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.

 

How A Bethesda Academy Player Being Deported Can Make us Better

(Note: This is an Op-Ed piece. The views expressed in this article are my views and beliefs only. I plan on bringing up the sensitive topic of race in soccer, and would not feel right expressing my views and opinions without sharing my past experiences. I am not writing this to promote a political agenda.)

Bethesda U18 players come out to support their teammate. Credit: Rachel Chason/The Washington Post

Bethesda U18 players come out to support their teammate. Credit: Rachel Chason/The Washington Post

 

Back in January, when current president Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United State of America, thousands (and in DC, millions) protested against his victory in the 2016 Presidential Elections, for a number of different reasons. This isn’t going to be a history or sociology lesson, it was just earlier this year and you already know about everything that happened by now. Our country has been divided based on political party affiliations, with the subject of race being the elephant/donkey in the room.

Part of Trump’s political agenda during his campaign was to enforce the deportation of illegal immigrants, primarily those with criminal backgrounds who he and his supporters believe are a danger to our country.

On Monday, news started making its way around Twitter that Lizandro Claros, who this past season played for Bethesda’s u18 USSDA squad, and his older brother Carlos were detained by ICE following a routine check-in with immigration officials and were scheduled to be deported back to their home country of El Salvador.

Lizandro, listed as a defender on the team’s website, has been with Bethesda since 2015-16, making 24 appearances in 2015-16 and 21 appearances this past season. In other words, he has been a pretty integral part of a squad which managed to make the USSDA playoffs this past season.

Lizandro and his brother were deported back to El Salvador on Wednesday, despite numerous rallies and media reports making the argument that the young man deserved to stay in the country and fulfill his dream of playing college soccer at Louisburg College in North Carolina. Lizandro does not have a criminal record.

I coached as a volunteer in the Development Academy for 2 seasons, and it’s a LOT of work. 4 training sessions every week, travelling out of state every other weekend for away matches, etc. Competing in US Soccer Development Academy, while also fulfilling responsibilities as a student athlete, is something that Lizandro obviously worked very hard at in order to achieve his dream of playing college soccer, a dream which will apparently not become a reality after all.

DMV Soccer: The D is for Diversity

I’m a big goofy white guy who can’t dance or dunk, despite being 6’2″… seriously, as white as they come. I grew up playing youth soccer in PG County, in an era where simply finding a local soccer team to play for was difficult. There weren’t 2 or 3 travel clubs in every county in those days. You couldn’t watch EPL matches on television, big clubs didn’t come here for their Summer Tours, and 90% of Americans at this time probably thought soccer was the most boring sport ever played.

In PG County during the 90’s, my options were basically to play for a local rec team like Fort Washington or Waldorf, or if your parents had time and money (they did not), they could drive you all the way to Bethesda or Columbia. I was lucky enough to grow up playing soccer in a racially diverse area, where I was able to learn more about other cultures and get others’ perspectives on life.

Fact: DC, Maryland, and Virginia are among the most diverse states in the country. According to a recent report, Maryland is the 5th most diverse state in the country, with Virginia coming in at 14. Montgomery County is home to some of the most diverse cities in the country, along with Washington, DC.

Fact: Soccer is referred to as the World’s Game because of the cultural diversity that comes along with playing or watching the sport.

That being said, playing soccer in the DMV allows kids and coaches to interact with teammates and parents from diverse backgrounds that they may not have otherwise interacted with in normal day-to-day life.

THIS IS WHAT MAKES PLAYING SOCCER (IN THE DMV) SO GREAT.

One quick personal story. My younger brother and I grew up playing with/against 2 brothers from Honduras, Danny and Hector Funez. Anybody familiar with PG County Soccer in those days knows how good of a player Danny Funez was. Dude could play, which is all I cared about when it came to race, and he was the same way. “Game recognizes game”, no matter where you’re from or what color your skin is.

Fast forward to 2013, my brother and I were at the USA vs El Salvador Gold Cup Quarterfinal match at M&T Stadium. USA won the game 5-1, but the main story was the fact that the majority of those in attendance were not USA supporters. I guess I should have done a better job researching where we’d be sitting when I bought tickets, because we were practically the only USA fans in our entire section.

usa honduras

Around halftime, I looked down to a lower section of seats, and for the first time in probably 10 years I saw Danny and Hector sitting with a large section of Honduras fans who were coming to watch the second match, Honduras vs Costa Rica. My brother and I went down to say hello, and they both embraced us like no time was lost at all.

Later in the second half, when the US scored, someone in the section above us threw (what smelled like) an open beer towards the group of El Salvador fans below us. A few of them looked up at my brother and I saying we threw it (we didn’t, we weren’t that stupid). I think El Salvador was out of the game by this point, and it was obvious that these guys were a few beers deep and wanted to start some problems….which was unfortunate for us, there were a LOT of them and only 4 of us (my brother and I, his wife, and my female friend).

Things started getting a little tense. I glanced down to where Danny and Hector were sitting, and they must have seen some of the El Salvador fans turning and pointing to us because they already had their group of friends standing up, ready to come give us some back-up.

Danny looked at me and said “you guys good?”. I gave him a shrug like “yeah, we’re cool” trying to diffuse the situation. Luckily things calmed down, and we got out of there once the final whistle blew, but the fact that Danny and Hector would round up a group of a group of guys from Honduras who didn’t really know us, and were ready to help out these two white guys who their friend hasn’t seen in 10 years… it’s something that I still think about. Danny didn’t have a ton of white friends growing up, and I didn’t have a ton of Honduran friends. We grew up with completely different backgrounds. But we grew up playing together, respected each other, and still to this day have each other’s backs.

I still think about this, and if I didn’t grow up playing soccer in the DMV, I would never have been lucky enough to have met such a diverse group of people in my lifetime.

Using Soccer as an Outlet

Playing soccer is more than just a sport sometimes. It’s a way for young people to express themselves, and escape certain real-life dilemmas that can take a mental and emotional toll. During a difficult time for our country… reports of a potential war on the horizon, and with racial tension at seemingly an all-time high, it’s extremely important, in my opinion, for youth players to have access to a productive outlet like playing soccer without outside issues contaminating their experiences.

Today’s news that Lizandro has been deported, after working so hard to become a college soccer player next season, catapults real-life politics into the protective bubble of playing soccer, and affects more than just Hispanic families who are worried that the same thing might happen to members of their communities and families.

Hopefully people understand that Lizandro spent practically every day of these past 2 years with teammates and coaches from all different backgrounds, becoming more of a family member than just a teammate. I cannot imagine having to watch a teammate that I grew up playing with forced to leave the country, for a reason that many believe is unjust. And even the thought of a player that I have coached going through something like what Lizandro and his family have gone through this week…well, hopefully today’s news makes everyone appreciate their teammates and coaches just a little more.

Props to Coach Ney and the entire Bethesda Soccer Club for stepping up and speaking out on Lizandro’s behalf. Many coaches would have taken the high road and stayed away from such a politically-sensitive topic, but Bethesda coaches Matt Ney, Jonathon Colton, and Bethesda Soccer club as an organization stepped up and did everything they could to attempt to convince the authorities that Lizandro should be allowed to pursue his dream.

People Fear The Unknown

I’ve played soccer since I was 6 years old. This year will make it 30 years since I started playing, and through all of this time I have realized two things:

  1. I am very proud to have played with, and coached, people from such a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, and
  2. There are a lot of people in our country who haven’t had these same experiences.

If anything positive can come from today’s news, it’s that we can all make a better effort to understand where others are coming from. Politics may have the country divided, but playing soccer is a common bond that can carry on for longer than you realize.

We can all use today’s news to appreciate each other, treat each other with a little more respect, and not take each other for granted. Only one thing truly brings us all together, and that is the game of soccer.