The State of the American Soccer Establishment

American Soccer Development

Purple: We love you, you guys are doing great. Keep up the good work. Keep at it, and one day you could be great.

Tan: You’re ruffling feathers that may get you in some trouble. The system will work to bring you back into the purple fold. And if it doesn’t, perhaps some action will be taken in an attempt to make it so.

Green: Alarm bells are ringing, and the establishment will mobilize to rectify the situation. This is not an acceptable performance level or aspiration. And if necessary, new policy may be created to not allow you to persist here.

0.1%: NOT ALLOWED, PERIOD. Current American soccer policy makes this impossible.

Why does the American soccer establishment behave this way?
Why does it champion mediocrity, and prohibit greatness?

Why are those who advocate for greatness demonized?
Why are those who actually pursue it, punished?

If you want to get to the bottom of why this country’s soccer is mediocre, stop believing what the establishment has indoctrinated you with, and start looking into these questions.

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  1. RJ says

    Ah the good old bell shaped curve, one of my favorite examples I typically use with parents, players and other coaches!

  2. joel says

    Why…..hmmm… maybe to protect it’s real baby….The NFL?
    Thank you to 3four3….pushing my thinking to the 2nd and 3rd sigma. To hell with the mean.
    “Remarkable people operate outside the norm. They have no fear of failure.” – Some Person

  3. Steve_C says

    Purple is easy. Purple is lowest common denominator. Path of least resistance and pressure. Purple is where the least expertise is required. Purple is what most people understand because that’s where most people function.

    • says

      Hi Josh,

      It depends on what characteristics we’re thinking about.

      For example:

      If I’m thinking about his understanding of the mentality required to reach the global peak of the sport … then I think he’s +3 sigma all the way.

      But, can he APPLY that mentality here in the American environment? That’s the real question. And my answer is no, he can’t.

      Seems every time he makes moves or makes declarations on things that involve +2 or +3 sigma mentality, the establishment blows back, and hard.

      * Leaves Donovan out of WC, he got smeared (it’s still ongoing)
      * Before WC, states we can’t win WC, smeared
      * States Dempsey “hasn’t accomplished shit”, smeared
      * Says players should be playing in Europe / Champions League football, gets smeared
      * States players coming back to MLS is not the way forward, doesn’t matter … our system brings them back from Europe
      * States the US should have promotion & relegation to be competitive, he gets smeared

      And make no mistake, at that level, the smearing the establishment does has a profound effect on public opinion, which in turn sustains & effects current American soccer policy. And policy drives the incentives in the system along with what’s possible and not possible to accomplish.

      • Josh says

        Thanks for the reply and I agree it is a vicious cycle. It is really incredible how 99% of our media have no global context for how they cover soccer. They could really be a positive force for change! At any rate, Jurgen is far and away the best thing that has ever happened to US soccer. I hope the fed lets him stick around for a while unless we have a chance to get a true game changer as a coach.

        On a side note, I find Jurgen’s relationship with Gulati/US soccer very interesting. Gulati is obviously in bed with MLS/Garber but he seems to love Jurgen too. Not sure how to read where he’s trying to take US soccer because Garber’s visions seem to clash with Jurgens. He is a great politician though and I’m sure all he cares about is being a big shot in FIFA.

  4. tpradman says

    if neg sigma = shitty soccer
    and pos sigma = fantastic soccer
    then the mean would not be something to strive for, just a spot most of us end up.

    Where is the US at, above or below average, which direction is it headed? Is the bell narrowing?

    Inevitably it will move positive, but how fast. If sigma is shrinking then the growth of the mean will take forever, this is why diversity is crucial. Now I’m thinking of the world futbol Gaussian skewness when I’m supposed to be working- WTF…

    I guess in the end it is probably determined by some top executives of a system I admittedly do not fully understand, but then again isn’t everything?

