The American Soccer Culture Problem

First, I want to applaud both Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock for bringing an important truth about the state of American soccer to the masses. It speaks volumes that these sports generalists call it like it is, while entrenched American soccer media doesn’t.

American soccer media, hence its consumers, coddles our players.

You don’t hear much public criticism for a variety of reasons

1) Incumbent American soccer media has been practically curated by the establishment. An establishment that naturally doesn’t want to be critically examined, particularly not at the foundational level. Hence, it neuters its media. How does it accomplish this? Well, it  holds a monopoly over the ecosystem. Anyone who doesn’t align with its foundational narrative, its founding culture, is in danger of losing access.

2) Incumbent culture has a recreational mentality - a property that is the antithesis of the hardcore culture the rest of the world has. The soccer structure we live in has been built of, by, and for a casual soccer demographic. It extends from youth all the way to the pro level being addressed here.

When something is casual, there are no stakes. When there are no stakes, nobody gets too heated over things.

After all, “it’s just a game“. That phrase, right there, is the [convenient] foundation upon which American soccer has been built. It’s no wonder we’re mediocre, anybody with that kind of mentality will not achieve excellence.

Contrast that with the rest of the world, where a portion of people’s very identity and self esteem is hinged on their clubs and national teams.

Now, before you robotically react and think that’s sad, reserve judgement until you understand that clubs and national teams across the world represent people at a social, political, economic, and cultural level. It is their flag.

3) Most soccer-first households (the largest and most critical of demos) in the United States aren’t paying attention to American soccer. Because well, it’s low level, inauthentic, and most importantly has historically discriminated against them – preferring instead to cater to the soft suburban soccer-mom demo.

As a consequence, it’s that soft culture that both dominates the narrative and creates policy when it comes to the American game – it has inculcated that softness into the very fabric of American soccer.

Yes, the soccer-first demo, like 3four3, does call it like it is (eg as Colin put it, “Michael Bradley is completely pedestrian”) but that has historically, and to this day primarily occurs in relative isolation – as anyone from this demo is not hired and graced with a large media platform. If one is hired, they are systematically neutered.

But there is someone with a heavyweight platform that has dipped his toe in the culture challenge.

Jurgen Klinsmann

Jurgen has criticized the players, and has been trying to send the message of “not good enough”, and lists reasons.

The result of his action and criticism?

The soft soccer-mom media turned on him and [at the behest of its master, MLS] launched a smear campaign against him that continues to date.

  • Prior to the World Cup, he stated the US can not win it. In other words, he told the unvarnished truth. He was real.
  • He deemed Landon Donovan not a good fit for the 2014 World Cup squad. (Note: Assessment of a player goes beyond his ability on the field, there are other critical factors a coach considers in making selections. This is a team game, after all. It’s not about 1 player.)
  • Players should go overseas to challenge themselves. This was an indictment of MLS, and the domestic culture.
  • He transmitted disappointment when he saw some of his key pieces coming back to MLS (eg Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore).
  • He said many moons ago, and continues to say, that our players are naive and “need to be nastier”.

There have been a variety of other incidents where the soccer-mom culture looked at him as “throwing players under the bus”.

They were also pissed when he suggested the media needed to further educate themselves in the game.

See, the culture here is precisely as Cowherd observes. The culture is soft. Even the words and phrases we use are soft.

For instance, “Late bloomers”?  So we’re like precious little flowers that bloom, or we’re like delicate things that blossom.

If you look at what incumbent soccer media’s reactions/responses to Cowherd & Whitlock’s comments were, you are hard-pressed to find support for their observations. Quite the contrary, most that’s been published whether on established media outlets, or social media commentary, was crafted to undermine these observations and uphold the soccer-mom status quo.

“We need to tell US Soccer Players, Coaches, and Fans, the truth” – @WhitlockJason

“We’re not catching up with the rest of the world as long as soccer’s a sport for the upper class.” – @WhitlockJason

Alexi Lalas represents the establishment’s [convenient] myths

Jason Whitlock hits the truth, again.

