Five Steps U.S. Soccer Should Make
For many American fans it's good to have a few World Cup games to watch without the nerves that accompany watching your team play. But just as head coach Bob Bradley said the day after the U.S. exit: "Every nation starts looking at the next four years and what needs to be done to give your team every chance of winning in Brazil."
The flaws of this team have been well documented by a number of American media outlets and are fairly accurate. Poor tactics, injuries, clear holes in starting positions and the inability to find a stable eleven rise to the top.
Still, World Cup success takes an entire federation if not a nation, and there are reasons why Germany's "Project 2010" has surpassed America's similar program (both countries designed long term plans to win the World Cup by 2010). If the U.S. team is to continue its forward progress some key issues need to be addressed.
1. Everyone Involved Needs to Continue Their Education
If there is one area that has let down U.S. soccer at all levels it's the country's combined soccer intelligence. In fact, every point in this article could be considered subtopics underneath this heading.
Bradley's managerial deficiencies have been addressed by what seems like every individual media outlet ad nauseum—and his legacy may never truly overcome the Ghana debacle, but players are no less guilty.
The team's defensive positioning is atrocious. Offensive decisions, in particular passing choices are careless at best, and timely pressure, both offensively and defensively (which is the true litmus test of the intelligent player) is rarely demonstrated.
Oftentimes, intelligence separates the good player from the great.
David Beckham is a strong example.
Overall, Beckham isn't a complete player. He's older, slower, and has always been a defensive liability, but his positioning, vision, and focus on skills that don't deteriorate over time (like passing and shooting accuracy) have made him valuable at the highest level over such a long time.
For many in the U.S. player pool, the physical ability is there, their technique is improving, and they're gaining experience at home and overseas, but they aren't getting any smarter.
The media is to blame as well. Analysis during qualifying was surface level at best, and the best criticism came from foreign journalists and television analysts. The game's won in subtleties, the team gets better by appropriate media and fan pressure, and the supporters are educated by strong coverage.
There should be distinctions between a player like Jozy Altidore having his best game and his performances still not being good enough for the U.S. to succeed (he didn't score a goal in the tournament).
Education is the great equalizer and as everyone involved gains knowledge, the American game improves.
2. Goals Should Be Lofty but Grounded in Reality
Even though only seven teams have won the World Cup, there's going to be a new member to the club this year. Believing that twenty years was enough time for that team to be the United States was naive at best or utterly stupid at the worst.
That was the U.S. plan in 1990.
A further miscalculation was U.S. Soccer's belief an international coach equal to Jurgen Klinsman would be interested in helming the American National team four years ago.
Every time Klinsman gives his World Cup analysis, it reinforces his tremendous managerial potential and how out of touch this soccer administration is. The interest of a foreign coach of Klinsman's level (he adores the United States) is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The most telling misunderstanding of this World Cup is the "Get to the Second Round" mentality which seems to have infected a portion of the media and American supporters as well as the team.
Since 2000, the United States has proven it has the potential to beat any team on a given day, but not most teams on most days. It puts the team in the bracket of "minor teams no one wants to play".
Such arbitrary goals as "Just get to the Second Round" don't improve upon this hard earned title.
If consistency is an underlining issue, if groups are drawn at random (supposedly), if opponents at the second round and up are unpredictable, then the goal should be relative to the strength of the opposition.
Teams like Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain, even France, England and Italy expect to beat every team every time they play.
The U.S. should be focused on improving its record against the more prestigious teams– say winning 3-out-of-10 times rather than 1-out-of-10– beating teams of equal skill (like Ghana), and dismantling poorer sides (like three quarters of Concacaf competitors).
This may seem like a small quibble, but the benefits are numerous.
What if the team gets a difficult draw similar to the Ivory Coast's position? Advancement to the second round is almost a crap shoot.
Also, it reinforces the "we take it one game at a time" mentality.
Finally, it creates a standard, and standards lead to professionalism .