    • Jon Best says

      Plus and minus sigma don’t signify good and bad soccer, just deviation from the mean. Bell height, or y axis, just shows what percent of the population sits at that particular distance from the mean. The X axis in this example would most likely be less of a value judgement (good/bad) and more of a coaching approach/philosophy distribution. Applied to the whole world, maybe it’s Barcelona on one end, and Juventus (Stoke?) on the other. The same bell curve in Spain might be a fluid possession game as the mean, a narrower bell because they HAVE a national identity, and variations on that theme farther from center.

      The (sort of misapplied by me) problem of regression to the mean is probably less of a big deal where the whole curve doesn’t suck. You can argue a wide bell is a problem, since it implies a lack of national identity, but the bigger problem is probably the intolerance outlined in the post.

      • garth says

        I asked upthread about y-axis label – without it, it’s kind of tough to imagine what the distribution is meant to communicate. There are specific claims made according to percentile (e.g. “0.1%: NOT ALLOWED, PERIOD. Current American soccer policy makes this impossible”). But without knowing what’s “not allowed” at the tails, there’s no information in the statement.

        • Steve_C says

          You are over thinking it. The purple pretty much represents what parity/mediocrity by design gets you. Being in the green and trying to be better, gets you in trouble.

          • Garth says

            A good chart shouldn’t require any thinking at all. Here:

            I took some liberties in matching the text to the chart. I also took only the upper side of the distribution because I don’t think the post is meant to discuss how low performance is handled. How you might define “support” and “quality” is up to A LOT of interpretation, but I think this is what the post is getting at. (Lines through percentiles because they are not applicable here).

            I’m open to this being a misinterpretation of the post, but careful with accusations of “overthinking”. If it’s “wrong thinking”, let me have it, but folks crying “overthinker!” are usually operating on faith or misplaced trust.

            As to the claims made: there are many inefficient organizations in the world. In fact, very few organizations, governments, economies, and markets function with perfect efficiency. The author – I think we can agree – sits a fair few standard devs from the mean of youth dev. It’s rare that systems successfully link support to quality with 100% accuracy. The post, though, claims there is a CAUSAL AND NEGATIVE relationship between high quality and support from the “establishment”. Your mileage may vary on that one.

            Look. Having been around some of the folks at the highest level, I can say there is indeed a lot of variation in quality: some know a lot, some don’t know all that much. But that’s different than the claim being made here. I think it’s also worth noting that it is very, very difficult for people to place themselves on the x-axis: self-assessment of ability is a notoriously thorny issue.

            Maybe more interesting is to start toying with other labels for the x-axis. How about “ambition”. Or “level of advocacy”. Or “alignment with US Soccer’s mission”.

          • tpradmon says

            I agree I am over thinking it, but why not. If both greens represent “trying to do better” then what lies between would also be “trying to do better”.

            I’m sure everybody is trying to do better but the x axis must represent level of success for this to make sense. Gary’s original definitions for the color still apply. Only, it is obvious why the system would want coaches out of the negative green and yellow, but sinister for them to lack support for the positive. I do not understand the establishments motivation to do this, but can only assume it is driven my money.

        • says

          Hi Garth,

          Like I implied above, the chart is not meant to convey a specific application.

          There are way too many, so I leave that up for you guys to apply.

          Although it’s possible – I think likely – that if a reader has not bumped into the edges of what’s possible in the landscape, it can be quite difficult to arrive at a valid application.

          I will most definitely be detailing specific applications over time though.

          For instance, the latest American soccer upheaval is over “training compensation / solidarity”. This is an example of +3 sigma being impossible to reach for clubs (and other things that can go on the y-axis) – current policy forbids it.

          Read about it here:

      • tpradmon says

        If “Barcelona is on one end, and Juventus (Stoke?) on the other”, then I would have to say everybody in between would be doing pretty damn good!
        Jon Best, I do see your point; I’m just having fun with this analogy.

