TRENDS IN YOUTH SPORTS: What’s Wrong with US Men’s Soccer?

So we’re in the middle of October and there are lots of major events happening in the world of sports including major league baseball playoffs and the upcoming World Series, the NFL and college football, and of course the start of the NBA and NHL.

But in spite of all the great goings-on in those sports, it’s hard to overlook one of the major disappointments for American sports fans this past week. And of cours, I’m talking about the US men’s soccer team not qualifying for the World Cup.

Their 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago sent shock waves throughout US Soccer.

But from a positive perspective, maybe this is just the kind of harsh wake-up call that’s needed to totally re-evaluate and re-examine how we raise our kids in soccer in this country.

After all, by not qualifying for the World Cup next year, this means that the top American soccer administrators now have a total of 5 long years to figure out what we’re doing wrong with our soccer program. After all, it’s become plainly apparent that we apparently don’t produce enough talented players out of our youth and travel programs.

I mean,  even the most die-hard soccer fans of the Trinidad and Tobago team thought they would lose to the US. Watching the game of TV, it was clear that hardly anyone showed up to watch the game against the US!

And with the solitary exception of Christian Pulisic, most of the commentary that I’ve read about the US soccer team in recent months is that it has too many older players and more importantly,  very few young rising stars like Pulisic.

When I opened the phone lines on my radio show this AM, I was besieged with calls. Lots of soccer fans and coaches with real expertise who know their game, and they shared the same concerns that I have, i.e. it seemed, by all accounts, that the men’s soccer program was making progress in recent times. But if that’s true, how could they stumble so badly in these qualifying rounds?

How come we’re not more dominant? And yes, I know that in most countries around the world, soccer is their top national sport. But that being said, Americans have been focused on soccer big-time since the 1980s. And yet we’re still trying to find our way with the men’s game.

We talk all the time on the Sports Edge and on this website about the US Soccer Federation and how they are convinced that the only way to get American soccer players to improve is for them to walk away from their HS varsity team and to play solely on a Federation team. Such a choice causes great emotional distress for kids who have to choose between playing with their HS friends on the school team or playing on a Federation team.

But is that approach actually working? I mean, Pulisic is a star…but who else? And remember, Pulisic opted to go play for a German team for his last year of high school.

Here’s the bottom line: How is it possible that we are the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world…and yet, we still can’t figure out how to produce top male soccer players?

Please don’t tell me it’s because soccer is new to Americans. That may have been an excuse some years ago, but it doesn’t work any more. The American men’s team has made it into the World Cup consistently since the 1980s. Or that America needs its very best athletes to play soccer instead of football and basketball. Well, that’s not going to shift because top HS basketball and football players can earn a full athletic scholarship to college whereas college soccer programs only offer partial rides.

And does just firing the coach and the people at the top make sense? Does that make for a big change? Probably not.

THE CALLERS SPEAK OUT

One or two of them offered that we need to have youth coaches do a much better job at teaching the fundamentals of the sport. As one long-time coach noted, “Our soccer parents are so focused on winning that they don’t allow their kids to learn the basic skills of the game. That doesn’t happen in Europe and South America where the skills are more important.”

Another called chimed in and said that with the current tradition of HS varsity soccer in this country, our best players get confused. Unlike in other countries where this is no HS varsity sports – just outside club teams – our kids get hung up on what’s the right pathway for their success.

And of course, with travel teams in the US, there’s a real financial burden to families. In Europe, for example, when a kid signs on for a club team, he actually gets paid a small stipend. In other words, the team picks up the kid’s expenses – not his family.

To my way of thinking, the US is going to spin its wheel in terms of developing top players until the leaders of the US program can finally figure out a way to re-design everything, from the earliest introduction of the game at the youth level with more fundamentals, to a meshing between travel teams and HS teams, and offering some sort of financial inducement to allow a talented soccer player to keep progressing without pushing his family into serious debt.