As I know many of my followers/readers are not hardcore sports fans, let me give some perspective on Oct. 10th, 2017. Headlines across America might have read…
Unfathomable? Impossible? Maybe those headlines give the American non-sports or general sports fan a glimpse of what has been going on with our United States Soccer Federation and our men’s national team the last fifteen years or more.
In November 2016 I wrote a post (A Litmus Test) about the USMNT fall and firing of one our winningest Head Coaches, Jürgen Klinsmann. In my post a year ago I pointed out what I thought were three central pillars that dictate a FIFA member’s national team success, mediocrity, or failure. If a national footballing federation like our USSF wants to find a dynasty-proven premier model to follow, it doesn’t have to look too hard at all. In fact, it is or should be a no-brainer.
Ever since the first FIFA World Cup in 1930, football, or futebol, or soccer as Americans call it, has by all records been the world’s greatest most popular, most watched sporting event in all of modern history. Around the entire globe crazed, obsessed fans can tell you in remarkable detail specific plays, passes, saves, and goals by who and where for any number of futebol matches! And the records, the stats, the teams, the players, the articles, and video-highlights are easily found anywhere. Here are the three greatest national futebolling dynasties, top to bottom, followed by consistent strong contenders. These include FIFA Federation dynasties, in parenthesis, which are just as competitive as World Cups:
- Brazil — 5 world championships and the only nation to have participated in all twenty World Cup tournaments (8 Federation Championships)
- Germany — 4 world championships (3 Federation Championships)
- Italy — 4 world championships (1 Federation Championship)
- Argentina — 2 world championships (14 Federation Championships)
- Uruguay — 2 world championships (15 Federation Championships)
- Spain — 1 world championship (3 Federation Championships)
- France — 1 world championship (2 Federation Championships)
- England — 1 world championship
If a new or burgeoning national futebol/soccer governing body — with an equal or better sports fan-base to grow — wants to see how Brazil, Germany, Italy and a host of several other dominating countries play the game at the highest levels, with weaker economies than the U.S., and do it year after year, tournament after tournament, producing world-class players and coaches generation after generation, above are 4-5 nations to mimic with everything it takes to be a juggernaut dynasty for 88-years and 88 more.
Yet, one very tiny Caribbean nation eliminated the U.S. Mens National Soccer Team from its 8th consecutive FIFA World Cup tournament. More embarrassing than the loss Oct. 10th to tiny Trinidad & Tobago is the fact that CONCACAF is by far the easiest federation to qualify from to play in the quadrennial World Cup tournament out of all FIFA federations. Given the U.S. made it to the Quarter-finals in 2002, this begs the serious question, What direction has U.S. soccer headed in?
Having played at a very high-level of soccer myself most of my adult life — collegiately, professionally, and semi-pro — on the continents of Europe, South America, Africa, and of course North America, under several coaches and playing styles, with and against some excellent players and several world-class players, for an American I feel I have a well-based, fair standpoint (since 1975) to assess our nation’s soccer/futebol progress. However, this time I won’t. I am going to defer to someone who has much higher experience, much higher qualifications to tell America and the USSF like it is and won’t sugar-coat it. He repeats much of what I’ve been advocating and screaming since 1990.
One of Five American World-Class Soccer Players: Claudio Reyna
Of the handful of American boys that the rest of the futebolling world would label world-class, capable of playing several prolonged seasons in Europe’s elite leagues and teams in the starting-11, Claudio Reyna is a shoe-in. Real quick, he played from 1994-2008 at the highest levels with Bayer Leverkusen, VfL Wolfsburg, Rangers, Sunderland, and Manchester City before retiring with the New York Red Bulls. Had he not suffered so many leg injuries, most critics say Claudio would’ve held almost all American soccer records for a long time eclipsed only by Clint Dempsey or the rising Christian Pulisic. I feel what Claudio has to say about Oct. 10th and the state of U.S. soccer today carries a whole lot of weight. Here are his words from an interview with soccer website Goal.com:
“Our approach and our behavior to the sport here — to coaching, to everything, is just wrong. We’re far too arrogant. We’re far too obnoxious. We are egotistical, having never won anything or done anything, and that’s not the case around the world. You travel to Spain, Argentina, Germany and you run into coaches and sporting directors and there’s a humility about their work that doesn’t exist here, and that’s, for me seeing it, is to me a big concern.
When you have a disappointment like last week, and we’ve had past disappointments as well, and we’ll have disappointments in the future, but what we need to understand that it’s for me behavioral. We have coaches who think they’re better than they are. Across the board, we just think we do things better than we really do. I mean in every way. Whether it’s broadcasting, or media, coaching, we’re just not as far along as we tell ourselves we are. We need a little honesty, and hopefully this brought it. I think it’s far too late. I think we’ve been asleep at the wheel for a little bit too long.”