Absolutely. Absolutely that certain cultures, are better fit to becoming great at soccer than others. Those coming from an affluent suburban American culture, in general, just don’t “have it”.

Those coming from a socio-economic strata below affluence, in general, are better suited. There’s a particular mentality and set of values the latter has, and the former does not.

Some of the biggest inhibitors the suburban players face are:

  • The “it’s just a game” mentality. The other demo treats it as an arena to “best” others, since from a societal perspective they are looked as ‘lower class’. It’s personal.
  • The suburban players are brought up in an environment where ‘following the rules’ of the traditional American industrial complex is sacred, where self expression is only ok within narrow boundaries. In other words, being robot-like automatons vs flavorful full-range humans. Top level “creativity” isn’t being stifled by coaches on the field, their cultural upbringing is doing that job.
  • The suburban player derives his self-esteem from things other than how good he is in sport. For instance, getting good grades on some standardized test. They measure themselves on how good they are at following societal norms. They don’t need to be great at soccer.
“The people in our stands, at the MLS games, they’re wondering where their next glass of wine is coming from.” – @WhitlockJason

Alexi has it totally wrong about pretty much everything. And he really goes off the rails at the end of the video when he tries to defend the absurdity of expecting the US to beat Argentina. It’s completely disingenuous, derived from the campaign to fire Jurgen Klinsmann, and frankly condescending to all US Soccer fans.

“And I saw the 3 American [analysts] pick us to win [vs Argentina], I was like … ‘nah man, don’t lie to us’” – @WhitlockJason

When an admitted soccer layman like Jason Whitlock can sniff out the bull shit, you know we have a serious problem.

Please take a moment, go on Twitter, and thank @WhitlockJason and Colin Cowherd for at least spotlighting and telling one critical truth about American soccer. A truth the establishment obfuscates.

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  1. Eric Dykes says

    On point- but there is one thing that needs to be said and verified by others-
    I have had candid discussions with several professional soccer players from the US that made their attempt to play overseas in Europe and South of the border. One interesting comment that I have heard on every occasion is the fact that it is such an insult to lose your spot to a US player that the other players from Europe etc vying for their position are literally trying to end their careers on the practice pitch. Repeated attempts to blow out knees etc. Not by the opponent but their own teammates. They can return to the MLS, get paid well and not have to worry about the career ending injury at the hands of a very hostile teammate.

    This is what I have heard- Not witnessed, but these are from several sources.

    I know that attempts at injuring their own players in american football etc would never be tolerated by a coaching staff.


  2. Faraon says

    Great article Gary.Would just like to add that I love being on the fields coaching my kids and building something out of nothing.But as a coach I would like to feel like I am shooting for something.Yes hopefully some of my kids might get scholarships to Division 1 schools but what do I get.And I have run across so many of these coaches that hang around for 2 or 3 years and leave their teams because there are no incentives for them.

  3. Geeps says

    The reason American soccer is “soft” is not because Americans are “soft”, it’s result of the system American players, coaches, and leagues develop. The system dictates the culture. Hard or soft, incentivized or monopolistic, opportunities or parity. “Soft” doesn’t mean Pillsbury Doughboy soft. It means the system doesn’t enable highest level international sporting standard (coaching, player development, competition for league spots, financial incentives and opportunity). American soccer is deficient in all of these categories. Therefore, it is “soft” as Gary is defining it. I would prefer to use words like “inferior”, “suboptimal”, “inadequate”, and “deficient”.

    But the national culture also influences (not dictates) the system. America is a franchise sport nation. MLS did what American sports do: create monopolies. The judges and lawyers associated with Fraser v. MLS was poisoned and naïve to world football. The underlying basis of an open pyramid was not the core issue.

    Some astute lawyer needs to go against MLS at the foundational level, not a labor dispute. Is it a monopolistic cartel, is it subject to FIFA statutes, does it participate in international football, does its business model follow the international model, does it foster what’s best for the consumer/market. If MLS were solely confined to USA (no CONCACAF CL, no international players, no World Cup players, no foreign revenue, not sanctioned by FIFA) – I would be the first to say it is “ok” to operate as a single entity.