        Seriously though, I don’t get why the establishment would try to degrade the level of play. Soccer is huge with US youth, some big executive at the top must want to open up this cash cow and have a pro league that is competitive on a world scale.
        Perhaps they just cant squeezes in enough commercials into a soccer match. I hate when I am subjected to watching NFL for this reason.

  5. Jon Best says

    I’ve been thinking more about this post. I have a pretty limited viewpoint, being a volunteer advanced/rec coach, but I don’t really feel that anything (moral and legal) I do is substantially restricted by anything other than my own incompetence and dumbassery.

    I mean, is SOCCER in my area tainted by pay to play, win at all mentality, uninformed coaches, stupid parents, spotty license course quality, lack of direction from above, and generally low soccer IQ? Sure. But at my level it all seems to be just cultural inertia, not intent. I can create whatever on field product I’m capable of, with whatever style or philosophy I choose.

    What’s different at the higher levels? Worries about what a gold standard player does next? General irritation at our underachievement as a nation or soccer culture? The Kleibans are putting up a great product, and getting at least some notoriety for it. Anyone else not putting that kind of product out either can’t, doesn’t want to, or is listening too much to other people. Right?

    • tom says

      Something different at a higher level or gold standard would be, for example, to get all players comfortable and composed with the ball at their feet as young as possible. It can be done even at the rec level. No, it’s not easy and it certainly would put you at +3 standard deviations away from the norm of U.S. youth soccer.

  6. Frank says

    If you think about it, the answers to most these questions is pretty simple. Anyone with some knowledge can see that soccer in the US is terribly flawed. The difficult part is trying to change it or even knowing where to start.

  7. Kana says

    Casual American sports fans (to include soccer) don’t understand pro / rel because they look at it through the lens of American sports. They are bound by it. Any benchmark contrary does not compute.

    For those more open minded, here are benefits:

    1. Opportunity. Small clubs can “earn” (not buy a franchise) a spot in an upper division. This broadens opportunity for thousands of players and any club that can go from lowest division to top. Look at Hoffenheim in Germany or Eibar in Spain as examples.
    2. Broader fan base. More teams, more opportunity to “big time” = broader fan base at the grass roots, community level.
    3. True clubs versus franchise. Now you have the passion and local grass roots love of club and local players making good. It’s not a pretend or limited as in franchise model. MLS is one big entity. No real independent clubs. They are franchise controlled by MLS.
    4. Incentives. To make it to the next higher division, clubs must have proper coaching, vision, leadership, player ID and development. The incentives are glory and joy of making top tier, winning and competing for championships at highest level which in turns opens door to international tournaments, professional pride a club and coach can develop talent to compete amongst the best, and of course money.
    5. Pro-centric development. Identifying and development talent becomes something every club wants to participate in. Some clubs sell talent. Others buy talent. Everyone has a piece of the pie and has a purpose driven by their business model. The market wants top talent because there is so much at stake (go back to #4 above and re—read). So development becomes a major function. It is the engine that drives the system. It’s the bloodline. And the DNA that is imprinted at youth level is distinguishing factor.
    6. More interesting games. The fight for promotion and relegation is epic. More interesting than who finishes at top. So much to gain. So much to lose. Incentives, incentives, incentives!
    7. Increased # of pro-centric academies. More professional clubs competing for the prize = natural growth of professional academies. Meaning better prepared players, focus on skill and talent versus man-child centric development. Which in turn opens more doors for players going abroad to play at top clubs. Which in turns helps the USMNT.
    8. International acceptance. Part of reason rest of world sees US soccer as 2nd or 3rd tier is lack of pro/rel and benefits it provides (see above bullets). The rest of the world “gets it”. It’s a proven model. Many US soccer officials are mired in closed system of franchise. They understand soccer is the world’s sport and is setup as an open system, yet they refuse to acknowledge it from a business model standpoint. If McDonalds can change their model to sell ramen in Asia, why can’t MLS understand the world market demands a different model?
    9. Growth of sport. With more teams, more incentives, the promotion / relegation battle, more interest from international clubs, pushing the development curve – the game will grow in quality and footprint.
    10. Earned versus bought and paid for participation in top league. The current model is one of limited entry. A monopoly of ownership and participation. In pro/rel, it’s about performance and earning your way. Only the best of the best make it. It’s competitive. Free market capitalism versus Soviet style control of market. One system thrives, the other has failed miserably through history. And guess which one MLS follows?