For the key pivotal positions throughout the U.S. soccer culture, youth development, up to the USSF and USMNT since the 1970’s, anyone who is outside of soccer just doesn’t understand what Claudio is saying. Non-futebol leaders, administrators, coaches, presidents, corporate sponsors and fans (who ultimately pay for the product on the fields), bring with them this old guard USA mentality that America is the best at most everything!
“We have all these countries around the world we can learn from, and you go over there and you’re not going to see different training sessions. You’re going to see good games, and poor games, like in any league across the world.
But the one thing that we haven’t realized, I think, when we have our American soccer people go abroad to learn, I don’t think they see the behaviors of the people and how they coach in their day-to-day work. That’s the shake-up I hope people realize more than anything.
You go to a U-14 and U-15 coach in Spain, and they are 10 times more humble than a U-14 or U-15 coach in Connecticut, New Jersey or New York, who thinks they’re the next Pep Guardiola or Patrick Vieira.
Until we realize that — that we’re not as good as we think we are at all levels — then I think we’re going to continue being what we are, which is mediocre.”
In my personal opinion and experience, Claudio is partly correct about European leagues and games. However, the reason the English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, and Brasileiro Série A are the top leagues in the world are because of the product they have on the field and sidelines. The best players on the planet play in these five leagues and paying fans with paying sponsors want to watch excellent entertaining futebol of the highest levels. Bad games are few and far between in these leagues between the bottom-dwelling clubs.
Why is the MLS, America’s pro league, consider 2nd or 3rd Division by world standards? Reyna believes that though soccer has grown in popularity in the U.S., the quality has not improved or kept up with that growth.
“What I think has happened in the past 10 years is we’re confusing investment, expansion, growth, (U.S. Development Academy), and all these other things with progress. All these things have sort of created a feeling that we’re progressing, but I call it expanding, growth and more fans.
From the general growth side it’s happening, but are we really progressing? When I look around at certain levels I don’t see progress happening.
I remember the great Johan Cruyff would say something about Dutch football, or Franz Beckenbauer in Germany, and when other big players and coaches spoke out and were honest, it shook things up and make people ask, ‘How are we teaching the game to our youth? How are we playing the game? What’s the competition like?
We don’t have those kind of serious discussions here. We just seem to talk, but never really make any significant changes.”
And I would add here that because of an old guard mindset of sports egotism, like we had about Olympic basketball for so long, Americans falsely thought we could just create our own pro-soccer league here with a lot of American players and a few old retiring European or S. American has-beens and soon advance into the World Cup’s Quarter or Semi-finals. That was the American mentality after the 1994 FIFA World Cup here in the U.S. when we upset Colombia and especially after our performance in the 2002 World Cup.
[The old guard] “are sitting together and thinking about strategies and how we’re going to get better. We need a little humility and modesty at the table. Unfortunately, we have a little too much ‘Mr. I Know Everything’, ‘Mr. Arrogance’, ‘Mr. Obnoxious’, ‘Mr. Loud’, and when those get together nothing happens.”
This is who I believe Claudio is calling out, the American generation in key pivotal positions who did not grow up playing little league soccer, school soccer, and college soccer. At best, that old guard might have had their kids playing, but not at top-quality European or S. American influenced academies with the same foreign coaches. When one wants to learn all the in’s and out’s of a intricate complicated sport, you go and learn from the best in the world. That is what S. Americans did for basketball in the NBA and that’s what the rest of the world did for baseball in the MLB. What has the old guard and USSF done? Can it improve or change as necessary?
What does Claudio think about our retiring 30-year olds, current mid-20 year olds, and teenage soccer generations?
“There’s good players at every age group. There’s some very good players in this country. As supporters of these players, whether it’s coaches, sporting directors, team presidents, we need to continue to push ourselves to make sure they have the best environment to develop because the talent is here. One thing I’ll never say is we don’t have good players, because we do.”
Gabriele Marcotti, a European sports journalist-columnist and self-protested “outsider” to U.S. soccer, wrote a good 7-point piece for ESPN FC earlier this month that I think pin-points some chronic and festering problems. Check it out. His first four points are excellent. Back to Claudio…
“There’s a lot of positives despite the disappointing result that we had last week. I think we’re all embarrassed. I’m embarrassed as a former player that I have to go around and have people make fun of us, and get texts from my friends in Europe who remind me we’ll be on [vacation] next summer. I can laugh, but it hurts. It definitely hurts.”
I am right there with your pain Claudio. It does indeed hurt, particularly when the USMNT and USSF have no legitimate excuses for missing the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The first head that should immediately roll is President Sunil Gulati. This decline and disaster has happened on his watch.
As a personal closing opinion and note, without question, all of the USMNT greatest futebol achievements, greatest futebol players, and greatest futebol moments have come with, by and during eras when American players had prolonged experience or were playing in top foreign leagues. After at least five decades of soccer, what does that suggest about our youth development programs and domestic Major League Soccer?
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