Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Before Getting to Basketball, I Have to Get This Soccer Rant off My Chest

In 1990, I got my first taste of the World Cup.  I was living in Frankfurt at the time and the country literally shutdown for 4 weeks.  Our club even gave everybody little scorecards (like golf) to mark off the results as they happened.  This was still a time where we watched WEST Germany drop England in a crazy semifinal outside at the Volksfest on the 4th July, followed by fireworks.  Good times!  What was not such good times was in the weeks leading up to the tournament, when German friends and coaches would ask who I would be cheering for, to which I would reply, “USA, of course.

- insert laugh track
“Kein Mannschaft!”
“Haha, viele Gl├╝ck!”
“Sie sind sehr schlecht!”
“Oo-Ess-Ah, oder Oo-Ah-Aye?” (Yes, this was them stating that the United Arab Emirates was a more viable team.)

It took a family friend to explain that the US had no chance to win a game, let alone advance, because NONE of their players played professionally in a major league, and that the team that that they had qualified with had less professional and International experience than many second and third division clubs, let alone the big teams like Eintracht.  This was almost completely true- Paul Caliguiri was playing for Meppen in the Bundesliga 2, but the other 20-some guys were all college or semi-pro players under 27.  In retrospect, the group was also an impossibly bad draw, as the cup was in Italy, and the other 3 teams in the group were Italy, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, all of whom were within a day’s drive of the venues.  US got predictably blown out by a loaded Czechoslovakian team and fell behind early against Italy and Austria.  This was considered an overachievement, as the 2 scored goals shocked most experts.  The silver lining was that the team was young and was going to improve.  

Most people remember the fireworks in 1994 (Wynalda’s free kick against Switzerland, Escobar, Leonardo rearranging Tab Ramos’ to give the US a glimmer of hope before Romario and Bebeto  stomped it out) and the peaks and valleys that have followed. But even when things were the worst (losing to fucking Iran, getting stomped by CZ again), the American soccer product appeared to be trending upward.  However, the last 12 months have revealed that US Soccer, as it is currently configured, is too inept and corrupt to execute a plan to bring it level with European and South American counterparts (and let’s be honest, Asian nations have closed the gap considerably).  For several years, Bruce Arena worked magic with a diverse group of players, as did Bob Bradley.  But both those guys were hamstrung by a federation was only concerned with quality of product when it resulted in bad publicity (crashing out of tournaments).  The primary focus is always money, typically from sponsors.

After the second Ghana loss, the focus was less on “how do we sustain this Top 10 status so we can break through?”, but more on “how do we capitalize on the momentum of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore?”  That 2010 team had warts, but it had a young core (I cringe when I think about what could have been if Stuart Holden’s ACLs weren’t made of balsa) that was playing in all the leagues, from Mexico across Europe.  But the rub was that four of those players were active in MLS, and only Donovan was a bar-hold name, let alone a household name.  After rushing to chase off Bob Bradley after a flat, but nearly victorious 2011 Gold Cup (like seriously, they really expected a win with a back line of Goodson, Bernstein, and Lichaj? lol), there weren’t many better options out there.

Klinsmann’s hire was inspired, but ultimately flawed. Klinsmann is a true German treasure, right up to the cold, direct personality that expects no compliments and delivers succinct truths. Softer players that had grown up in a “participation trophy” environment were quickly replaced with younger, faster players that understood that it wasn’t that the coach’s word was the law- far from it- it’s that it was fact.  Playing abroad was better preparation for International competition than playing at home in the MLS.  However, one by one, those faces of the USMNT, Dempsey, Bradley, Beasley, Donovan, etc, all took favorable contracts to play in the MLS.  And when they showed up for final preparations for the 2014 World Cup, because their club season had just started, the MLS players looked horribly out of shape.  It did not help that US drew the Group of Death with Germany (best team in world), Portugal (top 5 team, plus arguably best player), and long-time nemesis Ghana. To even advance from that group was going to be a challenge, let alone with a squad out of synch and out of shape.  Yet somehow, they almost found their way through to the quarterfinals (drawing another top 10 team in Belgium).

Yes, Klinsmann went pretty far to bring in dual citizen players, but it wasn’t about talent.  It was purely about culture and the difference between competing professionally for your club and competitively for your country.  I remember years ago American basketball players turning down International gigs because, “Pay to play.” Fine, whatever. That really wasn’t this issue here, but US basketball had a much deeper pool from which to draw 12 players.  Klinsmann wanted to greatly increase his pool, both width and depth.  The fact that scrubs like Chris Wondolowski continue to get looks is baffling, which is why he made strong pushes for guys with much higher upside like Julian Green and Aron Johannsson.  And you know Johannsson has got to be kicking himself.  Iceland has been one of the most compelling stories the past two years, and, yes, with a pool of 332,000 (as opposed to 332,000,000) they qualified.  Klinsmann’s grass roots strategy was working from a talent development standpoint, but he did a terrible job managing the personalities and tactics on the field.  His hire should have been seen as a 2-3 cycle process, but the first major struggle and he was gone too.

