There is a belief in this country that US Soccer and its domestic league, Major League Soccer, have a goal to greatly improve the quality of the American player and the status of the sport in this country. US Soccer and its figurehead, Sunil Gulati, state unequivocally that the objective is the same as that of every other federation on the globe: to win a World Cup. MLS Commission Don Garber has stated his intent to make his league one of the very best in the world.
And yet, outside of broad pronouncements and colorful supporting materials, what does either entity actually do to ensure their stated goals are met? In my opinion, not much, and certainly, not enough.
In recent days, US Soccer has come out with its US Youth Soccer Player Development Model. It is a grand and admittedly exciting document, especially for a youth coach and student of the game like me who has recognized for some time the practical changes that need to be made in how we bring along our players. The document’s release comes in the wake of several other occurrences in recent years: the issuance of US Soccer’s Best Practices manual, the appointment of Claudio Reyna to the post of Youth Technical Director, and the long-wished-for (in many circles, at least) hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann to head coach of the USMNT.
Deconstruction of the Developmental Model
Taken together and at a distance, these things produce a flattering image of cohesive vision and purpose. However, much like a George Seurat pointillist work, when viewed more closely, the connection between the various components is lost, and, therefore, so is the vision.
How so? While the Federation has gone to great lengths to codify exactly what needs to be done in our youth program (the details and directives of which I wholeheartedly accept and am certainly glad to see), I can’t conceive of anything practical that will make very much of it possible on a local level. Further, I don’t believe that Sunil Gulati has the conviction or even intent to make it happen. With a daughter who plays at an advanced club level, I am all too familiar with the Wild West that is American youth soccer. State federations often seem bent on ignoring the Fed for fear of ceding authority, and local clubs have a similar relationship with their states. It is a nation of independently-minded and motivated non-soccer people, running clubs in their local cow-town, completely unwilling to give up their lucrative pay-to-play privileges and overtly monetized system. Anything that hints at a disruption to the gravy train is immediately scrutinized. My daughter’s prior club did not even acknowledge the presence of the Best Practices document when it came out (at least not in the way of a public comment to parents), let alone move to adopt any of its principles.
To give some more current examples, the Youth Player Development Model document states, among many other things, the notion that there should be no player tryouts below U13, no excessive (read: overnight) travel until U11 at the absolute earliest, and a much-reduced tournament emphasis. These are noble and necessary goals and ones I completely agree with, and yet I have absolutely no faith that Gulati and the Fed have the means or the stomach to impose any of them, or any of the myriad other ideas in the model. The thrust of the document is to give specific detail to the overall stated purpose of US Soccer, namely to move from a win-at-all-costs mentality at the youth levels to the ever-more-buzzworthy “development” approach, leaving the focus on winning to the much more mature ages. But let’s be honest: they’ll be demanding (asking nicely?) that state federations and local clubs voluntarily forego the buckets of cash that presently flow into their coffers like so much intoxicating moonshine, and I don’t see the Fed pulling out a 6-shooter to make that happen.
So what are we left with? Another document that contains simply more high-falutin’ dreams about moving to a system that will rival the world’s best, but no credible means of enforcement. Until or unless we can successfully impose the well-intentioned objectives in these documents, and give real authority to the new appointments within US Soccer, our youth development system will continue to do nothing more than line the pockets of the two-bit club sheriffs, while still producing technically and tactically deficient players of artificially stunted quality.
MLS : The Tail That Wags the Dog
And having now introduced the concept of “artificially stunted quality”, it is a perfect time to detail how MLS and Don Garber fit into this. They are the tail that is now wagging the US Soccer dog.
MLS has created a league, one sanctioned by Gulati and US Soccer, that Mr. Garber states will one day be among the greatest leagues on earth. For a league to be great, however, it must have great players, more than just a couple, and on more than just a few oddly “lucky” teams. Case in point: When Don Garber admitted that there were too many ties in MLS (I think he meant “draws”, but whatever), suddenly we saw the almost instantaneous formation of a couple Superteams, namely the LA Galaxy and RBNY, to shake things up. Further, when David Beckham came to the final year of his first contract in MLS and had not yet won the MLS Cup (which would have been a massive indictment and financial boondoggle for the league) suddenly Robbie Keane dropped down from the sky to help achieve David and Don’s cherished marketing objective. A compelling storyline, no?
No. Hell no.
At this moment, allow me to state for the record that I find nothing about MLS to be compelling except its absurdist contrivances.