    As MLS expands, so does its reach. It becomes more and more international. Single entity is not the proper model. It is not confined to the North American continent as is NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL is. It is in part driven by market forces. It competes for players on international level. It competes in international tournaments. It is subject to FIFA statutes and governance.

    MLS was formed on a lie: it claimed NASL failed because it was “decentralized”. The rest is history. It’s exactly why despite 100+ years of pro/rel, codified in FIFA statutes, and practiced by 99% of countries/leagues – MLS staunchly ignores the basic foundational principle of world football.

    MLS/USSF get away with it precisely because of the foundational lie and our “soft” culture that accepts the system w/o question.

    So listen up children: The closed system is a quaint parochial model of American sports leagues that are not exposed to same international market pressures as purely domestic leagues.

    Hopefully Cowherd and Whitlock will get better understanding and carry the message. The truth is what we need.

  4. Nate says

    I couldn’t agree more with this post. It has always been painfully obvious to me that this game quickly becomes a ‘boy’s club’. At the state level, you can see the agenda driven leadership running rampant and that typically favors the affluent players/parents.

    Until the US realizes that money isn’t what makes the player and fully invests in bringing in the talent from every walk of life, we will continue to be a bunch of ‘try-hards’ on the international scene. MLS really needs to pull their heads out and recognize they are constantly out classed in the games against our neighbors from the south, let alone any team from Europe.

    I believe RSL is on the right track with their new state wide academy they are putting in. In talking with DeLoy Hansen, his plans for scouting across the region, I feel, is inline with what will allow RSL to develop the ‘right’ talent. A no/low cost opportunity to the lesser affluent demographic. Those that NEED soccer as their way out, as opposed to those that feel soccer could come or go.

    At the end of the day, there’s a reason we aren’t able to consistently win at the national level and/or have players sign with top clubs. The powers that be need to recognize this or it’ll be wash, rinse repeat.

  5. Tyler says

    One of your best articles Gary. I coached and lived in Tijuana for 4 years… los mejores jugadores son los de la calle, no los ricos.

    I recently moved back to the US and am coaching in the suburbs. 12 year old boys running intervals, one falls down (in the grass) and his mom races on to the field. Are you kidding me! In Mexico, we practiced on concrete, we played at a local park on concrete. Official games were on dirt… LOL.

    We played a largely Hispanic team this last weekend and played well, 60% possession in the first half, score 1 to 1. Difference is the other team kept playing like it mattered, as if the soccer gods would strike them down if they let up… it was personal. They won 6-1. Their soccer wasn’t more beautiful; far from it, but they played like it was the world cup ALL game. They have GRIT…

    Ok… going to go push my kids face into his bowl of frijoles and tell him to toughen up. :)

  6. Tripp says

    We have Latino youth players in our community who are head and shoulders above others. Their parent’s bring them up playing soccer and they are amazing to watch. There are 7 and 8 year olds who are much better than many 12 and 13 year old players in the sanctioned leagues. Many of the Latino players play in their own non sanctioned leagues. Their parents coach them. For them soccer seems to be more a way of life. Since they have less means than more affluent players they get little attention and little ability to play in a higher level. The US ignores these players perhaps because they often have less money and they are outside the mainstream culture. If these children are not included soccer will never be more tha a niche sport for affluent people.

  7. Kana says

    Why is US soccer devoid of world class clubs, players, academies, leagues, coaches if franchise model works so well for Big 3 US sports? Is it a product of Big 3 confined to USA with no other competition?

    Suppose Big 3 faced international competition in those sports for past 100+ years and other countries were superior and had open system and USA didn’t. Would it makes sense to follow a closed system?

    Suppose Big 3 sports didn’t catch on in USA until 1994. And supposed other countries been playing those sports 100+ years and were world class and developed from bottom up grass roots at local independent club model? Would it make sense for USA to follow a closed system using top down franchise model?

