U.S. Men's Soccer: 10 Steps to Dominate the Globe and Win the World Cup
With the 2014 World Cup coming up in in Brazil, the United States team is a long way off from being considered a tier one club. It’s counter-intuitive for a country that’s given the world some of its greatest champions in any sport to have only shown flashes of the greatness, given the size and talent base for the country.
With the World Cup qualifiers coming up this summer, it’s a perfect time to delve into the steps the U.S. Men’s National Team should take to dominate the world of soccer for the near future and the long haul.
No. 10: Stay the Course with Klinsmann
The hiring of 47-year-old Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach is a step in the right direction. The former German star has a plan for the long term that looks to fundamentally change not only the win-loss ratio of his adopted country of 13 years, but the United States’ relationship to the sport itself.
He’s sixth months into his experiment, and here are a few things that might help his time.
When talking to Fifa.com, Klinsmann suggested the following:
If you play Spain or Barcelona 10 times and try to stay back and defend, you might win one out of those ten games and maybe get one draw, but they will beat you, probably badly, seven or eight times. Maybe they will have a bad day and you will get lucky, but this is what I mean when I say the USA needs to be more proactive and less reactive. My goal is to show the players that the way to compete with this kind of football is to improve every element of our game.
Moving the squad from a reactive team to a proactive style will take time.
It’s a Herculean task to change the culture of U.S. soccer, but with positions like this, he might just be the guy to do it.
The coach is a single man, and though he can do a lot, there’s institutional help he could get from the MLS. They should...
No. 9: Follow Football
When it comes to marketing prowess, there’s the NFL...and then there’s everyone else.
The MLS should follow the blueprint the NFL has set up and apply it to the spring and summer season. They have enough overlapping elements that success would be probable.
American Football is in perfect harmony with the country. In a crisp fall and frigid winter—where much of the country’s populace are migrating into their living rooms adorned with flat screens and leather couches—Saturday and Sunday football is a perfect compliment to a weekend of leisure.
It’s important enough for people to engage emotionally, but it’s something you can walk away from after a few hours. It’s the best reality TV on television. Its start-again, stop-again structure is perfect for television networks wanting to run insurance and beer commercials. In short, it’s a healthy, closed-loop ecosystem.
The MLS season takes place offseason from its high school and college counterpart so it’s harder to garner any ambient enthusiasm or momentum for the season. In addition, a quick glance at a pro team like the Houston Dynamo’s schedule shows anywhere between a 3-14 day stretch between games with no apparent logic for the inconsistencies for casual consumer.
The times are erratic, as are the network's presentation of the games. This kind of irregularity can be disorienting for a country that enjoys its regular drip of good. This kind of schedule inconsistency is usually associated with Major League Baseball’s 162-game season, or the NBA’s 82-game frame, but with Major League Soccer presenting less than half of that, the reasoning doesn’t hold up.
MLS will get the faithful if they choose to hold games at 4:22 a.m. in Anchorage, but to the average fan that has a cornucopia of high-def options, the simpler schedule, the better.
This wouldn’t be inexpensive but the dividends would pay off huge in the long run. A cheap and simple—but very difficult thing to do—is focus on....
No. 8: Better Development
“The youth system at national level and the academy system at their clubs has been amazingly productive.” U.S. head coach Juergen Klinsmann said of the United States’ arch rival in Mexico. That’s in a country with less population and economic resources to do such a thing. The United States must establish stronger and more diverse modes of developing younger talent.
A variety of more sophisticated state and corporate sponsorship is one way, but there’s a cheaper and more effective path to this end.
Visiting places like London, a very urbanized municipality, one will witness the marriage of soccer courts and basketball courts in neighborhood parks and council flats. At either side of a fenced-in court sits a 10-foot rim for shooting hoops and directly below it, a soccer goal for running pick-up games in the rain.
It’s a simple, yet profound shift in philosophy that the U.S. could easily implement. Soccer pitches in most forms are cheap to produce and maintain, but traveling around the U.S. one might not think as much. There are more and more synthetic turf pitches popping up from New York, NY to Manhattan Beach, California but often times they’re exclusive in their location and/or accessibility.
