It's been about a month now since the Men's National Team collapsed out of the World Cup. I've gone through most of the steps of grieving during this time - denial, anger, depression, and finally acceptance - and I've thought a lot about why this happened and the sad state of US Men's Soccer.
* Side note 1 - this is one of the longest posts I've ever written, at close to 3,000 words. If you're not a soccer fan, click here to read my previous post "Cruise Control and Chasing Infinity" instead.
* Side note 2 - I'm a big soccer fan, and I'm pretty opinionated. Not surprisingly, a lot of people have asked what I think about the USMNT. This is my public brain dump - a written record of some changes I would like to see made. And it is completely off-topic from the rest of this blog. OK, here we go...
So how do we fix US Men's Soccer?
First, let's get an uncomfortable truth out of the way:
America isn't passionate about soccer
Yep, I said it.
Comparing attendance numbers across the top 5 professional sports (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and MLS), the MLS only captures about 5% of the overall attendance figures. College is even worse, with NCAA Soccer drawing less than 1% of the college fans' overall support. We simply aren't going to compete with the best in the world (Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain, Italy, England, and France) if the majority of the country isn't engaged.
That being said, we have 3.6 million kids currently registered with youth soccer. So those top 7 countries not withstanding, I don't see any reason why we can't dominate the likes of Uruguay - who has a total population of 3.5 million people - and other less-populated countries such as Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Hungary and Portugal.
Keep in mind we are only looking to fill a roster of about 25 players, ages 18 - 32. That's less than 2 players from each age group, out of the 3.6 million kids playing soccer today.
I don't think it's unreasonable to expect the USMNT to be ranked in (or near) the top 10 in the world, year in and year out.
Let me start with an observational story, just to set my paradigm.
My son is currently playing high-level soccer in the u14 age group - not academy level, ECNL or DA, but State Cup level. We were able to witness firsthand the great differences between top teams and 2nd teams in the same club, as my son trained and played with both teams during his formative u9 - u11 years. And the differences were vast.
Club's Top Team
- Trained with a coach who was "A" Licensed, and whose other job was coaching a local college team.
- Sometimes trained an extra evening during the week.
- Extended their season into April by scheduling a late-season tournament.
- Played together in an indoor league in May and June.
- When both teams practiced together, the club's Director of Coaching spent about 2/3 of the practice time with the top team.
- Because the kids were better skilled, they got more touches on the ball from each drill. (less time was spent chasing after errant passes and bad touches, etc.)
Club's 2nd Team
- Trained with a coach one year who was "E" Licensed, and then with a coach who was "D" Licensed and who also coached a local high school team.
- Season ended in March.
- Received 1/3 of the DOC's attention during combined practices.
- Because the kids were less skilled, their drills didn't run quite as smoothly, which meant less actual practice at the desired skill being taught.
By the time these kids reached u12, the kids on the top team were clearly better players. They had had 3 years of more training, better training, and longer seasons. This set the stage for which kids were going to earn their way onto the elite teams during the u13 and u14 seasons, and ultimately be in a position to catch the eye of the US National Team or an MLS Club Academy.
This leads us to the all important question: Are we getting the right kids onto the top-level teams at u9 - u11?
Here are 6 changes we can make in order to build a Top-10 team, starting with the fastest and easiest to implement:
Part 1 - Maximize the current player pool
1.) Remove Relative Age Bias
Relative Age Bias, as described in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, is a real thing. The kids born at the beginning of the year are older than the kids born at the end of the year, which makes them inherently better. They have had additional time to mature - both physically and mentally.
Pick any contest - it doesn't matter whether it's physical or intellectual, and match up the 4th graders against the 3rd graders. The 4th graders will win every time, right? Yet today we're asking the kids born in November and December of 2008 to compete with kids born 10 months earlier in January and February of that same year, and thinking we have a level playing field; we don't.
The playing field is not level at all. And this isn't just theory - check out the birth months from all players who played in the UEFA Youth Tournaments in 2010:
Look how few kids born in the late part of the year make to the top. This is effectively eliminating half of our potential players.
Change #1: Replace "birth-year" age bands with 6-month age bands, such as "2009 Spring" and "2009 Fall", and treat each age band equally - no different than the 2008s and 2009s are treated equally today.
This will not change the overall number of registered soccer players, so it shouldn't require many additional resources. It's more of a shifting of current resources, and it will double our USMNT's player pool.
2.) Remove Early Growth Bias
There's an old NBA saying which says "You can't teach size," meaning that no matter how much you coach a player who is 6' 9", he will always be at an inherent disadvantage to the opposing player who is 7' 1". The NBA is a tall man's game.
