Laugh about it, shout about it / When you’ve got to choose / Every way you look at it, you lose
Lost in the whirlwind tour of South Africa and the Confederations Cup, which brought outlets from Harper’s to Deadspin to what seemed like every newspaper in the country out for a week-long soccer columning festival, was the demise of Brad Friedel’s once heralded (here at least) soccer academy in Ohio. So why does that matter?
In the last two weeks I’ve received emails asking why I didn’t write anything about the Confederations Cup or when I would. I’m still wondering, what really is there to say? Dan Loney did the best job I’ve seen of basically saying just that while pointing out the US MNT is not that good and doesn’t have any depth and doesn’t have the best coach they could. Too many of the rubberneckers came with, as Loney put it, “nonsense like winning games and getting good performances out of our players.” So where should the attention be going?
The U.S. national team is a roller coaster ride that will continue up and and down and through next year’s return to South Africa for the World Cup, and probably for years if not decades after that. There will be occasional miracles as happened against Spain, and the team will be able to carry the underdog momentum through another game or two, but when you need every player on your team to play at their best to win a trophy, you can’t expect much.
Then at the bottom of the hill when every player is not firing on all cylinders, duds will be laid out on the grass as have happened countless times, even against CONCACAF teams, who in no coincidence take their underdog status, light a fire under the pants of their players, and find a way to make the U.S. look worse than they are. Then the U.S. will go out crush a small island nation most Americans couldn’t pick out on a map. Welcome to soccer, to CONCACAF soccer, to American soccer, where FIFA rankings make the BCS Selection Committee look like the smartest guys in the room. Does any one really think the US MNT is the 12th best team in the world? Does anybody think Bob Bradley is the best coach USSF could hire? Does anyone think in this giant country of ours that we have found the best sources for the best players in the land?
We didn’t answer any questions with the Confederations Cup, we simply reinforced the ones we’ve always had.
We need better talent, and we need to start developing it now.
The myriad of people quoted in Jeff Carlisle’s youth development series know the Development Academy won’t solve our biggest deficiencies, but those issues–geography, cost, coaching, culture–are viewed as so insurmountable, that ok, so more practice, less games, less travel. But only for boys ages 15 and over. Hey it’s a start! By that time Messi was already in Barcelona. Does anyone think that setting a high practice-to-game ratio is going to solve all of our youth development problems? Does anybody think USSF can really change their player pool without spending money to lure the best coaching talent, without serious inroads made by MLS (or foreign teams), without incorporating the youngest players?
Don’t hold your breath on youth development or US MNT success. Oh sure a victory will pop up here and there like Greece winning the 2004 European championship or Al Gore educating the world with his inconvenient truths, but as with climate and energy politics, it seems no one is willing to step up and make the necessary changes to affect American soccer, and some just accept that the nation never will. You want to talk about the Confederations Cup, about who’s stock has risen thanks to the Gold Cup? Then you need to start talking about youth development. Lack of depth and the inability to adjust are not just problems on the field.
While all of the changes USSF has made are movements in the right direction, and they should be applauded for taking a step towards nationwide involvement, the country as a soccer nation has to at some point go beyond baby steps. Talking about the problem is acceptable for only so long without real action. Besides scheduling, USSF really has no control over independent club teams in the Development Academy. They make the club selections from applications, lay out a few ground rules, and hope for the best. Maybe down the road MLS or foreign clubs can pick up significant slack, but for now American clubs and coaches need to win games in order to attract new players from the growing competition for players between clubs. That is how they support themselves. It’s not necessarily greedy or selfish to need to make a living from what you do, and in a capitalistic society, it is indeed the rule. So what coach is going to want their best player to move on or graduate to a new team that may be better for that player but hurts the team losing him? That’s not just me wondering that, more than a few youth coaches that I have spoken with since the onset of the Development Academy have used the exact argument to question its worth. So everybody shakes hands, nods heads, and continues on doing their own thing. There is too much positive work going on inside USSF and outside it for this not to be taken to the next level, a level that the greater American public will finally gravitate too.
Which brings us to Brad Friedel. His Premier Soccer Academy, which started as a bold, expensive (in order to be free) example for youth development outside the system, is now all but dead. Friedel told the Morning Journal that they will be back after regrouping this summer, but the website is down, a bank is suing them, and the once quick-to-respond CEO, Craig Umland, has yet to return a queries from TIAS.
Umland told the Chronicle Telegraph that “the academy was suffering from cutbacks in corporate sponsorship due to the poor economy. He said many companies preferred to hold onto an employee versus putting money into sponsoring students at the academy. Umland said the academy would ’strip down to the core’ this summer and would attempt to offer its residential soccer program for a fee beginning in the fall. He said it would require a yearly fee of some $37,500 and a minimum of 15 or so participants.”
