Former USMNT manager Jürgen Klinsmann deserves very high honors and respect for his accomplishments for U.S. soccer after just 98 matches over 5-years and a winning percentage of 63.8%, barely second only to his new successor Bruce Arena at 65.8% after 130 games. Along with Bob Bradley, these 3 managers are PARTIALLY responsible for the USMNT best most historic World Cup stints and international play since the inaugural season of the MLS in 1996… a volatile subject amongst all USSF coaches, MLS club-owners, domestic players, and U.S. soccer fans. And as usual, that success or volatility boils down to prestige, egos, dollars, and ROI’s.
But why are USMNT managers only partially responsible for success, mediocrity, or failure? The answer is three-fold:
- player-pool quality
- the strength of domestic leagues both financially and product on-the-field, and…
- the expertise of the nation’s futebol-governing body
For those U.S. fans who don’t really understand world-class futebol and how consistent world-class status is achieved on the national team level, let’s examine all three above areas historically for a better litmus test of how far USMNT soccer has progressed since 1996 and with the rehire of Bruce Arena, and whether we the fans must wait another 20-years for any significant progress.
Side note: this is not an exhaustive analysis with all factors considered; just these 3 primary factors.
In the modern-era of U.S. soccer, we have four quality performances on the international stage. The farthest the USMNT has gone in all World Cup competitions was the Quarter-finals in 2002. After qualifying play finished, the U.S. ranked 8th in the world going in. 2002 is the pinnacle, the current standard to surpass. The next best ranking & performance was in the 2010 WC into the Round-of-16 ranked 12th, then the 1994 WC Round-of-16 ranked 14th, and finally the 2014 WC Round-of-16 ranked 15th. Let’s examine those four USMNT rosters and where the team’s quality was based.
2002 USMNT WC Roster — There were 12 MLS-playing players and 11 playing abroad. The most influential, most valuable players were Brian McBride (Columbus Crew), Claudio Reyna (Sunderland), Brad Friedel (Blackburn Rovers), DaMarcus Beasley (Chicago Fire), Landon Donovan (San Jose), and John O’Brien (Ajax). All six players spent 3 or more seasons on European teams except Donovan who had shorter stints. Their foreign experience was key to the 2002 USMNT success.
2010 USMNT WC Roster — There were 4 MLS-playing players and 19 playing abroad. The most influential, most valuable players were Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Tim Howard (Everton), DaMarcus Beasley (Rangers), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Michael Bradley (Mönchengladbach), Jozy Altidore (Hull City), and notable contributions from Carlos Bocanegra (Rennes) and Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96) in defense. Once again, the foreign experience was key to the 2010 USMNT success.
1994 USMNT WC Roster — There were 15 domestic-playing players and only 7 playing abroad. However, this is prior to the modern era of the MLS and USSF with most players contracted full-time to US Soccer, not to domestic pro league teams. The most influential, most valuable players were Tab Ramos (Real Betis), John Harkes (Derby County), Eric Wynalda (1.FC Saarbrücken), and Marcelo Balboa (San Diego State Univ). Notice once again, the quality foreign experience for international success.
2014 USMNT WC Roster — There were 10 MLS-playing players and 13 playing abroad. The most influential, most valuable players were Clint Dempsey again (Seattle) and Tim Howard (Everton), with notable contributions from Jermaine Jones (Beşiktaş), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), and Julian Greene (Bayern Munich). Foreign experience was again key for a surprising run out of Group G the “Group of Death”.
In 2006 the USMNT received its highest ever ranking (#4 FIFA, #2 Elo) leading up to the 2006 WC in Germany. Of that roster there were 11 MLS-playing players and 12 playing abroad. Influential key players of that team were Claudio Reyna (Man City), Kasey Keller (Mönchengladbach), and Brian McBride (Fulham)….again quality foreign experience.
Strength of Domestic Leagues
A good indicator of how strong your domestic league ranks is by its teams and players international performances. For example, how your league performs in your federation Champions League over a long time-period both on the club & national team levels. The two competitions for CONCACAF are Champions Cup/League and the Gold Cup. Let’s examine how MLS teams, American lower league teams, and our USMNT have measured up to other CONCACAF nations and their domestic leagues, and then CONCACAF Winners compared to other FIFA federations in World Club competitions.
Of the 12 member nations of CONCACAF, Mexico’s Liga MX teams far & away out performed any other member nation with 32 winners and 16 runner-ups since the tournament started in 1962. Distant second and third place nations are Costa Rica and El Salvador respectively; the U.S. MLS teams are barely on record. In the modern era of Champions League (2008), Mexican Liga MX teams dominate completely. The closest MLS teams? Real Salt Lake and Montreal runner-ups, in 2011 and 2015 only.
FIFA World Club Champions
Of all the six world futebol federations, UEFA dominates as winners with CONMEBOL a respectable 2nd, and CAF a distant 3rd. CONCACAF clubs have never made it to the final. Brazil and Spain are the top nations.
It must be noted that the Gold Cup tournament consists of national teams with many players in European leagues as well as domestic leagues; the U.S. is no exception in the modern era.
Mexico again edges out the USMNT in this tournament with 10 winners, 2 runner-ups, 4 third-places, and 1 fourth-place. Costa Rica and the U.S. follow with 11 and 13 top four finishes respectively. Hence, an argument can be reasonably waged that the USMNT’s Gold Cup successes come IN PART (or more) to its international experience as it did with the four World Cups of 1994, 2002, 2010, and 2014…. the last three coinciding with Gold Cup championships.
