season). Named best youth academy in Holland for six years running, it stresses the “less is more” approach with only 18 players per team, four training sessions and a single game per week. The Academy even liaises with the players’ schools to make sure they are excused from certain P.E. activities in order to prevent overtraining. Until the U-17 level everybody on the team plays. Since there are only three substitutions allowed per game, this means that there is a rotation schedule where some players will have to sit out a game. Players are judged only by their progress as players, not by the league results or rankings, even though the teams win their share of Championships
So you’re 19. Now what?
Once a player graduates from the youth ranks, there are very few places he can go for further development. There are some fantastic coaches running some fantastic college soccer programs, turning out some very good, -but not world class- soccer players: Cirovski at Maryland and Brandt at Navy, just to name a couple right down the street from me, with Terps alums Zusi and Gonzalez making the USMNT WC 2014 squad. But college soccer’s main objective, like high school soccer, is not player development; nor should it be. Among other things, the season is too short (although that might change), the game schedule is too tight, and NCAA rules are too restrictive to allow for proper development.
The MLS is the main professional league and their teams have started their own development academies but there are only 17 US teams in the league, mainly concentrated in large urban areas. Major League Soccer has come a long way since its 1996 inception but it is far from an elite league. Having displaced China, Russia and the UAE leagues as aging superstars’ favorite “retirement home” is an important stage in its development as young Americans get the opportunity to learn from soccer legends who have “been there, done that”. But the MLS still finds itself in the seemingly contradictory position that its best homegrown players will have to serve a stint abroad for the league quality to continue to improve.
In the absence of a promotion / relegation system, the USL and NASL are competing second tier leagues where some teams (Rochester Rhinos, Richmond Kickers,) are well-run organizations that have been around forever but the majority of the teams are just trying to make it through the (short) season that runs from May thru August. There are also leagues run by the USSF and USASA which call themselves semi-pro but really are just a bunch of college kids home for summer.
The net result is that if you’re 19 years old and not “in the system” (either playing in college or for one of the MLS Academies) there is very little opportunity for you to get the quality training and playing time you need to improve as a player. This is especially worrying in the case of talented players who don’t have the grades or the money to go to college, or even those who decide to forego playing at a lesser college in favor of attending a more prestigious school for academic reasons. (i.e. attend Stanford or Virginia and not play rather than go to a small Div III school and play).
So how come goalkeepers aren’t affected as much?
It has been said that US keepers are so good because they learn early hand-eye coordination playing baseball and football. Although cross training certainly has its advantages, I doubt that in this case it is the silver bullet it has been made out to be.
I would like to say that the reason is that the goalkeeper coaches in the US are the best in the world, in particular those that read this blog, but as much as I like to believe that, it’s probably not completely true. The way I look at it, the explanation is much simpler. US goalkeepers do better because the flaws in the US developmental system don’t affect them as much.
Most obvious is the fact that keepers peak later. Where most of the field players reach their peak in their mid to late twenties, goalkeepers often don’t hit their strides until their early thirties. So there is more time to develop.
The goalkeeper position is physically less demanding in games than that of field players. So the reduced recovery time between closely scheduled matches doesn’t negatively affect the goalkeeper as much as it does the field players.
Goalkeepers don’t get subbed as often as field players. Even if the team has multiple goalkeepers, they most often will alternate games instead of halves, giving the keepers both the learning experience of playing a complete game as well as giving them the appropriate rest periods.
Goalkeepers do their most intensive work during practice, not during a match. Games teach them how to read the game and how to apply the techniques they learned and practiced during training sessions. During practice, keepers often get a more intense work-out with many more repetitions than the field players. If a coach lines up the players for a shooting drill, a keeper will have to face every shot (or every other shot if there’s two) while the shooter will only get to touch one out of every 15 or so balls.
Finally, goalkeepers aren’t affected as much by formation, tactic or personnel changes. No matter which team or coach they play for, goalkeepers either play in goal or they don’t play at all. They aren’t asked to fill in at left back for a game or play holding midfielder because the coach thinks they’re better suited for that, or he doesn’t have anybody else for the position.
In their 2009 book “Soccernomics”, authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski write that “the best bets for the future are probably Japan, the US and China: the three largest economies on earth which can afford coaches like Hiddink, where potential soccer players have enough to eat and don’t get terrible diseases. There are already omens of their rise: the US has the most young soccer players of any country and has reached a World Cup quarter final”
Five years later it seems that this rise has stagnated. In order to reach the highest level the US has to revamp its approach to player development. It doesn’t bode well for the future that the Youth National Teams are not performing very well. There are fewer slots available in Youth Tournaments but the US still should be able to qualify since they play in the relatively weak CONCACAF.
The US U-23 team did not qualify for the 2012 Olympics while Mexico (324K registered players, 8.1 million non-registered) and Honduras (61K registered / 359K non-registered) did. The US U-17s did not qualify for the 2013 World Cup, losing out to Mexico, Honduras, Canada (865K / 1.8Mil) and Panama (61K / 150K) while the US U-20s did manage to qualify for their World Cup together with Mexico, Cuba (46K registered players / 1.0 mil non-registered) and El Salvador (42K / 411K). The U20s finished last in their group, losing 4-1 to both Spain (653K / 2.1 mil) and third place finisher Ghana and tying 1-1 with tournament winner France (1.79 mil / 2.39 mil)
With 1.7 million registered male youth players, the sheer amount of potential talent is so great that the US should produce a few world-class players every year just by chance. But we don’t. The only young US player to make some impact at the World Cup was then 20-year old DeAndre Yedlin. We don’t have a Toni Kroos, an Adnan Januzaj or a Paul Pogba, players who are able to perform at the highest level, while still in their teens. This is not a talent problem; it is a development problem. There are thousands of hard-working, well-qualified coaches in the US doing their very best every day to develop players but not succeeding. It’s not the coaches; it’s the system.
There are a lot of things we can do, none of them easy. We need to get our young players to play soccer like the rest of the world does it. In order to get rid of the unlimited substitutions, we need to get rid of the multiple games in a short period of time. Which means we need to get rid of the tournaments and leagues that schedule their games like that. Which means we need an alternative league structure, which requires a unified commitment by all organizations involved to put development of US Soccer players first. As you might have guessed by now, I’m a proponent of the vertical development structure. US Soccer Development Academy is a step in the right direction but its reach is not big enough, yet. I’m not very familiar with its inner workings or future plans so the organization might already be working on it, but here are some suggestions:
Ideally, there should be enough Academy teams to allow for a full competition (14-16 teams per region/division) without having to travel more than two/three hours, leading to a full round-robin season while playing only a single game per week and time off over the summer (or winter, if mimicking the MLS calendar). It will also have to find a way to deal with the Academy / High School conflict, perhaps by allowing Academies to lower the amount of teams it fields during High School season. It could consider “affiliate” clubs or multiple divisions to give clubs the opportunity to comply with USSDA rules and regulations over a few seasons. Just like it offers a US Youth Coaching certificate, the USSF could add an “Academy Coach” course. This could even be an online-based course, available as an add-on to any coach already licensed at a certain level. They could certify existing coaching schools as “Academy-compliant” if their curriculum, organization, finances and coaching staff meet the development standards of the USSDA. This would allow clubs wanting to join the USDDA to contract the training out rather than recruit and train their own staff, eliminating the learning curve associated with such an endeavor.
Emphasizing long-term development over short-term results, and finding a way to include those players currently priced out of the game are crucial to improving the quality of US Soccer, and making the USMNT into the World Cup contender we all want it to be.
Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.