April 6, 2021
After a defeat to Honduras (2-1) in Mexico for 2020 Olympic qualifying this past March, the Under-23 U.S. men's soccer team failed for the third time in as many attempts over 12 years to gain qualification for the games. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on U.S. Soccer. The problem may not be the players anymore. Failure rests at the feet of how the U.S. Soccer runs its men's program. To do nothing now is to ignore the rot at the top of American soccer's hierarchy, beginning and ending at the door of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF).
For the last three Olympic qualifying campaigns, the United States Under-23 team failed to qualify for the Olympic Games, including the upcoming games in Japan this year. It is the same old story. The primary problem, in my opinion, is that the USSF does not have any idea how to seek out talent and maximize their skills to win international tournaments, on any level, for that matter (youth teams or the senior men's team).
The federation is essentially a non-profit that is designed to promote the sport of soccer through its national teams, specifically the men's and women's senior teams. The women's national team is the best in the world and consistently wins against overmatched and underfunded opponents. This is due to the fact that U.S. women have more rights and resources than women in other countries, so they are able to pursue their dreams.
The soccer federation's imprint on the men's program, on the other hand, lags behind Mexico, Latin America, and Europe in terms of developing talent and utilizing them for the senior national team. The Under-23 teams are part of this evolution. That process is damaged and stunted when the men's Under-23 teams are not able to test themselves against their peers from around the world on a regular basis in international tournaments.
If the U.S Under-23s cannot win decisively against teams in their regions with smaller budgets and fewer resources (for example, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Dominican Republic), how can one expect them to beat exceptional teams from Mexico, Italy, Germany, Holland, and Brazil at the World Cup? The program for that age group seems to be regressing, rather than progressing.
How does this failed method change? The problem lies with the federation. In other organizations, if there is failure to achieve stated goals or generate profit, the chief executive is held to account, and reform happens within the department itself, including how they operate and termination may ensue. However, the USSF has not made any effort to alter the way it functions. It answers to no outside organization, but simply reports its expenditures to its own Board, most of whom have no soccer experience. The organization functions similarly to the Vatican, in that critics and reformers are powerless to make the change they want to see from the outside. This explains the frustration of men's soccer fans who desperately want visionary leaders who can help the men's program improve its history and find success in the future.
Drastic measures or necessary reforms are extremely hard for an organization that is under no pressure to change by sponsors to do so, and also doesn't fear any repercussions for its on-field failures. I believe these steps can bring about more accountability and better results:
- If a coach has been chosen to whatever men's best team (First Team, Under 23s), his or her sole job should be to qualify for a specific tournament (World Cup, Olympics, Junior World Cups), and if the team does not qualify, then the day after, the coach must resign; no point in keeping an unsuccessful coach around if he or she didn't do what they were hired to do. If they qualify, they should get a bonus (if they don't already stipulate in their contracts) and must leave their position before qualification for another international tournament begins. This will allow for new coaches to get a head start in selecting talent, and forming their teams, and playing cohesively together ahead of important competitions. Exceptions with their contracts can be made when they are successful, as in the example of Joachim Low of Germany, who has coached the senior team for 15 years and has World Cup and European titles to his tenure.
- Hire people who have a track record of winning and building talent in the soccer world, even if those people come from outside the American soccer community. The sport in the United States is run like a provincial village in Europe, in that everyone knows each other, and having the right connections gives you jobs over better-qualified outsiders. Merit must count. This is paramount in how the USSF should function for better competitiveness.
- The influence of MLS (Major League Soccer) over coach and player selection for the national teams needs to be reduced. The reason for this is that the league is motivated to have a large number of their league's academy players and stars playing on the national teams and if successful, infer that is due to the MLS talent pool While I can understand the league's motivations, it supersedes picking players who are the best at their positions, regardless of where they play, especially if they are in the best leagues in Europe. The national team players don't necessarily need to come from MLS, and the league's influence on this process must be removed.
- Outside of the Board, there needs to be a group of people that can provide their own assessments of the men's teams within the USSF and determine what steps must be needed to reform the organization's methods to choosing coaches and how they in turn select players. This should include fans of the national teams and of MLS. They can meet with the Board and the USSF's leadership on a quarterly basis to provide an outside opinion and inform the organization of how its decisions affect the soccer community as a whole (which can provide insights into interest for tickets, merchandise, and sponsorships).
These ideas may not be the best, but it starts a needed conversation. Someone has to start presenting suggestions to improve the performance of the Mens' teams with the USSF. If the U.S. men do not qualify for the FIFA World Cup in 2022 in Qatar, then the federation's operations will have to be exposed. Change ideally must come from those who work inside, and I believe the newly elected officers and the staff they hire must provide a better blueprint to create a new, proactive, and most importantly, a successful culture within the USSF. Otherwise, not making drastic choices in how it achieves operational goals, but expecting better results on the field in the future is madness.