Goals and pitches need to be ubiquitous and free of charge. With little fanfare and modest moneys, U.S. soccer could very easily become the sport of choice for kids in small towns and big cities alike. The access to pitches in every neighborhood would help enable the imprinting of soccer as a free-form activity after school, on the weekends, indoors, outdoors—whenever. It's the only way soccer will ever reach it’s full potential in the country.
With all the young talent coming up through the ranks, there’s a simple thing to employ that would immediately help the cause...
No. 7: Stop the Flopping
In a country where a sport like basketball is a hard-core contact sport, replete with bloody noses and black eyes, it’s hard to generate the utmost respect for a sport that not only encourages flopping, but in some cases teaches it.
In a country where some attend NASCAR for the crashes and celebrate brutal hits on a big screen, no one wants to see their super stars flop on a national or international stage.
Sure, it’s part of the culture of the sport, but it’s embarrassing for a country to have it’s best acting show up on a green field and not the silver screen.
With super slow-motion instant replay and 3D/HD televisions in our homes, there’s no place to hide.
There has to be a shift in mentality and in the enforcement of the rules similar to what the Roger Goodell has implemented in the NFL with helmet-to-helmet hits. He can mete out punishment and suspensions, after the fact and the same should be done in soccer. It’s good for the game on every level, raising the level of competition, enjoyment and most-importantly, credibility.
This step is an easy one to implement, then we can move onto...
No. 6: Play the Best
To be the best, you have to play the best, and the U.S. has a mixed history with this idea. Klinsmann’s encouragement of increased international play for his developmental league guys is a start, but more clubs across the country have to implement the mindset throughout their administrative ranks.
Klinsmannn’s personally arranged for a group of MLS-based U.S. players to train across the pond with players like Brek Shea working in London with Arsenal and Juan Agudelo, Kyle Beckerman and Robbie Rogers all working out with a spate of German clubs.
The play isn’t just good for conditioning and quality of competition, but duration of play.
“The big challenge is for MLS overall, how can they stretch that season into a format that is more in line with the rest of the world?” Klinsmannn said. “If you have a seven, eight-month season and the players are getting a long break, that’s not enough.” he continued, “There are no breaks at the top levels of football. It’s why I am sending some players from MLS over to Europe to train in the off-season.”
What he’s doing without saying it, is part of a bigger need to....
No. 5: Change the Culture
Soccer is a fantastic sport, but it doesn’t easily fit into the United States’ cultural paradigm in the same way basketball, baseball or football does.
Fans follow sports primarily based on emotions and it’s an emotional adjustment for an American audience to high-five every shot on goal and to get elated about a 1-1 draw. We’re accustomed to the narrative of a winner and loser.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donavan Mcnabb said after a tie to the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008, "I've never been a part of a tie. I never even knew that was in the rule book," This is an NFL quarterback. Tying isn’t in the psyche and our national narrative.
In our movies, novels and even reality television, we tell and retell the story of a hero that wins the day. Rarely is there a mainstream American movie that has the protagonist and antagonist shaking hands and going their separate ways as the credits roll.
Soccer has more nuance. It’s a clearer reflection of a European archetype where black and white also enjoys shades of gray. We have to reeducate our society as a whole to celebrate the means and not the end.
The reason why art students head to places London, Paris and Florence is because you don’t have to schlep to art museums to get a taste of art. Art’s everywhere. In the streets, in the cafes—it oozes out of the walls.
Sure there are museums (plural) everywhere, but the work of an impressionistic painter can be bought on the banks of the Seine from street vendors. It’s not removed from the current culture, it is the current culture.
In Brazil, soccer is everywhere. On the beach, in the parks, in school gyms. The culture has metabolized soccer and now it’s part of the organism that is the country. Many around the world liken the Brazilian team’s tempo and rhythm to it’s music. In effect, it’s soccer is a complete reflection of it’s culture.
Hired on July 29, 2011, Klinsmann’s received complaints for the slow implementation of change to his new club. His measured approach seems to be the best way of converting something basic to the human condition of movement and mindset.
Internally, he has a hand in everything from how his players live on a day-to-day basis, to what their nutrition plans are. On the field he’s done things like holding public training sessions the night before matches. This kind of grass-roots effort will build pebble-by-pebble support for a sport that’s fighting for air in crowded U.S. athletic room.
In a way Klinsmann is doing his own form of retail politicking, but across the board, the MLS must get better at...
No. 4: Marketing
Soccer must be cooler.