Here's an American sports analogy: it was memorable when the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series after 86 years. There was a core group of players, a couple of Hall of Famers, strong team chemistry, and a unifying moment (Varitek punching Rodriguez).
Ask the Yankees how many World Series rings they have comparitively (27).
Now ask the majority of Red Sox fans if they would like to have 27 World Series pennants without giving up their memorable 2004 win.
If you're a Yankess fan, it's good to be a Yankee.
Like it or not, professionalism bred success in New York.
The amount of money the Yankees spend is probably the dominant factor in amassing the elite athletes they have on their team, but for many baseball players, just wearing the pinstripes means something.
Yes, you get paid an exorbitant amount of money, but you get paid because you've made it to the highest level, the promised land. You are the best of the best and that's why the Yankees want you. Now, cut your hair and play at the highest level or you're gone.
That's a standard, right or wrong, and it works.
It's time for the United States to have standards; standards relative to the international landscape.
It means the team comes out with a drive and passion relative to their world status.
It means not being afraid to play England, Italy or Spain. It means being focused on improving the all-time record against said teams, beating Algeria before the 90th minute, and expecting to play a competitive game against Ghana (which turns out could beat the U.S. at least five out of ten times) without being tentative, hesitant or overly defensive.
It also means the coaching staff has an acumen equal to the task.
It means the players consistently perform at that level as well.
Accurate standards breed professionalism, and on a long enough time-line, the professionals end up winning the most trophies (the ultimate goal).
3. Let the Outsider's In
In every aspect of a person's life, who you know seems to be more important than any other factor, but in sports, there still remains a level of meritocracy.
Yet, the USSF remains a bit unbalanced.
Nothing defines the "Good Ol' Boy" network quite like the upper echelons of American soccer. Coaches and players are expected to pay their dues, and mavericks or critics within the ranks are blacklisted.
A number of English journalists including Jonathan Wilson have documented how the English game's focus on promoting managers that are part of the "group" (i.e., former players who have paid their dues and know each other) has hurt their game, and the same could happen to the United States if it's not careful.
Steve Sampson, Bruce Arena, and Bob Bradley all come from the same mold, and, understandably, successive U.S. teams seem to play the same style.
Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, and to a lesser extent, Joachim Loew, have all proven that an integral piece of the puzzle might come from an unexpected place.
All three of these managers didn't fit "the mold" of what their organizations believed would lead to success. Mourinho was a former translator. Wenger was a trained economist, and Loew was a journeyman manager. He was given a chance with the German national team because he was Jurgen Klinsman's assistant, understood the system, and has shown success with younger players.
Klinsman wanted to institute a similar strategy for the U.S. program that helped produce the positive results he garnered for Germany. Because he wanted control at all levels in order to implement his plan, he couldn't come to an agreement with the USSF (the federation wasn't going to allow Klinsman that level of influence).
This obsession with control has spread to all levels of American soccer. Across the United States, coaches have their "fiefdoms and protect them fiercely.
The current system has adverse effects on player development.
Certain players are supported in this system, but there has been as much criticism as praise for such methods.
Landon Donovan admitted he needed to gain perspective in his life after being given everything (professionally and in his personal life), and Jozy Altidore's troubles during training seem to extend from past pampering.
As a result, American soccer suffers. The English influence is all too present (early higher ups had English soccer pedigrees), and there's little evidence of a Latin flair that should be seeping into the American game, (considering the country's proximity to the region or by the ethnic influence in the United States).
An example from this World Cup is Germany's ability to use every resource at its disposal.
It's been repeated all over the television that Germany has students in Cologne studying every game the team plays. Nothing like that has been mentioned about the U.S. national team.
The obvious retort is that the USSF has their own statisticians and analysts. Well, Germany does as well. Still, they employ more.
Sometimes, extra eyes and impartial observers might discover something new.