  8. Armando says

    First time I’ve seen anyone attempt to list benefits. Thanks!

    Need to find a way for your list to get larger Internet exposure. Arguments against are shallow and bickering. This list is hard to argue against.

    • Mac says

      Been following this site for a year now, finally decided to post.

      I agree with everything you said about this list, except for how effective this list will be to a larger audience. Many will read this list and disagree with it. They just don’t believe a non-franchise, pro/rel league would ever work.

      I made a simple arguement against franchises and the fees they charge. MLS just charged $100 million each to future clubs Minnesota United and Atlanta FC(or whatever they are calling themselves) to join. That is Luis Suarez money. Wouldn’t that money be better spent by simply letting them be promoted? Both teams have dominated NASL, and humiliated MLS teams in US Open Cup. I have never seen either play, but have read that Minnesota strives to play a better, possession oriented style, and even out possessed and beat Swansea in a friendly (take with a grain of salt). Wouldn’t the $100 million MLS charged them be better spent on player acquisition, scouting academy, or on the “Soccer-Specific-Stadiums” MLS think is what makes a true club, than on the right to slap an MLS emblem on your jersey?

      Someone replied that the franchise fee, while expensive protects the investor.

      I then brought up Southampton, who despite almost going bankrupt and dropping to England’s third division, spent less than half of MLS’s franchise fee on a new, state of the art academy, better trainers, scouts, and a good manager who knew player development. They promoted themselves back up, and are one of the most fun teams to watch in the league; and despite selling (blasphemous according to MLS Supporters; trading maintains parity and you should NEVER sell your most promising players) several key players since coming back (which has made the club some where around $150 million; talk about a return on investment), and only keep improving because they always have someone from the academy who is ready to step up, or a cheap player scouted from a backwater team. Ironically, the players who end up leaving Southampton, seem to end up flopping, giving testament to the clubs ability to maximize a players talent around the right philosophy.

      That person then replied that, while a feel good story, is a rarity and its model cannot be duplicated. Of course, this is easy to believe if you support MLS, with its current pro-franchise, anti-pro/rel model. MLS can and will never have a team achieve this. Most ant-pro/rel have no idea that almost every league has a story similar Southampton’s, and the most successful clubs in the world started out similarly.

      • Garth says

        The people who have access to enough capital to measurably change the system in the ways we all want to see require honest, quantitatively rigorous discussion of the positives AND negatives of promotion/relegation. An anecdotal story about a bet made good does not cut it in support of change, just as an anecdote about a team being relegated and sent into administration does not mean change shouldn’t be pursued.

        Take the $100million fee, for instance. What does it buy? It buys revenue share and decreased risk of bankruptcy. Why are those things important? Because bankruptcies of independently owned teams, remember, can produce negatives for other teams. In a fledgling league, the owners believed this to be doubly true. So, when the league was founded, owners strategized that team bankruptcies could be avoided/delayed by using a single-entity structure. In minimizing the risk of bankruptcy, owners were able to take on risk in other area (i.e. stadia capex).

        So, to answer your question: if I’m a business person with finite capital, I’d buy stability and revenue-share over Suarez any day of the week.

        Before the army rushes into declare these practices illegal or amoral, it’s important to understand that the courts have been fine with this approach in all other sports. They have indicated they are fine with the approach now. Antitrust depends on the use of a counterfactual, and in this case it’s easy for courts to see: the market for soccer was wide open pre-MLS, and MLS constructed a business model to access it.