So much for that bright light–killed before it even had a chance. USSF says over and over that cutting the pay-to-play costs is paramount to improving youth development, but no one seems willing or able to write the checks. Inner cities are often cited as overlooked sources for talent held at arms length due to economics. But then one of the country’s best soccer writers while writing about USSF’s efforts says things like, “In Brazil and Argentina, some players emerge from crushing poverty, meaning issues like a player’s nutrition and their education ultimately become the responsibility of the club. Those factors aren’t issues in this country.” Tell that to countless NBA, NFL, MLB, and music stars that saw sport and entertainment their only avenue of escape. They were shooting hoops in the inner city, fielding grounders in the American dust bowl, rapping on street corners, strumming guitars on porches… and kicking a soccer ball in a trailer park in Nacogdoches. Saying poverty is not an issue for youth soccer development in this country is simply cutting out an entire segment full of athletic talent. What Carlisle should have said is given where USSF, youth clubs, and colleges are looking for players, those issues aren’t a problem. For American soccer to reach the next level, those need to be our problems. Again, we’ve heard voices say these things for as long as we’ve seen temporary jumps in national attention for soccer. So far, they all end up being empty gasps.
Give it time, they say; but how long? The story of the sport on the youth level has not changed since my childhood, beginning more than 25 years ago. MLS teams are starting to get into youth development, but without large TV contracts, ticket sales, team swag bonanzas (i.e the funds to do this right), the effect is the same as USSF’s Development Academy, which is to say very little. Sure MLS teams offer scholarships to players (as does USSF and various sponsors in certain situations)–again a nice start, but no one I have spoken with thinks the Red Bulls, for just one example, is stocked with the best youth players in their region. On the dirty fields of the Bronx, on the turf fields of FC Harlem, and walking the halls of Martin Luther King high school, there are (I believe because I’ve seen them) 11 kids who with little to no instruction could beat a Red Bulls’ Academy team. A few of my 11 might even be one of the several players from the city that left the RBNY academy after determining that they were not getting anything out of it, especially not after hours of travel on public transportation to and from practice, which they could barely afford. See, some of these kids and many others live in crushing poverty and to incorporate them means helping them out and dealing with a host of issues like poverty, nutrition, and education. Ask Martin Jacobson, soccer coach at MLK high school, which was just named the best scholastic sports dynasty in the city, if he doesn’t deal with those issues. Soccer, he told me once, is the easy part. Mom isn’t dropping his players off in the mini van. You want them, you have to go and get them. You have to spend serious time, make serious infrastructure investments in those neighborhoods and in the people already doing good work within them.
But it is not only an economic issue. It may always come back to economy and cost, but it’s really about culture and curriculum. It’s about soccer. And that can be changed for kids living in mansions or public housing. It’s not as if every great player has risen up from the ghetto. Kaka, Robinho, Lampard, the list goes on–all middle class. It’s based in the way we are teaching the game, the way we interpret the game, the way we officiate the game, the way we structure training, the way the kids come to the sport, the way the parents come to the sport. We’re off base with all of them. I lived it, and now I see kids ten, twenty years younger than me living it. The American game has been sanitized to the point where it’s been turned into something that it really isn’t anywhere else in the world. Call it the orange slice stereotype–that is what we have to break down.
It starts with the access point. To begin real training at the time a player is eligible for a driving permit is too late. It comes down to what we are doing with kids ages 6-12. What are we doing with them on a day-to-day basis? The rest is just guys sitting in offices looking at new ways to structure things.
“Anyone who is paying close attention to what we need in this country regarding youth development should understand that the youngest kids are the most important place to make the biggest impact,” says Curt Rosenthal, Manhattan Kickers FC President and Director. “I think even kids as young as five or six, but in the U.S. it is different. Kids aren’t playing with their uncles in the street, watching soccer constantly on TV, so they need to be exposed to real soccer, not American recreational soccer, by clubs and coaches who will guide them in a professional way, indoctrinating them into the culture of soccer the right way. We need to put the kids through a process that makes them into what the rest of world innately has built into their culture. After a couple of years growing up in a club, it should become a natural evolution. They naturally see that they need to work and play all the time, and they want to–’I see all these boys juggling, so I need to juggle all the time. I have to hit the ball against the wall all the time. I need to know about Messi and Pirlo. I need to know all of this stuff’–That’s what kids need to go through. And that’s the club’s responsibility in our country, so that by the time the kids are 7 or 8, and we start the more serious training part of it, they are little soccer guys who really want to access soccer the right way, show what they can do with the ball, speak about the professional game with knowledge. Because for the next few years, from ages 9-12, that is where you make or break a good soccer player. 100 percent.”
So the question becomes, how serious do you want to be about soccer in America? Certainly there are others like Rosenthal who feel the system doesn’t work for them, and who are creating professional environments throughout the country on their own. The change must come from these coaches and their clubs (from the bottom up, as they say), but USSF must help ensure that the grassroots grow because frankly no single club or group of clubs can affect change beyond their neighborhoods, beyond their players’ parents, and many need help with that. In a perfect world it would not have to be Big Brother overseeing everything; youth development should be structured as it is in other countries, where professional clubs carry the responsibility, have their own systems and coaches implementing it, but the U.S. does not have that option, so USSF needs to be the engine for change. The Development Academy at least proves they understand this dilemma.