The U.S. may not need a college to analyze their games, but could they assemble a team of twenty third-party analysts from the United States to give a fresh response to games?
They could probably find twenty talented candidates that would do it for free.
But would the USSF even consider allowing that situation to occur? Hardly.
The national team is at a turning point. It's done well to so far, but in order to evolve, it needs to add fresh blood and shake up the natural order. The easiest way to do that is to look outside the usual suspects (i.e. managers already in the U.S. pipeline) for the senior team's head coaching position.
4. Have the Semblance of a National Infrastructure
With so many cracks in the American system, player choice for professional development has been its saving grace.
College, MLS Superdraft, European academies for eligible players, the USL and professional tryouts for free agents, are just a number of ways a player can make a name for himself.
It's time to integrate these various opportunities.
Instead of the MLS commissioner complaining about the lack of players on the national side, he should be reminding the U.S. populace that few, if any, of the American players would be where they are now if not for the MLS.
Plus, what good does it do the MLS to make such complaints public?
First, the overseas players have shown themselves to be a bit more savvy than the domestic ones (barring a few exceptions). Second, MLS players have been given numerous tryouts during qualifying and in friendlies. Finally, a public confrontation only encourages a fractious relationship with the national federation and that hurts everyone.
The World Cup analysts have lamented America's disjointed and backward system, but it isn't an easy fix (hence the word semblance ).
The U.S. doesn't have the soccer infrastructure of Western European countries. The pay to play mentality exists because the U.S. is a large country, there are only so many professional teams with youth academies, and soccer isn't the major sport in every town and village.
Waving a magic wand and proclaiming that everyone will play for free hasn't happened because it isn't feasible.
Private clubs and regional "fiefdoms" have come about because there was a void that needed to be filled. The money and resources don't exist to completely redraw the American system overnight.
The USSF has made strides though. Setting down national standards for youth development is a start. The focus on better youth coaching, official approval from U.S. soccer, and a road map on how to best develop young athletes helps.
Still, there needs to be better communication and unification between college, the MLS, USL and NASL (however that situation works out) and those wishing to leave for foreign markets. It shouldn't be up to the player alone. There should be advice from the concerned parties, clearer rules on eligibility, and perhaps guidelines on which route works best for certain personality and player types.
For example, it's clear America struggles to develop forwards. The situation is complicated by the difficulty in getting top prospects proper opportunities especially in Europe (since it's easier for many of these teams to get a comparable attacker from the EU). The MLS and the USSF could develop relationships with South and Latin American clubs in order to get these players the experience they so desperately need.
The American system has its problems, but it also has its bonuses. United States Soccer can bring these differing groups together. A more seamless union will benefit all involved.
Now is the time to do it.
5. Remember, To Everything There is a Season
Countries label players that develop during a certain period part of a "golden generation" for a reason. Timing, economics, and population booms all play a part in a talented pool of players developing at the right time.
Mexico, Germany, Ghana, and even the United States all expect a bright four years as the core of each team is young and on the rise.
France, England, Portugal (excepting Ronaldo), Italy, and Spain (it's now or never), are all rebuilding or about to be.
Few people expected much from the United States when World Cup qualifying began. The team was in disarray, had no coach, no leadership, and few returning stars. Almost miraculously, Dempsey and Donovan came into their own, defensive veterans proved their worth, and a number of youngsters took dramatic strides in their development.
It was a surprise, and it doesn't happen very often.
Like Ghana, Mexico, and Germany, the United States should be excited about its possibilities going into qualifying for the next World Cup. It has a strong nucleus of midfielders (where the game's won or lost), some of the best veterans the team's ever had, some potential forwards, and some young defenders that could develop.
The future should be bright for the U.S.
However, to do so, American soccer needs to continually evolve. The game, the organizations, and the clubs need to support these players when they arrive. Who knows how many chances the United States will get as the world's game gets more and more competitive?
With the right adjustments, the U.S. could find itself in a good position going into Brazil in four years.
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