In Europe and South America, most kids dream of being a soccer star when they grow up. The culture supports this in their magazines, their stories, and in short, their real-time, ever-evolving mythology.
This isn’t the case in America.
Soccer’s still seen as a boutique endeavor by the vast majority of Americans. It does a good job of playing to its base, with the wrangling of someone like David Beckham, but the $250 million move did more harm than good for an institution trying to sell itself as something main stream that America should care about.
David Beckham was an imported International super star, but what the United States and MLS needed as an American super star they could export. With all it’s interconnectedness, much of the United States tends to be proud isolationists when it comes to their culture cues. But it could stand to learn something from the U.K.
April 2002 was the first month since October of 1963 that there were no British acts on the Billboard Top 100 music charts in the U.S. This was a huge cultural and economic loss for the country that gave America acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In response to the consistent decline in the $10 billion-a-year market, there was a push to create a a British music embassy. The office would help as a haven for incoming UK acts and offer business support services to the music industry. That idea opened the doors for groups like Coldplay to rule the U.S. charts and concert venues.
U.S. Soccer needs to do the same thing. Home grow it’s great players and export them with all the weight of a U.S. marketing powerhouse. Don’t import them. It might take a little longer to find them, but it will be all the better in the long run. This might leave some to point out the dearth of world-class players the U.S. is producing, but the solution to that problem is...
No. 3: Field All the Best Talent
Great players like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Carlos Bocanegras need help, but the United States sees a majority of it’s best athletes choosing other sports for fame, money and culture.
Zidane was insanely great. He was a tallish player known for his uncanny footwork for a big man. Imagine six-footer Allen Iverson on the pitch. His incredible speed and quickness would be other-worldly on a pitch. Chris Paul with his size, speed and lateral movement would rival any Brazilian or Argentine super star.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a physical specimen to be sure. He’s got good speed and very good ball control, but he would have a have a tough day against NFL defenders like Nnamdi Asoumugha, all-time great Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed or shut-down Darrelle Revis.
How about U.S. goalie Dwight Howard? Super fast hands, lightning quick lateral feet, and a wing span of somewhere near 7’5”.
Soccer some how, and in some way has to figure out a way to grab a larger group of top-tier athletes out of junior highs and high schools. From the farmlands of Indiana to the big cities of Detroit and Los Angeles, many of the top-tier athletes are syphoned off for football and basketball from a young age.
If the U.S. played all the best players the country had to offer, it would change the game of soccer forever. And the No. 1 thing to do in support of this idea is to...
No. 2: Change to a Spring Season
In most places, men's high school soccer takes place during the fall. Every fall, when school begins, soccer and football engage in their perennial tug-of-war for athletes, resources and school attention. It normally loses that battle and loses badly.
Great soccer players are just that: great, but when they’re not playing against the all of the best athletes in a given school, city or state, they can’t be the best.
If the men’s season competed with baseball and track in the spring it would compete for less fast-twitch competitors in baseball, and syphon off it’s fair share of track speedsters looking for competition that’s more complex competition that lasts for more than a few minutes a week. This positioning would allow soccer to net bigger and better pool of talent and thus in a decade change the face of the American game. Soccer is deserving of all the best, and right now it’s fighting for scraps in so many ways.
Once the season is changed, then it would align more with MLS and vice versa, and allow for the kind of weekly ritual of a Friday night high school soccer match that the whole school could gather around.
For all these other ideas, the most radical is also the most apparent....
No. 1: Look Within
For all the overseas competition and foreign coaching changes, the most important step the U.S. can take to become the most dominant soccer country on the planet is to cancel out all the noise, quietly sit with ourselves and look within.
The country will never reach it’s full potential if it’s constantly chasing the lead of other European leagues and countries to the south. We need to find our own style. One that is uniquely American. We have to channel this incredibly unique confluence of size, speed, culture and mentality to produce our own kind of game.
Right now our game is an echo of British voice with a Brazilian beat. But an echo is a diminished and delayed imprint of the original. Always behind and never as strong. Yes, we should take some cues from places like the Champions League, but just as Jazz is a uniquely American music form that’s as sophisticated and beautiful as it’s European classical counterpart, so too can our game reflect the uniquely American story.
Once we’ve found that proprietary expression of the sport, we’ll be in a league of our own.
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