        Times are different now. MLS has been relying on the 2nd paragraph of the relevant FIFA sporting integrity bylaw to keep the discussion of pro/rel at bay. Frankly, anyone who today reads that paragraph thoughtfully will say, “huh. MLS is D1 and will be until there is a viable alternative.” That’s how FIFA would likely read it, too, (sidenote: USSF’s hilarious misstep this week will accelerate the process…which truly makes me wonder about Gulati’s IQ).

        If you think stories of pro/rel success, or appeals to 9th grade-level concepts of “open markets!” will move the needle for decision makers, I have some bad news for you. What WILL move the needle is change through courts, regulatory bodies, or incentive structures. We’re getting close to that moment in all three of those space. Honest discussion of positives and negatives is what’s needed. The best way to marginalize the fanboys is by not engaging them, and by not being one yourself.

        • Mac says

          Well I’m certainly glad that a smart debate is occuring, and I very much appreciate what you said. As a supporter of pro/rel, I do love hearing the other side, especially about the negative aspects of it (yes, of course they exist), especially when they aren’t you’re typical cliches like “pro/rel isn’t part of our culture”.

          Of course much of MLS’s policies were made to protect a start up league that was floundering and failing. It was intended to encourage investors to pump money into a league losing it everyday, in the hope of one day being profitable. This was a good, and smart approach.

          But the training wheels are off. MLS can’t keep worrying about the pockets of investors, and rejecting the product on the field, hoping one day they all decided to take these teams serious, and operate like real clubs. And you stumbled onto everything I think is wrong with MLS, with this example:

          So, to answer your question: if I’m a business person with finite capital, I’d buy stability and revenue-share over Suarez any day of the week.

          This model ensures you entrance into a safe, members-only club, with members-only benefits, results be damned.How is protection from relegation. bankruptcy, and access to revenue shares, working out for teams like Colorado? Or on Chivas USA/LA II? Thats right, these teams sell whatever little talent they have (most of which are young players with decent potential; or in Chivas’ case losing one of the best academy prospects, and proven youth coach in Brian), to help the organization operate at a minimal loss. These teams scrape by until MLS ups the value of the franchise fees, and they sell to new prospective buyers. The team moves to a new market, with better fans, because that must be the problem, the old fans just don’t care. It couldn’t possibly be mismanagement, or a cheap owner who refused further investment.

          Alternatively, the non-franchise model lets teams who are serious about playing in the top division, to invest in what they feel is best. I don’t talk about Southampton’s revival, or NASL teams lightly, and certainly not to make myself or anyone feel good. As I said before, countless of clubs around the world prove that with this model success will come, both on the pitch and in the transfer market. For less than the current MLS franchise fee, Southampton revamped their academy and scouting, and in one transfer market, sold 6-7 of those players for $15-20 million each (has MLS ever sold anyone for as much?). Whats more important is Southampton promoted youth, and scouted players from backwater leagues, who turned out to be far better than the ones they replaced. A proven successful model, that MLS rejects.

          Instead MLS continues thinking the only way forward is to market itself to European stars, and overpaying for their services, with money they supposedly don’t have.

  9. Garth says

    You don’t need to convince me that pro/rel is better for consumers: it gives teams willing to increase spending a competitive advantage, which results in improved on-field product. I also don’t think you’ll need to convince anyone who visits this forum that pro/rel would increase spending on development. Those facts are not in doubt. Anyone raised in a soccer-first household has long been ambivalent/mistrustful of MLS for the simple reason that it doesn’t look like the rest of the globe.

    But you need to understand that the arguments you describe apply to fans and players, not owners. “Screw the owners!!” folks will say, but if you want change in our lifetime, you will either need to align incentives for current owners, or wait until there’s a large/viable second division that can take a challenge to the DRC. I have a good guess as to where the process is going (for another day, maybe), but I know one thing for sure: convincing the American public that pro/rel is the best will be both easier than you think, and way less effective than you think. It’s the stakeholders with power and capital that will need to change. And this ain’t civil rights: courts have firmly come down on the fact that we have a regulatory capitalist economy, not a purely capitalist one.