It comes down to thinking globally and acting locally. Rosenthal envisions a system where USSF redesigns the Development Academy to focus on the core development of players ages 6-12. Instead of taking applications for inclusion, they simply make it open to all clubs. But by signing up, you have to implement a single program design based on those from the best clubs in the world. Training sessions would be set up for a calendar, covering certain days, weeks, seasons, years, and it must be followed. Observe, grade, and share information with clubs. USSF could throw clubs a stipend for good work, for national team players produced, and supply free coaching sessions, clinics, manuals. They could hire local and regional scouts working on behalf of participating clubs. Forget scouting U18 tournaments and concentrate on working with younger players and their coaches. Practice-to-game ratios are important, but not as important as what goes on during those training sessions and games. Clubs, coaches, parents, kids, all have to respect it, follow it, or else go to a recreational team. ”It’s nothing revolutionary,” Rosenthal says of his ideas. “It’s really the only way to do it.”
By and large American kids are not and probably never will grow up playing soccer as a birthright. Immigration will continue to pull weight in the favor of soccer, making it ever more profitable, but it will never (in the lives of anyone reading this) hit the tipping point and turn a majority from hoops, pigskin, and the ole ball game. But soccer is not alone in that vice and other sports have dealt with it much better, which makes soccer’s continuing issues so frustrating. Think of gymnastics or numerous other Olympic sports for that matter. How about Tennis? No kid, even in Russia, grows up playing tennis in the street just for fun, do they? Were the Williams sisters, facing off in yet another Wimbledon final last week, born into a tennis culture in Compton, CA? Those may be more individual sports easier to get a grip on, but from an early age kids are exposed to a sport. The minute talent is found, they are shipped off and shaped up by some of the finest coaches in the land under strict supervision. That is not happening with soccer. It’s not rocket science and all of the countries USSF studied before launching the Development Academy essentially do just that whether through national federation centers or professional clubs. USSF doesn’t even need to look that far for a model. The Bradenton residency academy is planted at IMG, home to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, producer of world class tennis players. His students arrive at a very young age, much younger than soccer players arrive in town. How many world class soccer players has Bradenton created? Donovan? Maybe a few others turn out to be, but then how much of that development can be attributed to Bradenton for a kid like Jozy who has essentially been placed back into a development situation with Villarreal after a stint starting for Red Bull in MLS?
But of course someone is paying Bollettieri and other elite sporting academies and programs. Like Friedel’s PSA, lots of money is required for quality soccer development in a country where it is not ingrained in the culture. So we’re back to square one. Solving America’s soccer problem begins with finding the money, but where is it going to come from? How much money does USSF have? No one knows but them. Maybe it’s a lost cause, but what if they have the money to spend?
Marcus DiBernardo, soccer coach of Monroe College in New York, has been involved with inner city programs for 15 years and taught in the pubic school system for 12 years. “It’s hard to find a solution to the problem when we are so devoid of personality in the game at all levels,” he says. “Just take New York. We have more people here than some very successful European countries. How does Holland produce these players and New York produces very few? We need a system that works.” DiBernadro thinks the answer might be in partnering with the Board of Education to start a charter school focused on soccer. Similar schools exist for other subjects and specialized interests, and kids get an education while focusing on something they love. The other option is a true USSF academy inside the city, similar to Bradenton but focused just on the New York region. DiBernardo envisions a foreign club doing the same, reflecting the belief that every coach I come in contact with holds: New York is a soccer treasure lost in plain sight. Ignoring New York is like Brazil overlooking Sao Paulo, one coach told me. What year is this?
This discussion is not a new one. It’s been going on for decades. Ten years ago the Quieroz Report (aka Q Report, aka Project 2010) came out. It lobbied for a professional youth league. That didn’t happen, and Sunil Gulati, then MLS deputy commissioner and in charge of Project 2010, told Robert Wagman in 1998 upon the release of the report, “If I had kids with the potential of being professional soccer players, I honestly don’t know if I could recommend they not go to college.” No real surprise from Columbia University’s economics professor, but is this what you want to hear from a man now charged as President of USSF with putting together the best possible soccer team in the nation? A decade later and still no one has the answers when it comes to youth development. Like a good politician, the company line is that the problems are hard, and they are working on them. The nation desperately needs to be hearing more than that.
Progress at this level is very hard to achieve. Project 2010 is over, and it’s hard to see it as anything but a failure. It’s time for a new project and goal. In 2022 the World Cup may very likely be held in the U.S., and between now and then USSF, along with SUM, MLS, AYSO, US Soccer Foundation, etc, etc, etc… should call all hands on deck. Bring in more former national team players (from any country, but especially the U.S.) into the system. Hedge a bet on World Cup profit. Make it a fundraiser. Finally make World Cup popularity count for something beyond a temporary jump in television ratings. American soccer has been forced to be very thrifty, and all parties need to be thanked. They have had very little support and without them the sport would be worse off, but at some point this has to be about soccer. Not profits, not marketing campaigns, not college, but soccer. But that means some people will lose power, make less money. Think again about the slow cogs in Washington, DC. Like the nation and the world, American soccer has some very old and difficult questions that they need to start answering. Do we fix our problems or pass them on to the next generation? Can we fix them? Yes we can. Brad Friedel, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself / Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes