We’re Still Not Even Close

For anyone who watched ESPN FC last night, Craig Burley’s statement “I’m done hearing about pay-to-play, promotion/relegation, etc.” was pretty much spot on for me. The main topics which have come up since the US Men’s National team crashed out of World Cup 2018 qualifying, finishing FIFTH place in CONCACAF, are youth development, pay-to-play youth soccer, and promotion/relegation.

But what if the players that we had representing the United States National Team for this cycle just weren’t good enough?

Did we actually give some of the younger guys a chance to succeed throughout the qualifying process, or did we rely on the same old players (as US Soccer tends to do for literally EVERY World Cup cycle) once again?

Say what you want about Jurgen Klinsmann, but when he came on board as US Men’s National Team manager, he did the one thing that US Soccer was in desperate need of- he expanded the player pool for National team selection.

Bruce Arena said after Tuesday’s loss to Trinidad and Tobago that, even if the United States did qualify, the roster would have needed an overhaul for the Yanks to actually be competitive in the World Cup. This seems obvious to anyone who watched the game.

Michael Bradley jogged around the pitch as if it was a Sunday pub league match. Our two starting center backs, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, were forced to step up and make a number of tackles, constantly being stretched from each other and out of position. Jozy Altidore, recently voted as the worst striker in Premier League history after scoring only 2 goals in 70 appearances for Hull and Sunderland, could be seen at midfield literally stopping and throwing his arms up in the air when he lost the ball, with his touch constantly letting him down and struggling to get into the game. The same could be said for Bobby Wood, whose name you barely heard throughout the entire match. Arriola and Nagbe struggled in unfamiliar central midfield positions, and in a 4-4-2 diamond system which relies on outside backs to get up the field to provide width in the attack, both Deandre Yedlin and Jorge Villafana seemed so overwhelmed with their defensive duties that they weren’t able to provide much to the Yanks’ efforts moving forward.

But what stood out to me, with Bruce Arena’s side down 2-1 with 3/4 of an hour left in the match to find the equalizer, was the lack of options off of the bench that were available to provide a spark.

Clint Dempsey came on at halftime, and probably had the best chance to make it 2-2 with his shot going just wide of the post.

Kellyn Acosta came on for Villafana at left back, although you began to wonder why Fabian Johnson wasn’t out there.

Benny Feilhaber, who seemed to be in USMNT exile in recent years, was the third substitute, but didn’t provide much.

Are you telling me that the hopes of US Soccer were rested on a 34 year-old Clint Dempsey, Kellyn Acosta out of position, and Benny Feilhaber?

Lack of Depth

The lack of depth at basically every position for the US Men’s National Team was a concern for many early on in the qualifying process.

In Klinsmann’s last match in charge, a 4-0 loss at home to Panama, there were younger players available on the bench such as Sunderland’s Lynden Gooch, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Julian Green, but the starting XI was very similar to Bruce Arena’s Tuesday night squad (Michael Bradley, Matt Besler, Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, Omar Gonzalez, Christian Pulisic).

Relying heavily on veteran players is nothing new for the US Men’s National Team, coming from someone who has watched them religiously for 30+ years and who has covered them as a journalist.

One of the biggest problems we have is that we rely heavily on players like Clint Dempsey, who has bailed us out with big goals time after time after time, Landon Donovan, and Brian McBride. We always have 1 or 2 guys who can provide a moment of brilliance, but when you compare our roster to the depth that’s available at some of the “hot shot” European countries, Bruce Arena’s statement becomes laughable.

When Spain beat Italy in early September, a few of the substitutes coming off of the bench:

  • Pedro, Azpilicueta, and Morata from Chelsea
  • Saul from Atletico Madrid
  • Deulofeu from Barcelona
  • Thiago from Bayern Munich

Again, those are their SUBS.

When France beat Netherlands 4-0 back in late August, here’s who they had coming off of the bench:

  • Blaise Matuidi from Juventus
  • Kylian Mbappe from PSG
  • Alexandre Lacazette from Arsenal

And England’s subs for Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Lithuania:

  • Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Liverpool
  • Raheem Sterling from Manchester City
  • Daniel Sturridge, Jermaine Defoe, Chris Smalling, the list goes on.

England bring three center backs off of their bench in Smalling, Gary Cahill, and Eric Dier that the United States would kill to have, but Bruce Arena thinks that their team would have a hard time qualifying in CONCACAF?!

Sorry, but it just seems like we’re all becoming a bit delusional when it comes to how much progress US Soccer has actually made over the years. We don’t even have a legit second division in place yet, while England has this many:

english_league_pyramid

Read David Beckham or Zlatan’s book and realize how many pro clubs in European countries will go after a young player with talent. Zlatan was only 18 when he was already starting for Swedish Allsvenskan side Malmo, going on to play for Ajax at age 20 and starting for Juventus at the age of 23.

We have kids over in Europe, which is great, but when it comes to being discovered by a local professional club here in the United States, the options are as follows:

  • MLS.

We’ll get to why MLS is actually part of the problem in a minute, but first:

Same OLD Story

I took the time to do the math. For the entire United States roster during Qualification, the average age was 28.56.

  • Spain’s average age for their World Cup Qualifying roster, even with older players like David Villa, Pepe Reina, Iniesta and Sergio Ramos, was only 27.46.
  • France’s average age among their entire Qualifying roster was 25.69.
  • England’s average age among their entire Qualifying roster was 25.30.

Like I said earlier, we decided to rely on older veteran players throughout the ENTIRE Qualifying process, instead of trying to introduce younger players into the fold.

This isn’t anything new.

Klinsmann’s 2014 World Cup side, which made it out of the group of death (Ghana, Portugal, and Germany), was one of the younger rosters that we’ve had since 1994, with the average age being 27.30. The team who won it, Germany, had an average age of only 25.73.

The average age for the 2010 US World Cup roster (we advanced to second round, losing to Ghana) was actually lower, with the average age being 26.86. Jozy was 21, Bradley was 23, Jose Torres was 23 and the rest of the squad was 25+. The team that won it that year, Spain…their average age was 25.91

The average age for the 2006 US World Cup roster (didn’t advance out of our group) was up there, at 28.26. The three teams in our group that year- Czech Republic was 28.56, but Ghana was only 24.60 and Italy was 28.30.

In 2002, with a 20 year-old Landon Donovan who won the 2002 World Cup Best Young Player and a 20-year old Damarcus Beasley, our average age was still up there at 28.26 thanks to the inclusions of 34 year-old Jeff Agoos, David Regis and Earnie Stewart who were both 33 at the time, etc.

In 1998, when the United States lost all three group games to Germany, Iran, and Yugoslavia, the average age was 28.27 and included a 34 year-old Roy Wegerle, Thomas Dooley at captain at the age of 36, and Preki who was also 34.

In 1994, when we made it to the second round losing to Brazil on 4th of July 1-0, our average age was 26.36. This included a 20 year-old Claudio Reyna, Brad Friedel was only 23 at the time, and a number of other players under the age of 25.

World Cup Year Average Age of US Roster Did they advance? Average age of WC winners/
others
2018 Qualifying 28.56 Did not qualify Spain- 27.46
France- 25.69
England- 25.30
2014 27.30 Yes Germany- 25.73
2010 26.86 Yes Spain- 25.91
2006 28.26 No Italy- 28.30
Ghana (advanced from group)- 24.60
2002 28.26 Yes Brazil- 26.17
1998 28.27 No France- 26.72
1994 26.36 Yes Brazil- 27.41

US Soccer’s historical hesitancy to name younger players to World Cup squads, and tendency to instead rely on older, more established veterans, could be related to lack of quality young players available for selection, but I personally believe that part of the problem is not trusting our young players enough, because the MLS career path results in players turning professional at later ages when compared to European talent.

The 2017 Gold Cup would have been a perfect opportunity to get some of the younger guys involved, but once we made it out of the group stages, what did Bruce Arena do? He called in Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Nagbe, and Clint Dempsey. As a result, we sent Dom Dwyer and Kelyn Rowe, both of whom were impressive throughout the tournament, home. Neither, of course, were involved in World Cup Qualifying.

That being said, it’s kind of hard to develop younger players and introduce them to the National Team fold when we CONSTANTLY rely on older veterans, even for a practically meaningless tournament like the Gold Cup.

So Who’s Fault Is It That Younger Guys Aren’t Getting a Chance?

In Part, Ours.

Between the Twitter tirades and debates between US Men’s National Team supporters, constant media scrutiny surrounding US Soccer for every match/tournament, and practically everyone suddenly having an opinion on US Soccer and why we’re so much better than the other CONCACAF teams in our region, the fact of the matter is that the position of United States Men’s National Soccer coach comes with more pressure to succeed than ever before. Klinsmann became extremely frustrated with our “the sky is falling” approach every time we draw or lose a match, and he’s one of the managers we’ve had in recent years that actually tried to give some younger guys a shot.

What I’m trying to say is, it’s harder for a manager to sacrifice results by introducing younger guys when the media is constantly pressuring them over every result. We, as a country, need to do a better job having patience when we play these friendlies and Gold Cup tournaments trying to build the player pool out by playing younger guys. We have to get younger.

US Soccer shares a picture from their Twitter account of some rain around the track in Trinidad and Tobago, and all of sudden “it’s an embarrassment if we can’t beat a third-world country like T&T”. A reporter asks Bruce Arena if it’s below some of the European-based guys to have to play in that type of atmosphere, triggering his “European hotshots” remark, and all of a sudden a few journalists and bloggers have turned it into a National fiasco. The lead-up to the T&T game was nothing short of everyone looking for the story lines, and whoever takes over as next USMNT manager will need to have experience dealing with a media base which will always be looking to Tweet the big headlines.

