June 15, 2006
In light of the massive disappointment versus the Czech Republic on Monday afternoon some people are pointing fingers, some people are starting to give soccer in the US it's last rites, and other's are wondering if the US will ever be a power in world soccer.
Personally, I believe that looking at the US Men's Senior National Team and saying how they go will determine how soccer in this country goes is taking a pretty backwards approach to things. I believe that how the US Men's National Team does is more a result of how soccer in the US is doing as opposed to a driving factor on where soccer in this country is headed.
I believe that how MLS, and to a lesser extent the USL, does is a much more important factor in predicting where the game is headed in the US. As an example, the US Women's Team has taken a big hit not only due to the loss of a huge core of players with the retirements of the Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, and the rest of the heart of the golden generation in US Women's Soccer, but the loss of the WUSA was just as big.
With the WUSA, the US Women's National Team had a huge leg up on other countries because it allowed the pool of players from which US Soccer could pull talent to grow much larger than it can in countries with lesser, or no, pro leagues for women. Since the retirements of Hamm and company and the death of the WUSA came at pretty much the same time, it is hard to tell which had a bigger effect on the US Women's National Team.
But, one thing is for sure. With WUSA not around to help speed the development of the next "Golden Generation", it will make the task of replacing the original Golden Generation all that much more difficult.
And that gets us back to MLS as the key indicator for long term success of soccer in the US. The US National Team made an unprecedented run to the Quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup. And outside of a spike in coverage during and immediately after the 2002 World Cup, I really didn't see any long term positive effects that that run had on soccer in the US.
On the other hand, I have seen the positive effects that MLS has had on soccer in general and the US Men's National Team in particular. The player pools that Bruce Arena has had to choose from in 2002 and this time around have been the largest pools ever that a US manager has had. And the number one factor in that growth of the US player pool is MLS. MLS gives more and more players the chance to develop their game and get to an international level. Even players that are based in Europe now, like DeMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, and most notably Tim Howard, have roots in MLS.
The development that MLS has provided American players has also raised the respect level worldwide so that it is easier for players to get chances with European clubs. US defender Oguchi Onyewu was able to go from Clemson University to Standard de Liege in Belgium. College underclassmen from the US just didn't jump to European club teams before MLS was around.
So where do we go from here?
MLS needs to continue to grow both in financial strength so that it is viable on it's own for the long term, as well as with regards to the quality of play. MLS has been making strong growth financially in large part to the construction of stadiums that team owners control or own. The latest news on this front is not only the opening of Toyota Park in Chicago, but that the New England Revolution are looking into building a stadium of their own so that they can move out of Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.
New stadiums are also coming to the USL. Charleston has thrived playing in Blackbaud Stadium. Virginia Beach has a nice venue, although the team has had issues drawing fans. In the last week two new USL 1st Division stadiums have opened with the Atlanta Silverbacks opening up the initial 3000 seat phase of RE/MAX Greater Atlanta Stadium and PAETEC Park here in Rochester. The 2007 USL 1st Division expansion team in Cary, NC will play at SAS Soccer Park. And there are stadiums in the works in Montreal, Vancouver, and the Seattle Sounders are looking into a move out of Qwest Field and into a smaller, suburban stadium.
These developments are huge on a couple of fronts. First and foremost is the financial stability that comes from playing in a venue that the team controls the revenues, as well as the expenses. Also, most MLS teams are moving out of stadiums that are too large and costly and into stadiums that are more in line with the crowd sizes that they see on a regular basis. And that smaller scale leads to the second positive development and that is a better atmosphere and crowd experience. Anyone who went to Rhino games at Frontier Field and compare that to going to Saturday's match at PAETEC Park versus Portland will see what a huge difference that makes in the viewing experience. And the Rhinos aren't even making a move similar to the one that the Chicago Fire have made from Soldier Field to Toyota Park. Getting out of these oversized for soccer NFL stadiums and into 20,000 seat soccer stadiums will be huge for the fan experience. And that will in turn help solidify MLS and US Soccer for the long term.
US Soccer has grown by leaps and bounds with regards to player development over the past couple of decades. But, there is still a long way to go. One major hurdle that soccer has to overcome is the fact that unlike most countries in the world, soccer isn't the number one sport here in the US. While players like Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi dream of playing for their national soccer teams growing up, athletes like Michael Vick and LeBron James don't dream of World Cup glory while they are growing up here in the US.
That is one area that MLS and the USL could and should look to do better into the future. Developing soccer academies that draw even more kids into player development pool should be a long term goal for every MLS and USL 1st Division team. Some teams, like the Chicago Fire, New York Red Bulls, and DC United already have a solid youth development program in place. And some USL teams, like the Minnesota Thunder and the Richmond Kickers have been taking youth development seriously for some time. Here in Rochester, the Rhinos have even talked about developing a youth academy.
This will be a key in getting the elite level youth players the best possible coaching and exposing as many kids as possible to high level competition. That in turn will make the potential player pools for MLS, the USL, and eventually the US National Teams larger.
Another area that player development in the US could improve is tapping into the underdeveloped area of getting kids from low income families into soccer. Around the world soccer is the main sport for poorer people. It is the game for the working class and the lower class. There are all sorts of stories of soccer stars kicking around a makeshift ball on a dirt field in bare feet.
In the US, basketball and football have become the sports of choice for low income kids. Part of that is due to access to quality soccer facilities and coaching. Along with the fact that it has become cost prohibitive for lower income kids to get into elite level feeder program such as the Olympic Development Program.
Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson are two examples of players on the US Men's National Team that came from lower income backgrounds and through some good fortune and major sacrifices by family and friends, were able to rise up through the ranks. Unfortunately, they are the exception as opposed to the rule. And it would be in the best interests of everyone involved with US Soccer if they could come up with a way to reduce a lot of the costs associated with kids that have skills being able to get the most out of their abilities.
The next bottleneck with regards to player development in the US is the NCAA. Someone either needs to get the NCAA on board with changing their rules and regulations when it comes to soccer or they need to come up with a new system that cuts the NCAA out of the equation.
I wouldn't mind it at all if pro teams worked with universities in their area to allow players that want to get an education and maximize their soccer abilities to do both at the same time. With the majority of the pro soccer season being during the down time in most universities' schedules, it shouldn't be too hard to get a schedule worked out that allowed a player the ability to play professional soccer and work towards getting a college degree at the same time. All it would take would be a lot of hard work by the player and some flexibility on the part of the team and the university.
This World Cup will not be the death of US Soccer
Regardless of how the rest of the World Cup goes, US Soccer is in pretty good health. It is certainly the healthiest it's ever been in my lifetime. And it's pointing in the right direction as well.
It will be disappointing if the US fails to advance out of a tough group in Germany. And it would be a great achievement if they are able to advance to the knockout stage of the tournament.
But, the battles in places like Kansas City, San Jose, Salt Lake City, and Houston to get soccer stadiums built for MLS teams will go a lot farther in improving the future of US Soccer than what Bruce Arena and his team are doing across the pond in Germany.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Rochester Rhinos or SoccerSam.com. Feel free to send any comments or complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org. James promises to read (but not to respond) to all of them.