    I think your example Colorado is a good place to start. Who owns the Rapids? What is his history in the league? What other assets does he hold? The place you get to is that his handling of the Rapids is exactly rational. Now: is that the only type of owner in the league? No. Increasingly, MLS is attracting the kind of wealthy nut-balls that will spend just to win. Undervaluing the importance of those owners – and continuing to lump all owners together – is dishonest and unproductive. When you write, “This model ensures you entrance into a safe, members-only club, with members-only benefits, results be damned.”, I don’t think it’s 100% accurate. A few of these organizations desperately want to be competitive just for the sake of being competitive. Many are outlaying a lot of capex.

    So, while the example of Southampton has obvious appeal to all of us who love soccer, it’s not very compelling for a current owner. The question should be: how can current owners be incentivized to adopt pro/rel? Or, alternately, how can the current system be changed through regulatory challenge? The rest is, frankly, a lot of grandstanding. I just read a tweet on this topic that said, “Step 1 is probably to remove MLS from the equation entirely as owner/operators will not participate.” Cool story, but: How?

  10. Kana says

    Remember this: Pro / rel IS NOT a sporting decision; it’s a legal issue. The Supreme Court will ultimately decide. The attorney(s) fighting the good fight will need to educate them on the world sport. Their decision cannot be one of simple commerce and antitrust — it has to be in context of the world game and enabling American soccer to compete on that world stage.

    Any major issue that breaks old entrenched paradigms need (1) to educate the courts and (2) need a ground swell of support. E.g., repealing Prohibition, to Civil Rights, to legalization of marijuana for supposed “medical use”.

    Lots of those who “get it” just blog and post on social media. Tweeting isn’t winning over stalwarts. Coaches and clubs have numerous benchmarks — yet they ignore it. Just collecting paychecks living off pay-to-play and closed MLS franchise system. No one is fanning the flames. No one is educating the public or courts. I had high hopes for Jurgen Klinsmann.

    Oddly enough, MLS and USSF can champion this. I truly believe pro/rel will open flood gates. Hundreds of clubs and tens of thousands of players will be liberated, allowed to participate in and grab a piece of the pie. LIke EPL, La Liga or any league, MLS will profit even more from an open market. I don’t get it.

    The reason top Euro leagues are so profitable is because of quality on the pitch. If they were closed franchise, the incentives would disappear. The pipeline would dry up and move elsewhere. A new league in a different country would come up and fill the market need. It’s no different than how black markets did well in Prohibition. How do they fail to see the bigger picture???? And to thin Sunil Gulati is an economist and doesn’t recognize this basis Economics 101 fact. Amazing!!!

    • Garth says

      “Their decision cannot be one of simple commerce and antitrust — it has to be in context of the world game and enabling American soccer to compete on that world stage.”

      That’s not how law works. There are certainly legal avenues by which a second league could one day force a merger, and from there get pro/rel as a compromise. Recourse in the DRC is also possible. But what you are describing is not reality-based.

      Separately, you’re correct in implying that the single-entity structure doesn’t match what you’d learn in econ-101. But later classes would cover inter-organizational relationships as a response to market forces, and you’d see that MLS structure was a response to really strong headwinds for pro-soccer in ’96.

      I don’t say these things to be a smart-ass, its just that there are some very smart people working againsy pro/rel to preserve their business: keeping the debate at the level of an afterschool interest group is not persuasive to these folks, and less so to the courts.

  11. Kana says

    I repeat:

    (1) pro/ rel is not a sporting decision: it’s a legal issue
    (2) Sunil Gulati is an economist but fails to understand basic concept of economics — that is, open markets are more efficient that closed markets. MLS stands to make millions by improving on field quality that will surely happen. Once “everyone” can compete for their piece of the pie, the free market will work wonders as it does elsewhere.

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