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"In any language, the whole world is united by a ball." --- Steve Amoia, World Football Commentaries

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Chronicle of an Embarrassment

Image credit: US Soccer Federation.

The US Men's National team embarrassingly fails to qualify for a World Cup after seven consecutive appearances dating back to 1990.


1. "There's nothing wrong with what we're doing."
2. "Our best athletes don't play soccer."
3.  American Exceptionalism.
4. Where is Tom Byer?
5. Economic Fallout.

1. "There's nothing wrong with what we're doing."

"There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing,” he argued. “Certainly, I think if our league continues to grow it benefits the national team program. We have some good players coming up. Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be foolish. We’re building a consistent professional league. We have players playing abroad of a certain quality. There’s enough there. There’s no excuses for us to not qualify for the World Cup."
--- Bruce Arena, manager of the US Men's National Team, after the defeat to Panama last night, as quoted by Grant Wahl on 11 October 2017 in Sports Illustrated.
Mr. Arena concisely summed up all that is wrong with US men's soccer: The inability to see reality, over-dependence on "our League" (MLS), and the lack of foresight to recognize that change is needed in how we coach, teach the game to boys at the youth level, along with how the adult men play in the international milieu. Yes, let's place gender into this equation because much can be learned from the American women's approach to the sport of soccer. The main difference is they take the field expecting to win and the men expect not to lose. They play like Americans: Arrogant, in your face, take no prisoners, dominating, and to the victor goes the spoils. Look at their trophy case: Four Gold Medals and three World Cups, respectively.

The US also needs to groom former national team players to manage its senior men's team. There needs to be a firm commitment for a generational change in the coaching ranks. Coach Arena spent over a decade managing the national team during three World Cup cycles. He should be thanked for his service, previous results, dedication and unwavering commitment to the American player. Mr. Arena was the safe choice after Jurgen Klinsmann; however, he may not have been the proper one.

2. "Our best athletes don't play soccer."

To quote Juan G. Arango, what if Jamaica's world-class sprinters played soccer? Not many have ever posed that provocative question. Although in the US, the assumption is that better athletes will solve the problem.

Panama qualified for the first time in its history for a men's World Cup. As did Iceland who may become a revelation at World Cup 2018 similar to their efforts at Euro 2016. The combined population of both small countries is about four million. Trinidad and Tobago, ranked 98th by ELO (I don't place much credence in FIFA's rating system), was already eliminated, and had won one previous game out of nine in the Hexagonal. They had conceded 18 goals and only scored five times in nine previous qualification games. 

Iceland has no volunteer coaches at any level. The US fields over four million youth soccer players. And please let's not resort to the "our best athletes don't play soccer" worn-out excuse. 

Has Mr. Arena et al. ever studied the Icelandic youth development model? Uruguay and Belgium are two other smaller nations with development systems that have punched well above their weight. Res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself. 

Has anyone in US Soccer sat down with coaches in Iceland (or perhaps Belgium and Uruguay) to analyze how they are delivering results with a small player pool? Iceland's population is 339,747 according to the CIA Fact Book as of July 2017. Their climate is not conducive to outdoor sports. Their winters are 20 hours a day long. Yet, they qualified for the last European Nations Cup and played convincingly. Now they are going to Russia and the US must be content to watch, rather than compete, against them.

3. American Exceptionalism:

Mr. Arena also famously said, "Coaching is coaching. No one in Europe knows any more about soccer than we do. The drills we use are the same ones they use." Mr. Arena likely would not have been inclined to read any of the Italian Federation's UEFA Pro License thesis documents from their famed coaching school at Coverciano. For example, Massimiliano Allegri's thesis on the "The Characteristics of Three Midfielders in a 3-Man Midfield" among many others (Hernan Crespo, Roberto Donadoni, Roberto Mancini, Vincenzo Montella, Maurizio Sarri, Gianluca Vialli) that are freely available. Or a commentary by the current Juventus boss on a manager's role which I translated for my readers. Mr. Arena inferred that he doesn't need to learn from those who might know more than he. That is an unfortunate attitude for such a highly decorated coach.

Our own American exceptionalism, or perhaps, the notion that we can't benefit from other soccer perspectives, directly impacts growth in the men's game on the international level.  

Culture of Excuses

Panama's first goal last night by Blas Perez was another "Hand of God," and the Honduran goal against Mexico was a one in a thousand event. These could be used as excuses; however, the US was the captain of its own destiny in Trinidad and Tobago. There were two results available: Win or Draw.

The US Men's program was not good enough during this World Cup qualification cycle. If you can't qualify from this weaker region with three and one-half berths on the table, change is needed. Not the status quo. If you can only win three out of ten, despite Mexico only winning two in the last cycle and still going through, change is needed.