High-Quality Players in the MLS
It is a long-standing fact that Europe’s Top 5 leagues are consistently at the world’s top because of world-class marquee players, club managers, and the extravagant salaries for both. It is no different for America’s NBA or MLB…. the best basketball & baseball players in the world are truly “marquee” if they play for 3-or-more seasons in the NBA and MLB during their prime-playing years. In Europe the best leagues are arguably Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League, and Germany’s Bundesliga and they attract the world’s elite-class players and managers. Period. As an important contribution, domestic-born players in Spain, England, and Germany — as well as France, Italy, Turkey and a handful of other countries — greatly benefit over their formative playing years by playing with and against the best in the world! And those “world’s best” are typically in their PRIME playing years age 22 to 28. How has or does America’s MLS stack up with Europe’s Top leagues attracting “marquee” players in their prime years, their best years? Only one question is needed to determine how the MLS stacks up to Europe’s top leagues:
Since the MLS’s 1996 inaugural season, how many elite marquee world-class foreign players (i.e. the top 200-300 all-time in the world since 1996) have played or are playing in the MLS during their prime years of age 22 to 28?
The following players are another indication and comparison of how weak, mediocre, or strong the MLS has rated over the extant 20-year period. How many appearances these foreign players have made for their national team is also included giving more credence to their “world-class” status:
- Jaime Moreno (Bolivia) aged 22 entering MLS with 75 national team appearances
- Marco Etcheverry (Bolivia) aged 26 entering MLS with 71 national team appearances
- Giovani dos Santos (Mexico) aged 26 entering MLS currently with 116 national team appearances
Of these 3 players, only Etcheverry and dos Santos had/have prior top-flight European league playing experience entering the MLS. That’s ONLY THREE PLAYERS of the last 20 MLS seasons in their prime playing years!!! Not good for our American MLS boys getting high-level world-class exposure which wins and consistently performs well in major world tournaments. Jürgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena (our top 2 managers of all-time) understand this critical dynamic for our USMNT. Our national team’s performance record and our domestic players from the MLS on our USMNT — with no lengthy European or S. American exposure — are and have been the biggest hindrance these last 20-years, not the managers.
Financial Status of MLS
In a CNN report dated March 2015, the MLS “lost as much as $250-million in its first 5 years” and dwindling attendances after the inaugural season. However, the league’s expansion from 10 teams initially to 20 teams today is a bright spot on an otherwise slow difficult climb toward any world powerhouse stature. The product-quality on the field and in-stadium attendance has improved slightly in 20-years. A new 8-year televised media package with ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision will bring about $90-million in revenue, which helps. There are approximately 70-million soccer fans in the U.S. and many of them are the under-30 demographic. Of the viewing audiences and game attendees, about 30% (more in the southwest and Florida) are Latino and that number increases every year. The “breakthrough” to competing with the top American sports for a bigger more fervent fan-base, and hence large corporate sponsors, is as close as it has ever been recently.
But the reality for the league and owners is that they have been losing money once all the ledger books are closed. And the more serious American soccer/futebol fan today demands the best on-field product possible. That is reflected by a huge influx of American television coverage and TV networks investing in the top three leagues of the world: EPL, La Liga, and the Bundesliga the last 5+ years. Even England’s 2nd Division league, the EFL Championship, is now televised in the U.S. on beIN Sports. Therefore, the serious, knowledgeable American soccer fan is here and has been since at least 1994 if not sooner! This begs the question…
Could the MLS have done better in 20-years? Yes, much better. Player development has been one area (future product or R&D if you will) the league has ignored horribly for the sake of immediate revenues & profits. It must improve quickly if the MLS is going to last another 20-years, starting with MORE top world-class players here in their prime years for 3 or more seasons! Three players only over 20-years will not cut it.
Playing Expertise of USSF
The Board of Directors for the USSF have seen near non-existent soccer playing experience since 1990. Presidents Alan Rothenberg, Robert Contiguglia, and Sunil Gulati have never played high-level soccer at anytime in their lives. The offices of Executive Vice President, Treasurer, Chairman Adult & Youth Council, or Chairman Professional Council have never possessed officers with any high-level playing experience since 1990. Why? Why none at all?
However, USSF “Athlete Representatives” serving as consultants have seen a handful of past international playing experience represented at the federation in Chicago, like John Harkes and Peter Vermes. Unfortunately, USSF Athlete Representatives have only very minor influence for USMNT’s key staffing positions. Perhaps this must change as much as national team managers?
Nevertheless, as Douglas Logan stated, first MLS Commissioner from 1995-1999…
“Starting a league is a generational proposition, and can’t be measured in 4- or 8-year horizons. Now we’re closing in on 20 years. We’re going into a second generation, and we’re picking up fans who weren’t even born when the league was born.”
Was Jürgen Klinsmann’s tenure “generational” in nature? Was it measured by “generationS” of players and performances, or merely (unfairly?) in 4- or 8-year horizons? Remarks by USSF President Sunil Gulati in the wake of Klinsmann’s termination, reflect not a move upward in world soccer prestige and competitiveness for the U.S., but a still present stagnating mentality of status quo that has plagued our USMNT since 1954…
“While we remain confident that we have quality players to help us advance to Russia 2018, the form and growth of the team up to this point left us convinced that we need to go in a different direction. With the next qualifying match in late March, we have several months to refocus the group and determine the best way forward to ensure a successful journey to qualify for our eighth-consecutive World Cup.”
Not to surpass previous accomplishments says the President, but merely “qualifying for our eighth-consecutive World Cup.” What!? We qualified for the 1990 World Cup! Twenty-eight years later we should by now be serious contenders for consistent World Cup Quarter-final appearances with 2-3 generations developed, many playing in Europe. If the USSF’s and MLS’s attitude doesn’t embody mediocrity, I don’t know what does. Klinsmann wasn’t the sole problem Gulati and American soccer fans. The bigger problems are the three above!
Final USMNT litmus test? Sadly, same ole business as usual it seems. 😥
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