United States Soccer’s culture has gone from the underdogs who want to work hard to prove everyone wrong, to the team who can’t lose based on us being “MERRCA!!”. Have we made progress? Of course. But the rest of the world hasn’t exactly gotten worse.

How Is MLS To Blame?

Maybe the problem isn’t that the National Team manager isn’t giving the younger guys a chance. Maybe the younger phenoms like Landon Donovans and Damarcus Beasleys just don’t exist, with the exception of Pulisic who made an early move to Europe.

Think about the path of a normal MLS player. Jordan Morris- plays 2 years of college soccer, gets drafted by Seattle Sounders and becomes a professional at the age of 22.

Paul Pogba, who’s only a year older, made his Manchester United debut at 18. He was playing Champions League soccer for Juventus when he was 20, the same age as when Jordan’s taking chemistry finals.

Some other players who were born in 1994, the same birth year as Morris:

  • Aymeric Laporte, made professional debut at 17
  • Raheem Sterling, made professional debut at 18
  • Saul (Atletico), made professional debut at 16

MLS players don’t usually turn pro until later in their careers, which means our young talent is 4 or 5 years behind the rest of the world. That might be a problem.

So let’s say they’re a quality player like Clint Dempsey or Michael Bradley, maybe they make a move to Europe eventually. But now MLS comes in with these ridiculous amounts of money for our best players, bring them back home, are playing at an MLS level, and our National Team program has suffered as a result.

I have a hard time believing that Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Clint Dempsey are getting the same level of training and competition at the MLS level as they were in Europe. I’m sorry, but to watch Michael Bradley’s quality continue to drop off since he made his move to Toronto FC is disheartening. This was a guy who was, at one point, starting for Roma, but on Tuesday night he looked like he should have been playing for Christos. He’s jogging around the pitch, cant make a tackle, and his overall pace of play was just slow and lethargic.

Another issue I have with MLS is the fact that they continue to expand and accept new MLS teams, collecting the $200 million franchise fee and continuing to head down the same path which saw the NASL become diluted and, as a result, lead to its failure as a league. They refuse to accept a second division, yet continue adding teams to the league.

There are currently 22 MLS teams, with Don Garber announcing additional franchises being added over the years.

There are 20 EPL teams, 20 La Liga teams, 18 Bundesliga teams and 20 Serie A teams. So when the MLS gets up to 26 teams, a new league which doesn’t even come close to the quality of any of the other 4 leagues that I mentioned, we’re not going to see a diluted level of competition?

MLS needs to seriously consider how the quick $200 million franchise fee is a short-term answer, with promotion/relegation being the long-term answer to improving the quality of our domestic league. A second tier under MLS will give younger guys a chance to turn pro at an earlier age, and advance their careers. Currently, if a kid is 16 or 17, they might be scouted by their local MLS club if they’re playing USSDA, but even then they typical roadmap is the kid will go to college, play for a few seasons, get drafted by MLS, and maybe play in his first season if he’s quality. By then the player is 20-22, versus in Europe when clubs develop their youth players and introduce them to first-team professional action at a lot younger age.

We need more kids who want to go pro at younger ages, and we need to get them professional experience as soon as possible. If we continue to introduce players to the professional ranks at 20+ we will continue to be years behind.

This means that MLS needs to work together with US Soccer and USL/NASL to develop second and third divisions, and eventually introduce promotion/relegation. As we add more clubs to the second and third divisions, these are also new youth academies which can help to develop local talent, and younger guys can get a chance to play professionally at 17 or 18 versus 21 or 22.

Youth Development

When I talked to John Doolan from Everton and Genk u16 coach Peter Reynders this past summer about youth development, the idea of the kids in their academies having to pay money made both of them laugh. If you’re a decent youth player in England, you might have 4 or 5 clubs trying to sign you. Here, you might be recognized by a local MLS or USSDA club, but the gap between MLS USSDA clubs and those outside of MLS is still a pretty big one.

Each USSDA club are on their own, financially. US Soccer and MLS need to figure out how to fix this problem. The fact that kids and parents are still paying for Academy soccer should tell you how far behind we are, when you look at the training facilities that top English, German, Belgian, and other European clubs have available for their youth players. We still have USSDA clubs playing home games at local state parks, having to nickel and dime parents to cover field rental fees and to cover travel expenses. The fact that youth soccer is still all about the money should tell you all that you need to know. Imagine Sir Alex going to Paul Pogba’s mom with “hey, um, you were late paying Paul’s club dues last month, the credit card didn’t go through”.

Wake-Up Call

Ring ring. We’re not as good as we thought we were, and still have a long way to go.