There is something strikingly similar between the years 2018 and 1986. 1986 was the last time the United States was not present at the World Cup; the quadrennial international football spectacle and most popular sporting event in the world. 2018 will be a repeat of this momentous year, not featuring the United States joining the party in Russia, this year’s site of the Cup.


Naturally, the U.S.’s failure to qualify for this event sparked a lot of discussion and debate about the condition of men’s soccer in the United States, and how a country with so many resources couldn’t field a team of eleven players capable of qualifying. In the end, the U.S.’s spot in the tournament was usurped by Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama, three formidable countries whose positions were well-deserved.


Following their 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago on the last match day of the qualifying group, pundits, enthusiasts, coaches, journalists, and your average soccer dad took to the internet and sparked a surge of tweets, blog posts, and articles to either explain the failure, express distain, or lament a World Cup without America. Costa Rica and Mexico, especially, have consistently proven that they are powerhouses in the North American region, but the United States always edged out the Costa Ricans for that title and have developed a tremendously entertaining rivalry with the Mexicans. However, Mexico has proven time and time again that they are the dominant force in CONCACAF,  the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, and have been for a long time.


With the United States’ failure to qualify for the World Cup, their position as a dominant figure in CONCACAF is in dire straits. The American national team coach resigned and so did the organization’s president. Given that this has caused an exodus at the highest positions and such a large amount of discussion and surprise amongst the public, it is important to take a closer look at the entire apparatus to understand whether this was just a fluke or a long overdue symptom of a failing and broken system. It is my contention that it is the latter.


To begin and to put it bluntly, soccer in the United States is broken. It has great potential, but that potential isn’t and hasn’t been properly honed in. The problems that, disappointingly, are in every nook and crevice in our country’s dealings with this sport are, namely: our approach to youth development, pay to play, our inadequate and expensive education, an inadequate and inefficient scouting system and a culture and attitude that just isn’t good enough to contend with that of countries that treat this sport like a religion, a way of life.


If You’re Not First, You’re Last


The way we approach youth development isn’t centralized and adherent to a common standard.  There are many clubs, coaches and organizations that do follow the same standard, but there are others, lead by unqualified and undereducated coaches, that do not. We have a plethora of organizations, networks, and systems that offer their own education and services. There seems to be a lack of centralization and a common standard. Conversely, if, by chance, these things exist, they are largely underdeveloped, insufficient, inefficient, unorganized and contain underwhelmingly poor accountability standards.


First and foremost, kids are supposed to grow to love the game. That is the most important. The only way to ensure that there is a high retention rate for kids who are new to the sport is to ensure that they are having fun with what they are doing. Games (and lots of them) that are sports specific are not only necessary, THEY ARE CRITICAL.


Kids need to become comfortable with the ball at their feet; they need to love having the ball at their feet. Too soon do we develop a culture of winning first, and this is not only extremely detrimental to the kids that are learning the sport, but it also makes it harder to retain kids when they are trying to pick one sport out of a handful of others to pursue.


We, as a country, are very results oriented, which is a massive detriment in every way. Psychologically, mentally, emotionally and socially, this way of thinking and educating our youth is massively flawed because it prioritizes winning over fun. It creates an atmosphere of adulthood at such a young age that these kids can’t enjoy and experience the innocence and learning curve of their childhoods. Too often do we berate kids for making mistakes on the pitch, and it only causes them to lose their confidence.


I have been around this sport for years, both as a player and, most recently, as a coach. In my time as a coach, I have sat in on and coached teams and players where the parents and parent coaches are massively undermining the development of our young players. Instead of creating a player oriented and player led atmosphere, we have created an adult led and coach oriented atmosphere. We over-coach.


We control our young players like we’re on an Xbox, and when we complain about them not doing something right, we don’t teach them and we don’t correct them. We don’t create a challenging environment where they have the opportunity to learn as much as we think we do. We discourage taking risks and we discourage imagination and creativity.


If a player tries to dribble and take on multiple players at once, they are quickly labeled “ball hogs” and berated to get rid of the ball: “STOP DRIBBLING”; “PASS THE BALL”; “LET IT GO”. And the worst? When the parents and parent coaches yell out commands the entire time: “PASS, SHOOT, PASS, SHOOT, DON’T PASS THERE, GO, GO, NO-DON’T GO THERE.” Clearly, this is both confusing and controlling.