    Pretend it’s 1996 and soccer is the dominant sport in USA for 100+ years. And pretend gridiron football was instead the world’s sport but it operates in an open pyramid model. By default, American soccer players would be world class and franchise and college would be the model other countries would want to follow because “that’s what they do in America, and they are #1 in soccer.” And suppose American soccer owners and management leaders were the ones who funded NFL in 1996 to start that league. Would it make sense for NFL to build from grass roots and build the pyramid and follow an open model like rest of world or follow top down like soccer?

    And in this opposite world, I’m sure there would be fans of international gridiron football that would be upset that USA was following the wrong model. And if there were the equivalent of USSF for NFL, people would not we be happy if the federation ignored the pyramid in favor of NFL.

    What I describe above is the reality of American soccer. It’s holding us back.

    American soccer is stunted and shaped by the culture, beliefs, and business model of its Big 3 sports. Garber wasn’t a soccer guy. He came from NFL. Sunil wasn’t a footballer, he was a professor. Shouldn’t soccer be left to soccer people?

    American soccer and the symbiotic relationship with international soccer is an oddity to many Americans. They don’t understand soccer but have no issue imparting their belief system on it.

    American soccer is still discovering itself. A naieve teenager ignoring wisdom of other countries, leagues, systems.

    This is why educating the masses is so difficult. Long, long road ahead. My fear we go too far and cannot turn back.

  8. Kana says

    Why is open pyramid so prevalent and franchise so rare if the latter is “better”?

    Does risk, reward, incentive, opportunity, full and open competition stimulate investment or scare it away? Does it produce world class? Are there also losers and new entrants that keep the market evolving? Even with pro/rel, why does that system generate so much international investment and steadfast support? Is USA not fully understanding it?

    Is managed risk, salary cap, limited competition, closed pyramid correlated with promoting world class or migrating to average? Is it feasible to believe any business or industry operating in a protected, isolated, limited competition environment can produce an equal or superior product than those in an open international market that competes for the same resources (players, investment, management, coaches, TV, marketing, merchandising, etc.)?

    Every system has it’s pros and cons. Open systems by definition will have winners and losers. But it has lower barriers to entry than closed systems. Closed business models have high barriers to entry, limit supply while trying to keep demand high (NFL, NBA, MLB, diamonds, expensive Italian cars) and have top-down control. Markets are segregated large regions that in USA can encompass many states, counties, cities, regions.

    Open systems don’t limit supply. Demand is driven by quality of play, competitiveness, support for local club, meaningfulness of results / competition, hope, opportunity. Clubs are local within a city, burrough, township, community. The club represents your local values and the local youth going through the system. It creates supporters, not fans.

  9. Kana says

    Every time I read Tweets from Alexi Lalas and people with his mindset, I get so irked. Last night it was something about we can’t expect owners to have rules changed on them. They bought into closed system and will lose millions.

    1. What owner buys into a business believing the competitive landscape will never change?
    2. Were MLS franchise owners gullible, ignorant to world football not knowing an open pyramid with pro / rel was “the norm” and proven model?
    3. Were owners really so naive to believe MLS quality could ever compete with top leagues as Don Garber bullshitted them with saying that by 2022 it would be reality?
    4. As millionaires, billionaires, successful businessmen who operate in the unprotected free market and benefit from it – it’s not realistic to believe they not understand the best quality and product is fueled by competition? The only way this can be true is if MLS is a play things for them and they don’t care about the American soccer ecosystem or getting better. It’s just a tax shelter and fun sport hobby for the rich and elite.
    5. Why is Alexi Lalas so worried about rich people losing money? Why such protectionist beliefs? Would he feel better if USA turned into Soviet Union and protected all industries? Does he want to return to MaBell monopolizing communications? After all, MaBell spend billions of dollars over many decades and they surely didn’t invest back in the day thinking they would face open competition. But guess what Alexi, MaBell had to reinvent itself. Same story holds true year after year since capitalism started hundreds of years ago.