The Iceland comparison really doesn’t do it justice.  One-thousand times the pool, one-thousand times the resources.  One tenth the production on the field.  Bruce Arena proved this isn’t an X’s and O’s problem.  This is a marketing and advertising problem that limits are pool to the players that are being seen as being able to return investment, not broadening or deepening (is that a word?) the pool to have the most tools available to win at any time on any soil. I am not kidding, but had Pulisic had not burst on the scene last summer, he probably would have been buried on the bench or not on the roster at all due to the coaching change despite being far and away the most talented player right now.  

US Soccer needs to get its shady corrupt head out of its ass and embrace what makes sports around the globe tick. First, the club structure, each being private entities COMPETING for the right to play in league and cup event, puts the power and impetus on the club itself to build a credible team and marketing strategy to raise money.  The owners and investors CHOOSE how they will go about it and spend accordingly.  For instance, MLS is spending a shade under $215M on player salaries this year. Seems reasonable in a vacuum, right.  But now consider that Paris St. Germain just dropped over $260M just for the right to pay Neymar even more (yes, one player) money, and will likely invest over a billion dollars for the roster they roll out in the 2018-19 season. It’s like that “orders of magnitude” thing again… the best opportunities for American players continues to be overseas, period. Basically, the American “system” encourages players to play for free in high school and NCAA, and those amateur organizations benefit.  The best players, however, (and yeah, if you haven’t figured out by 16 that you are good enough, you aren’t, so go get that Calculus book) are capable of signing for reasonable, sustainable wage, to train with the other 0.01%.  The MLS is broken because it relies so heavily on an amateur draft full of college players that, for the most part, have already peaked because they have spent the previous 8 years beating up on other amateurs and bonging beer out of each others butt cracks while ditching Sociology 101. 

Even if I am control of DC United, I cannot go out and compete for the best talent in the world. MLS (and to a lesser extent the US government as the NFL has learned) dictates how I manage my club, how much I spend, who I can spend it on, when I train, etc.  Screw that. Do you think the Bundesliga or German government tried to control or cap Dietmar Hopp’s investments transforming Hoffenheim (which, no shitting was probably about as professional a club as our over 30 beer league team) to an annual Champions League contender.  The “franchise” model adopted by the American government is designed to control growth.  Why else would you need a draft (like, what is this, conscription?), salary cap, non-guaranteed contracts, restricted free agency, etc? The franchise model eliminates any risk an owner may have developing a competitive team, as the American government prevents competition from other leagues and bars other teams from entering the system.  And because of that, there really is no incentive to get better except to sell more tickets and not be a laughing stock.  I mean seriously, have you seen the Cleveland Browns the last 20 years?  They should have relegated that smoldering bag of crap owner back to the Missouri Valley Conference years ago, where they would probably lose to North Dakota State.

There is reason to be excited about Gedion Zelalem, Matt Miazga, Weston McKennie, Cam Carter-Vickers, Josh Perez, etc, teaming up with Pulisic, Yedlin, and Nagbe.  These are players that jumped to foreign clubs in their teens (for decent money) and are already seasoned professionals.  Some of them should have been on the field in Couva last night.  The current system shuns them for taking stock in their value as a professional and moving overseas for higher levels of competition and compensation.  US Soccer does the same on the women’s side of the ball as well. These young players are enough to get get the US through CONCACAF qualifying for 2020, but we’ve been there before.  But the only way American soccer gets on par with its European and Latin counterparts is to embrace an open market in which the best talent is identified, scouted, and groomed early, and sought after by the best clubs in the world, not just the MLS.  On the flip side, American club sports tend to end after kids turn 18.  But why?  Every village across Europe that has more than 3 dairy cows or sheep has an athletic club that houses soccer of all ages.  Not all pay wages to play, but they all compete for something, at some obscure level.  American clubs would be attractive to youth if they had an adult counterpart, not just to scout or train, but to also provide a air of legitimacy. Instead, for that 332 million population, we have a few dozen legitimate clubs combing for the best players.  Talk about a needle in a haystack. But at least we got that sweet CONCACAF participation trophy.

Sie sind immer noch sehr schlecht.