When you want to anoint the "Next Savior," this time in the incarnation of a young, gifted player such as Christian Pulisic, and expect him to carry the piano as well as play and tune it, your game plan is flawed. Pulisic may develop into a world-class talent; however, without a supporting cast, he will remain a virtuoso increasingly targeted by CONCACAF rivals. As the Italians would say, "put a cage around him."

Style of Play

The powers that be in US men's soccer fail to address the issue of a consistent style of play. To quote Henry Kissinger in the Los Angeles Times in 1986, "The US has never developed a style of play in soccer." It was true then as now. 

A spectator can easily discern how the Argentineans, Brazilians, English, Germans and Italians play. They are married to a style, for better or worse, and develop players to fit those systems. The US relies too much on athleticism because that trait is prized in other sports which differ greatly than soccer. Most notably, in hand-to-eye coordination along with a significant influence on a coach's role during the actual game. 

USSF President, Sunil Gulati, is too dependent upon MLS owners to dictate how to run the overall men's program and which players should be selected. In defeat, he echoed Mr. Arena's statement that drastic change was not needed:
“So wholesale changes aren’t needed if the ball that hits off the post [from Clint Dempsey] goes in?” he said. “You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being two inches wide or two inches in."
Quoted by Grant Wahl on 11 October 2017 in Sports Illustrated.
Should qualification rest upon one shot, late in the game, going in or not, to earn a draw against a lesser side? And if it caroms in, does that mean that no changes are required? That is a micro analytical viewpoint from a gifted economist, Professor Gulati. It is not a macro analysis of an entire qualification campaign by an expert in world football. 

Professor Gulati is up for re-election next February. He needs to do the honorable thing and allow someone else to take the mantle. He has given much to US Soccer for many years although his recent project has failed.

4. Where is Tom Byer?

A name that few in the US sporting mainstream have ever heard of, Coach Tom Byer, an American, developed a generation of Japanese boys and girls. He preaches a simple mantra that a child needs to develop an affinity with the ball the size of his/her foot as he/she grows up. He stresses the importance of a first-touch, comfort on/with the ball, the role of parents and not athleticism. Now the Chinese FA have hired him to organize their youth development process which has the backing of the government. 

But why isn't Mr. Byer's name, and more importantly his methodologies, discussed in US soccer circles? American players clearly lack a comfort level on the ball. The style of play by the men is seemingly always prefaced first with a look backward. The product is not compelling to watch with constant back passes, poorly organized defenses, an over-reliance on goalkeepers to save the day, a lack of decisiveness and an inability to dictate the play especially against lesser-talented teams. There is little consistency from game-to-game and a surprising level of arrogance.

Mr. Byer has been interviewed many times at Beyond The Pitch. When asked about the US program, his response, and I will paraphrase, was "I approached stakeholders in the US game, sponsors, and others, and they did not want to listen." It begs the question of why an American coach had to go to Asia to be appreciated when his own back yard seems to have a chain bolt on its door?

Perhaps those with influence will listen to him now. All they need to study is how well the Japanese women played at the last two World Cups. And who do you think will win a men's World Cup first, the USA or China?

5. Economic Fallout:

The economic fallout from the US men not participating in a World Cup is staggering and may be felt beyond American borders. While many fans are once every four year supporters, millions of Americans passionately support their team during a World Cup. Despite many fans in the United States who back other national teams, Fox Sports, who holds English-language rights to the World Cup, will likely experience lesser ratings compared to the last competition in Brazil. ESPN's coverage of the last men's World Cup increased the sport's impact significantly in mainstream awareness.

Telemundo, who holds Spanish-language rights in the United States, will not suffer the same type of viewership impact since Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama have already qualified from this region with Honduras as a potential fourth. These teams, lead by El Tri, will drive ratings from Russia.

Telemundo's target demographic is more international in nature than Fox's audience. South American sides such as Argentina, Brazil and Colombia also have significant support in the United States. There are other ethnic enclaves that prefer non-English language commentary who will support their childhood and/or ancestral teams. For some of us of a certain age, watching a World Cup in Spanish is part of the overall experience of the quadrennial event. I still remember the 1982 World Cup broadcast by SIN (the precursor to Univision) with Spanish-language commentary by Pelé himself for American viewers. Then the many years of excellent TV commentary by Andrés Cantor and his colleagues.

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Steve Amoia is a freelance writer and translator based in Washington, D.C. He is the publisher of World Football Commentaries since 2006 and published The Soccer Translator from 2008 to 2015. 

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