    Since USSF wont’ do it, here’s my plan for pro/rel:

    - Implement pro/rel between MLS, USL, NASL in 2020

    - Only 1 team relegated / promoted in 2020

    - 2 teams relegated / promoted 2021

    - 3 teams relegated / promoted 2022

    - Immediately and actively pursue marketing, sponsorship, and TV deals to support the three leagues

    - Devise profit sharing and payment scheme to help teams that are relegated or promoted

    - Scrap limited player loan system and open it so any player can be loaned out to any league

    - Immediately implement solidarity payments

    - Immediately start campaign to build PDL and NPSL

    - Align to international player transfer and league schedule by 2020, consider split season like Liga MX or long winter break like Bundesliga

    - Slowly increase and then remove salary cap by 2022

    - Immediately begin promoting and expanding youth academies aligned to professional clubs (USL, NASL, PDL, NPSL)

    - Combined USSF/MLS/USL/NASL business leaders to promote the new American pyramid. Actively court international investors.

    - Actively work with domestic and international media to promote the new structure. Develop marketing campaigns and TV ads. Build excitement.

    - By 2025, analyze feasibility of expanding pyramid to include PDL as fourth division and expand the number of leagues within the 2nd and 3rd division similar to how most countries around the world are organized

    - Scrap IMF academy and invest USSF dollars in building local academies

    - Put together a team of coaches and soccer experts to actively improve youth development.
    - Have plan and implement it like Germany and Spain did. Don’t be afraid of sacred cows like college soccer or pay to play. They are not professionally focused, staffed, incentivized. Focus on professionally aligned clubs and their academies that will benefit and improve if given opportunity and incentive.

    -Probably a lot more, but this is a start . . . .

    Like any other business, it starts with a plan. Lay out the goals, vision, tactics, timeline. Make people responsible and accountable. Bring on leaders to support and implement the vision. Adjust and modify as lessons learned. Adapt and be flexible. Continually improve.

  10. Kana says

    And MLS immediately stop forcing franchise build these large stadiums and enough with population size. When teams relegated, they aren’t strapped by large fixed stadium cost unless they decide to. And supporters of 15k clubs is not a bad thing. That’s typical size around the world. Stop the NFL 60,000+ nonsense.

  11. Lalo says

    Forget pro/rel, salary cap alone limits quality of play for MLS. The free market is good at moving players onto teams and league based on their quality. It’s why China SL raided Europe, SA, and Africa. But left MLS and American players alone. That in and of itself speaks to quality of the American system.

    If any of us had salary caps, we would compete for jobs in other companies who were willing to pay top dollar for our services. Then drop a level, then two, then three until skill and league equalized. MLS is bottom scrapers. It’s why old players go there and young players not good enough in other leagues go there.

    Even if no pro/rel, I personally would watch MLS if it lifted salary cap and had quality players. Likewise, if EPL or La Liga did away with pro/rel, I’d watch as long as player quality were as it is today. Pro/rel is different and larger issue that aligns and incentives player development and opens the pyramid. The catch 22 is you can’t develop world class and elite talent in closed system. It’s all connected and open system with pro/rel is the catalyst, the incubator of talent.

    I’ll continue to ignore MLS and anything American soccer. Too many choices to spend time watching inferior product..

  12. Gio says

    MLS and American soccer is shit. In open system, every game, every goal, every play is important. Every game, goal, possession, for players is important as it can mean transfer to a better team, higher league, lower league, out of contract. That lack of accountability and incentive from youth academy to pro across all levels is big reason why USA soccer sucks.

  13. Geeps says

    Pro/rel in the USA as a result of Twitter, 3Four3, or any other similar blog will not happen.

    There are only a handful of ways pro/rel will happen (in order of highest – lowest probability based on current situation):

    1) FIFA mandates it – Low probability (1% – 2%)

    2) USSF decides to do it – Very low probability (0.5 – 1%)

    3) Owners from MLS, USL, NASL, PDL, NPSL combine and agree it’s in their best interest and force it upon USSF (MLS cannot do this on its own, the lower leagues MUST agree and participate) – Almost non-existent probability, fraction of percent.

    - Fans boycott in mass on basis of pro rel demand. I highly doubt this will happen. Ambiance and lowered expectations ingrained in American soccer culture, plus hardcore fan has choices.

    Pro rel has highest pprobability if MLS fails and first division starts anew aligned to pro rel vision.

    Sad state of affairs, but its reality.

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