Soccer, on the other hand, is not a tall man's game. Here are some players you may have heard of (and their height):
- Lionel Messi (5' 7")
- Alexis Sanchez (5' 7")
- Xavi Hernandez (5' 7")
- Eden Hazard (5' 7")
- Juan Mata (5' 7")
- Pedro (5' 7")
- Sergio Aguero (5' 8")
- David Silva (5' 8")
- Andres Iniesta (5' 8")
- Luka Modric (5' 8")
- Jesus Navas (5' 8")
- Coutinho (5' 8")
- Neymar (5' 9")
- Andrea Pirlo (5' 9")
- Jesse Lingard (5' 9")
- Antonio Valencia (5' 9")
- Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez (5' 9")
- Wayne Rooney (5' 10")
- Landon Donavan (5' 8") - arguably the best American soccer player ever.
- Christian Pulisic (5' 8") - the best current American soccer player, and probably will become the best American ever.
These are some of the world's best soccer players, any one of whom would immediately make the US team a heckuva lot better if he played for us. And they are all considered small by US sports standards.
Considering the average height of an American male is 5' 9", and 5' 9" is tall enough to be a world-class great soccer player, let's remove height from the player pool selection process entirely - the boys will all get to their full-grown height by the time they need to be; it doesn't matter if they are shorter than average when they are 10, 12, 14, or even 16 years old.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of coaches and clubs who look at size when selecting their teams (whether consciously or not), even at the u9 - u11 age groups. But kids' growth spurts all come at different times. Just because the taller kid might help win more games this year is not reason enough to select that kid.
Change #2: Coaches must not consider player height when selecting their top-team player rosters.
Nobody can see the future, but we can assume the player with parents of average height will grow to become average height. And since we only need average height at 18 years old (or later) to have an impact on the USMNT, we should let the kids grow at whatever pace nature has in store for them, and instead focus on selecting the most promising players - not the biggest players - for our top-level youth teams.
3.) Parent Education and Coaching Referrals to sift and sort top players into top clubs sooner
Imagine a young 9-year old boy, Ethan, playing in his first soccer game today.
His parents have a friend whose son played on a soccer team last year and they had a lot of fun, so they have Ethan sign up for that team. They didn't bother to research all the different clubs in the city, and which ones provided what long-term opportunities. And why would they - at this point they just wanted Ethan to get a chance to play soccer and to see if he even likes it.
It turns out Ethan does like it, and he is very good at it. His team wins almost all their games, and Ethan scores multiple goals every game.
Unfortunately Ethan is playing in a lower-level division, on a volunteer-based team with a parent-coach who has entry-level coaching knowledge. Ethan is having fun, doing well, and playing with his friends - which is great. But a couple years later, by the time the parents start asking questions and wondering if they should get more serious about the game, Ethan's chance at the big-time may have already passed him by.
Those kids with the top-level coach have been getting better (and more) training for the last 3 years; by the time they are 12-13 they are probably better players than Ethan. (although Ethan could have been the top player on their team...)
Change #3: Parent Education and Coaching Referrals. The minute it becomes obvious that a young player is naturally gifted (ie: he is the best player on the field, all the time), the family should be advised of the different soccer options available, and his coach should make a referral to a club and/or coach who can provide more long-term options for the player.
Section 1 Recap:
So, we currently have 3.6 million kids registered for youth soccer, but we aren't pulling the national team from all 3.6 million kids:
- Half of the potential world-class players will likely get left behind because they were born in the 2nd half of the year.
- Half of the remaining world-class players may get overlooked because they were shorter than their peers at 9-12 years old.
- And of the 25% who were born in the first half of the year and are taller than average, I'm guessing about 25% of them start out playing for smaller clubs and are never able to catch up.
In the end, we are currently only giving about 18% of our nation's soccer youths the chance to get into the USMNT's elite-level player pool.
This means we could, without much financial investment, increase our top-level talent by more than 5 times! Imagine building a World Cup roster with 5 Christian Pulisics, 5 Clint Dempseys, 5 Bobby Woods, and 5 DeAndre Yedlins - we would be a tough team to beat!
Part 2 - Increase the player pool
Those first 3 changes could be phased in over a couple of years, without much difficulty. The more difficult changes lie in increasing the player pool - reaching soccer players who aren't included in the 3.6 million registered youth players.
4.) Addressing Affordability - the "pay to play" model
Youth club soccer is expensive, with most estimates I've seen coming in at about $3,000 per year, per child - that's basically a car payment! There are millions of families across the country who simply cannot, or will not, spend that amount of money for their child to play sports. (regardless of how gifted he may be.) Obviously families with multiple kids can get priced out of the system even if they earn well into the upper middle class income levels.
There isn't an easy or inexpensive solution to this issue.