An anecdote that is actually a very disappointing but relevant and necessary to the topic is one that I witnessed recently at a recreation game that I was observing. A player had run into trouble with his dribbling; something that had already ticked off the parent coach and his vocal cords into oblivion; so he turned around, with admittedly decent technique, and passed it back to the goalkeeper. This was a very good and smart soccer decision that demonstrated mental and intellectual growth, confidence and trust in his teammates. He made a mistake, but he made a decision on the fly, in a fast paced game, that made up for his overzealousness.


The parent coach’s reaction? The player was quickly subbed off and sat on the bench, while the parent coach explained how bad an idea that was, how he should only think of going forward and how he shouldn’t have dribbled so much in the first place. Herein lies the problem with our soccer culture — all of our sports are forward oriented.


Soccer is a multi directional game. It takes patience. There is no back-court violation. This, combined with our emphasis on winning and results, is a larger symptom of a broken education system, which is, therein, just another symptom of an inefficient political and cultural environment. Therefore, this may be something that can be harder to control and address as a soccer community, but it is still something that we can take measures to address.


Play for Pay?


Moving on from the cultural deficiencies, we then have the massive injustice of pay to play. It is exactly what it sounds like — parents have to pay for their children to play. The significance of this is twofold. First, because parents pay, they expect results and they expect to win. In other words, they expect to get their money’s worth.


Second, we miss out on the ones who can’t afford it. Sports, and participation in general, are expensive, and that’s the problem. Ironically and from personal experience, a lot of people who can’t afford to pay these ridiculous prices are people who are first and second generation immigrants from countries with a rich and vibrant soccer culture. They play like they would in their country and bring that culture, flair and spirit with them, but we exclude them because they are not within the community’s economic network.


They also don’t necessarily have the connections to make it anywhere. From my days as a player, the best players I ever played with and against were players who spoke English as a second language. We played on the streets, barefoot, and played for hours and hours on end because we were raised around the sport and were taught to love the sport before we were taught the importance of winning with it. Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest minds in the history of our sport, put it best:


“I trained 3-4 hours a week at Ajax when I was little, but played 3-4 hours (a day) on the street. So where do you think I learnt football?”


Pay to play creates a money centered culture and a money centered environment. When parents are conditioned to think that paying is going to get them the best results, then not only will their kids be conditioned that way, but they’ll undertake practices that coincide with this way of thinking.


What does this mean? These parents will splash buckets of cash on trainers, programs, etc. when the most effective and cheapest way to improve someone’s ability on the field is to just play. Street soccer is where kids learn football. Street soccer is where kids not only learn the game but learn about themselves and their style, and can effectively work on their creativity with no constraints or coaching. They just play. And if you can’t bring the kids to the streets, bring the streets to the kids. Create that environment everywhere. We should try to make pick-up and street style soccer available to everyone.


We don’t have this here. We don’t have a rich “pick-up” culture and environment because we have made this part of the game almost obsolete, and in a world where kids are living behind a screen more and more and at younger ages, the pure love for the game that forces a kid to go outside and kick a ball around is rapidly fading away (if it even ever existed in the first place). In fact, a complaint I get a lot from some of the parents of the kids that I coach is that they don’t have a lot of opportunities to have their kids just play with other kids without having them in an organized setting. Essentially, we’re only making the sport available to everyone that belongs to the middle class and above, and we’re allowing dollar signs to set the tone for the culture of our community, which, considering the culture of the country as a whole, isn’t that surprising.


Financial Literacy


In light of pay to play and the effect it has on player availability and parent culture, we have to look at the education system and what a coach has to experience. In short, education and licensing in this country is just too expensive. In order to work your way up the top of the licensing ladder, you have to be prepared to dish out a lot of money.


Furthermore, aside from the USSF (United States Soccer Federation), there are also a few other organizations that host their own license pathways that are equally expensive. To put this into context, the cost of the USSF “A” License costs a total of $4,000 and several months for completion. This, of course, means that, for people who need to work, not only are you spending money to complete the certification, but you’re also, during the duration of the program, not even making any.


Additionally, only 2,500 of these have been issued in the United States. Compare this to the $530 “A” License in Germany, the $1,200 “A” License in Spain, and the $4,600 “A” License in England.


The one that stands out here is England. Interestingly, however, they’ve only won one World Cup, and it came in 1966. They also failed to qualify for the 2008 European Championships. Spain has issued 12,700 licenses and Germany has issued 6,000. Spain dominated the sport from 2008 to 2012, winning three major trophies and, for decades, has consistently fielded and produced some of the world’s best players and coaches. Germany has won four World Cups in their history, three European Championships and three Confederations Cups, the last of which they won with what many would argue was their B/C (secondary) team. These two countries consistently produce world-class talent and world-class coaches. What we don’t have is world class talent. The argument can be made for maybe a handful of players in our history, but the fact that an argument has to be made for just a handful, at most, says a lot. Also, what does it say when the best players on our national team, with the exception of two or three, are German born with American military fathers?