The phrase-that-pays in MLS is “Competitve Balance” but in and of itself competitive balance is not compelling except to the undiscerning. Technically and tactically engaging football is. Call me a Eurosnob if you must (an honor I gladly accept), but I am not terribly interested in seeing largely soccer-deficient college graduates fight for scraps in a league that often pays them less than they might earn with their degrees. I prefer not to watch players who studied more than they trained over their college years, especially when I have satellite TV and can watch the very best teams in the world any time I want. But it’s not really the players’ fault. They’ve been let down, and they, along with more demanding fans, continue to pay the price. And let’s not get into the whole “high school and college soccer produce a more well rounded player and person” discussion. This is about soccer, end of. No country has won a World Cup, or produced a world-class league, by using a system such as ours.
It’s the Quality, Stupid
Have I tried to “support” MLS? Yes, several times. There have been years where my hometown Chicago Fire have made for some good viewing. But realistically, the more I watch soccer at its highest levels the less I find I can tolerate a league like MLS.
What would attract me permanently to MLS? It always comes down to quality of play, and MLS, in its present form, simply does not meet my standards. To truly raise the level of play, you need better players and better coaching. However, MLS has built a league on soccer-specific stadia that generally hold only between 20,000-25,000 fans. These stadia would rival those of 2nd division or 3rd division teams in most countries. So how, exactly, can you spring for 1st division world talent and pay for it with artificially managed gate receipts? You can’t. People cite the league’s salary cap as the main reason world class players aren’t brought in, and that is certainly a reason. But the salary cap is redundant: a team couldn’t afford even a couple $10M players when you max out at a crowd of 20-25k, and that’s just how MLS wants it. A club needs only (can only?) fill 20-25k seats, so having a league full of world stars in their prime is financially non-viable.
If, by some miracle in the next, say, 10 years, interest in MLS suddenly jumps from the steady build it’s been designed for to a much steeper growth curve, do we really believe the league will demand, and owners will build, an entirely new set of 45,000 seat stadia? Of course not. MLS is perfectly content with soccer being a niche sport in this country, remaining a non-threat to the behemoth that is the NFL. Indeed, MLS was planned with all of that in mind.
Luckily (predictably?) for MLS, then, the league has continued to move toward capacity with young (well, 23 year old) ex-college kids. And with growing attendance figures, the league has increasingly little additional capacity left to fill, so there’s no motivation to push for major increases in the quality. With that being the case, payroll increases can remain on a modest slope, and the finances continue to look good, which is all the league has ever really cared about. It certainly doesn’t care about the sport itself. MLS has masterfully created the perfect scenario that takes advantage of US Soccer’s failings, and frankly helps to sustain them. It is a self-referential and self-fulfilling cycle. The present-day American college player, a product of the flawed American youth development system, is exactly what MLS needs to maintain its financial vision—nothing more, nothing less.
The Uncertain Allure of the Development Academy
You might believe that the Development Academy system, and MLS participation in it, is an indication that all relevant institutions are, in fact, concerned with improving the development process. However, DA’s generally continue to charge their participants, rather than carry them as they would do in foreign clubs. The DA’s that do cover some or all of the cost often do so by passing the cost on to the other non-DA players in the way of higher fees (or at least they try to: this was a major reason why an MLS club I have intimate knowledge of recently began de-affiliation proceedings with its Juniors programs, as the Juniors program would not give in to this demand to charge its players more to fund the DA).
Ultimately, then, is MLS really interested in personally throwing the kind of money into their DA’s that would truly increase the quality of home-grown players? The quality out there right now—from the pay-to-play youth programs right through the HS and college systems—has proven plenty good enough for the needs of MLS. The sham, and shame, of our DA system is that it simply creates another revenue stream and added control for MLS, under the guise of giving a damn. In fact, I am aware of a 16 year old player who just left an MLS Development Academy team for a professional youth contract in Holland. Why? The DA training wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and the best possible outcome was that the player would still (and only) be fighting for a job in MLS rather than a top-tier foreign league. Not exactly the level of motivation one needs to take the sport seriously, or serious enough for someone who is already motivated. If MLS were truly on a par with foreign leagues, and the MLS academies were fully funded, I might have more faith that MLS involvement in this process was a good sign and a good thing.
Further, because there is no promotion or relegation in MLS, the last remaining impetus for pushing the quality barrier is removed. Teams can languish in mediocrity, knowing they’ll never have to suffer any real consequences of poor performance as other teams around the world might. The details of the pro/rel argument are many, and that discussion is best left for another column. Suffice to say, players, coaches, even owners, would push themselves much harder if they had a bigger communal fight on their hands.