Maybe US Soccer could sponsor "play at the park" nights, where they create a safe environment for kids to play unorganized soccer under the watchful eyes of a few coaches. Lots of kids could get introduced to the sport, and the handful of naturally gifted players would be easy to spot and could be filtered into a more competitive environment (and on a scholarship basis.)
Maybe US Soccer could help facilitate a "sister club" program, where larger clubs in the high-income neighborhoods partner with (or create) clubs in under privileged neighborhoods, and coaches in the lower-income neighborhoods could act as both coaches to the many and recruiters to the few who might have what it takes to compete at the highest levels.
Maybe US Soccer needs to restrict the number of clubs in an area, in order to contain administrative, field, and coaching costs.
Maybe US Soccer needs to create more clubs, in a neighborhood-club style, so that travel is minimized and there would be plenty of games to be played neighborhood vs neighborhood.
Maybe the problem isn't with the current system, but with the lack of local scouting towards the big picture. US Soccer could have full-time scouts watching practices and games from various neighborhoods and clubs, and selecting the talented few to be moved into larger clubs for continued development.
Change #4: The pathway towards elite-level soccer needs to be more affordable for more families.
I don't know what the best way is to overcome this challenge, but I can guaranty we are missing out on hundreds of elite-level players (nationwide) at each age group, just because their families cannot afford to play club soccer.
5.) Import players from other sports
Go to any high school in America, and have the students vote on the top 5 most athletic kids in the school. I'm willing to bet the vast majority of them will be basketball and football players.
We know the top athletes play basketball and football.
We know that basketball and football are "size matters" sports.
And we know that many of the top NBA and NFL players come from under privileged neighborhoods, where college education and a middle class life are a longshot for most families.
What if we build an academy for a small number of ultra-athletic, top-of-the-pyramid type kids? It looks like this:
- Find 8th and 9th grade boys who are super-athletic but undersized for their sport.
- Meet with their family to get everybody on the same page: "Since Dad is 5' 9", Mom is 5' 4", and Uncle is 5' 8", the boy is unlikely to grow tall enough to play professionally; he might not even get to play Division 1 ball."
- Offer him a scholarship to the Crossover Academy, where he will live, go to school, and spend 4 - 6 hours per day training in soccer - both physically and mentally. And this will all be in a safe environment where gangs, drugs, and other potential pitfalls don't exist - it will be a way out for many of these kids.
- After 4-5 years in this top-level environment, he may or may not be able to make the USMNT youth squad, but he will very likely be eligible for a college scholarship.
- If this is successful, and this program can be seen as a way out of the inner-city and a way into college and middle class America, other short elite-level athletes (understanding their genetic height disadvantage) may start kicking a soccer ball earlier.
I know what you're saying. "This will never work, since the kid has never used his feet while growing up."
While that may be true, we have never tried anything like this before. These would be the best of the best athletes, with quickness and hand-eye coordination most of us can't even fathom. And then we're going to give them 3 training sessions a day, over the course of several years.
I'm willing to bet that some of these kids could improve enough to make an MLS roster, or at least an MLS academy. And if that's the case at 17 years old, what can they become with another few years' of training with professionals?
Change #5: Build a Crossover Academy to train the best of the best undersized football and basketball athletes.
We might one day find a 20-year old Deion Sanders or Russell Westbrook playing soccer at such a speed that defenses quiver in their boots.
6.) Be Patient; it's working
The MLS is working. It's working slowly, but it's working.
Attendance is way up from where it was 20 years ago. So is the quality of play.
Salaries are increasing, which makes the game more rewarding, which entices more athletes to play soccer and more borderline athletes to train harder.
TV revenue is increasing, along with the sheer number of games available to watch on TV. (and online, and on tablets.) More MLS players are becoming household names, and more players are finding themselves on Sportscenter than ever before.
Not only that, but almost every team now has an academy for developing their own players (the best of the best players from their respective areas), and the league continues to add more teams (which means even more youth academies.)
The youth game has also gotten more competitive, and we are seeing a new crop of players in the USMNT youth system who will likely be better than the last generation of USMNT players.
Change #6: Have patience.
The trouble with waiting, though, is that nobody wants to.
There are plenty of things US Soccer can do to have an impact on our Men's National Team's success at the world level. Some of them are inexpensive and easy to implement, while others will require a great deal of investment capital.
Regardless of which option(s) they choose, if any, there isn't any reason at all why the USMNT shouldn't perform better than it has.
There. That's my 2 cents on a public record.
What are your thoughts? Shoot me an email - I'd love to hear.
We'll have to wait to see what unfolds in the coming years...
- Chris Butterworth
updated 11/15/17: For additional reading, see Changing Youth Soccer: the pay to play model - a coach's perspective, by Lloyd Biggs of goalnation.com