Moreover, the licenses before the “A” are, too, very expensive in the United States, and this isn’t including travel and lost wages from time off of work. We also mustn’t forget that because these licenses are so cheap and the culture is so different in other countries, more people climb up the ladder,  especially considering the size of these respective countries relative to how many licenses were issued.


How many children are being exposed to “A” license coaches, and what is the distribution and concentration of these coaches in the US? The thought of that is concerning and quite frankly disappointing. Not only does this discourage and, quite frankly, exclude coaches from poorer areas who have connections to the poorer kids and communities, but it also follows a similar model to the child pay to play system, in that it indirectly and subconsciously enforces a winning and result oriented mentality.


It also discourages these higher-level coaches from working with younger kids and spending time within the youth development structure because the monetary compensation doesn’t make up for the expenses that a coach has accrued over time after the procurement of so many licenses. This, therefore, results in us having underqualified coaches with our youth, and a lot of the times, it is these unlicensed parent coaches who have no history, education or connection to the game. (For a more detailed look at this, check out this article, written by my friend and colleague, Brandon Pereira, on youth development in the US). This enforces and feeds the cultural deficiencies that we saw earlier. It is cyclical, it is disappointing and it speaks to a larger problem of gross inequality in the socioeconomic apparatus of this country.


Playoff or Payout?

We see the effects of this on our league and  what we emphasize when it comes to upwards mobility. The MLS cannot compete with the great leagues of world soccer. The MLS is ranked 18th in the world in terms of revenue. Sure, it’s entertaining, but the quality is far from great. It has turned into a league that drools at the mouth when it picks up retiring, washed up players from Europe and South America. We get their scraps.


Not to mention that only two MLS teams have ever won a CONCACAF Champions League. DC United won in 1998 and LA Galaxy won in 2000, and those were during the old format. Mexico has 33 titles spread amongst 12 teams. Costa Rica has six across three teams. With our two, we have as many titles as Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago, Honduras and Guatemala. El Salvador edges us out with three.


We have adopted the American playoff and collegiate model. It works for U.S. sports but it isn’t able to put the MLS on a competitive level with the best leagues in the world. Diogo Ribeiro, a friend of mine who studies and coaches in Portugal, puts it best: “The whole draft draft system is so outdated. What’s the point of academies if you’re still drafting college players?”


The playoffs do not belong in soccer. What does it say when a team who had a mediocre season, barely sneaks into the playoffs and is able to have a shot at the most prestigious trophy in American club soccer. It completely undermines the efforts and successes of the team that was the better team over the regular season. So much for putting so much emphasis on winning and results when the highest level of our sport undermines the point total at the end of the season.


Furthermore, the absence of a tiered system where there is no promotion/relegation de-incentivizes underperforming teams from investing in their youth development and local soccer communities. The local contribution from soccer clubs is underwhelming, and it doesn’t create a love and culture necessary for a club’s success. If you finish at the bottom of the table, no worries – you’ll still get your check from the league and can give it a go next season. You also completely neglect leagues like the USL and NASL, which have the potential to help in creating a more competitive atmosphere in the sport and soccer culture that we currently don’t have.


Considering everything that I have discussed, it is no wonder that the United States will not be in Russia in 2018. I am appalled and quite frankly annoyed that so many people were surprised. We weren’t able to beat Trinidad & Tobago — no disrespect to them — but we shouldn’t consider ourselves a big soccer nation if we can’t beat them on the final day, when it mattered, to qualify for the biggest event in soccer. We should have qualified before the final day to begin with; we shouldn’t have had to fight on the last day.


It is completely disgusting that commentators like Alexi Lalas, Rob Stone and others alike continuously refer to the United States as a country that can compete with the world’s greats, when we can’t even be considered the greatest nation in our own damn confederation. Clearly, this is a symptom of American arrogance. We want to be dominant for dominance’s sake.


Yet again, another symptom of traditional American conquest and imperialism. We aren’t big. We are a disappointment. We have gotten it all wrong. We are arrogant. Not including the ones that are larger societal problems, we can take baby steps and measures to address a lot of these issues. This can either be a massive wake up call, or another day at the office. Only time will tell which one it is.