So the league has no motivation to drastically improve quality, and as a result, I have no lasting motivation to continue giving them a shot. But guess what? The dirty little secret of MLS is that they DON’T WANT supporters like me, and, frankly, they don’t NEED ones like me. In fact, their business model was built to exclude us. Let me repeat that: the MLS model was built to exclude the hardcore learned soccer fan. They have created a league that exists only in a petri dish (gives new meaning to the idea of a soccer culture, doesn’t it?). They are content with raising, sometimes from scratch, roughly 20,000 “supporters” in each MLS city, fans who somehow are more enamored with the idea and experience of fandom than the actual level of play on the field. They have been sold the idea of “competiveness” over outright quality. And they have been bamboozled. These folks suffer from a classic condition: they are in love with the IDEA of being in love. They love the IDEA that they have a local team in “their” sport, one whose scarf they can wear, one that they can celebrate, cheer for, wring their hands over, enter in a fantasy league, have mock-drafts about. It’s more about the trappings, and is about as artificial as it gets. But it’s exactly what MLS, their PR folks and their brigade of citizen-robot bloggers worked so hard to create, and work so relentlessly to protect.
Meanwhile, Sunil Gulati and US Soccer continue to thumb their nose at FIFA and allow the league to operate as it does, with all the inherent accommodations and contradictions. Why? Because MLS is the real boss in American soccer. MLS is doing just fine with the existing sub-par American player, a few over-the-hill international stars, and an ever-increasing trunk-full of mid-level South Americans, some of whom might be happy just to be moving to a country where they have reliable electricity.
Pay to Play, and Keep on Paying
So when you evaluate these two entities—US Soccer and MLS— and their symbiotic relationship, the troubling issues in American soccer become apparent. The sport of soccer in this country is built on the backs of young American players who have been shortchanged in their development by a Federation and its President that increasingly talk about change but don’t have the wherewithal or honest motivation to actually fix its problems. And now that MLS has come along to rule the roost, the league acts like it is more than happy making sure US Soccer NEVER fixes its problems. How else can you explain Don Garber simultaneously blowing smoke up the collective ass of all those American college players, telling them they are the best in America and selling them on the “dream” of MLS, while paying them a mere pittance?
A more well-prepared player would never settle for the peanuts that are tossed around in MLS. The REAL dream for an American player should be the same as it is for every other player in the world: to give everything you have to the game, and be rewarded appropriately, wherever that may be. Unfortunately, in our American pay-to-play system the player ends up paying twice: first for his low-quality youth “development”, and second for keeping a 3rd-rate league profitable for its owners and commissioner. A player that dares to leave the system to seek better training and grander opportunities is seen by many as an in-grate. This is simply unfathomable.
Even a player like Landon Donovan, who has made quite an impression in his two short loan stints in the Barclay’s Premier League, is not allowed to stay there, because doing so would leave such a gap in the carefully crafted but pennywise/pound foolish MLS profit game. But I guess when you’re not producing 20 more Landon Donovans (like other countries do), you’ve got to milk him for all he’s worth. And when you don’t sell him, you don’t bring in the kind of real big international money that would help you fully fund your academies. Without real academies, those other 19 Landon Donovans never get produced and the self-fulfilling spiral of insanity continues.
The MLS PR Machine
And the insanity doesn’t end there. MLS falls all over itself these days to tout how well Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry are doing in their loan returns to the Premier League, claiming that this somehow reflects well on their own league. Seriously? Do they not understand the pedigree of these players? Each of them could have come to the US and played in a men’s open league for 6 months, then returned to England (where they had plenty of time to get back up to speed) and performed just as well. MLS had absolutely nothing to do with it. After scoring the winning goal in an FA Cup game shortly after his return to Arsenal, Henry let loose with a celebration that was nothing like, and had nothing to do with, his experiences in MLS. This was a fantastic moment, in a game that actually meant something, in front of a crowd that lives and breathes the sport. On scoring the injury-time winner in his final loan game for the Gunners, MLS dared to have a headline that read: “Red Bull Rescues Arsenal.” Unreal! Do they believe we’ve forgotten that Henry has stated repeatedly that he moved to NY precisely because he could continue to play the sport he loved, in a city he loved, without pressure, AND NOT BE NOTICED ON THE STREETS?! One of the best players in history, yet he knows he can go to the US and not be noticed. So much for MLS building one of the best leagues in the world.
The Real Big Picture
In the event that I haven’t sufficiently tied these things together enough for you, let me revisit the George Seurat analogy. Having decided in the opening not to trust our first “impressions” of the American soccer landscape, we instead approached more closely to scrutinize the seemingly random dots. With our newfound understanding of the details, we again stepped back to review the overall image, but to our amazement, we found that the image had changed, and not for the better. Where we first saw beauty and harmony, now we see ugliness and deceit.
It’s time the game of soccer in America was taken back from the know-nothings, the tin-pot youth club dictators and the restrictive and calculating domestic league, and given back to the players. Only then can we profess to fully appreciate and promote the art that is The Beautiful Game.