by Eric Wynalda
A recent debacle at the top of the game in America caused uproar. But the same patterns are repeated through the sport in the US
The American soccer community is still reeling from the fallout between former USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter and the Reyna family. It left the men’s soccer program in an absolute shambles – without a head coach, sporting director, or general manager. The whole thing is a mess, and yet we see similar things in soccer across the US every day. It’s a product of the industry we’ve created. Parents feel entitled because they hand over big money for their child to play – they effectively pay to have an opinion.
As the men’s game in America continues to stall – the women’s game is still thriving after two successive World Cup victories – the rest of the world looks at us and wonders why we can’t figure it out. Why is US soccer still a laughing stock?
People don’t want to hear the reasons why, because they’re totally counterproductive to the industry we’ve created. But here’s the first one: There are too many kids playing soccer.
Let me rephrase that. It’s wonderful that kids are playing the beautiful game, no doubt. But there are too many parents paying thousands of dollars for their kids to play alongside truly great players. That’s not helping our best ones (and it doesn’t help the average ones, who are outclassed in every game they play). Our best players need to be playing with and against each other, not alongside a bunch of kids who effectively act as training cones.
The boutique club programs they’re meant to play in aren’t helping either. A while back, the US Soccer Federation deemphasized high school soccer in order to prioritize club soccer. That was a mistake. Our best young players now have no idea what pressure is – they play their biggest games in front of a few parents in lawn chairs rather than in a buzzing high school stadium, where pride and a sense of occasion are on the line – as are your opponent’s fans, who are yelling at you for 90 minutes.
This model of travel-ball youth soccer is often derisively called “pay to play.” But have you heard of “stay to play”? Many clubs have instituted policies requiring the entire team to stay at a certain hotel when they travel to tournaments. It tells you everything about where the priorities are.
The national team used to operate by creating districts, with trials. Out of that, they’d create a few state teams: In California, there’d be an A team and a B team from Cal South, and an A and B team from Cal North. They’d play against each other, and everyone knew who the best players were. It was funded by US Soccer and called the Olympic Development Program, commonly known as ODP. These days, our youth soccer arrangement is still ODP: but now it’s the Over-Determined Parent program. These parents’ goal is to get their child a college scholarship, and essentially a return on the tens of thousands of dollars they’ve invested in youth sports.
America’s elite youth soccer system has been problematic for a while. When the US Soccer Federation disbanded its Development Academy in 2020, one of the main criticisms about the setup came from referees: They complained that club games weren’t competitive enough! These manufactured games inevitably featured coaches telling players not to make any mistakes, and to focus solely on possession. They might as well have folded up the goals and taken them home, because nobody was taking any shots, and no one was taking any risks – or taking on an opponent. Everyone treated soccer like a giant game of hot potato.
And what did everyone say when we reached the World Cup last year? “We don’t have a forward.” Of course we don’t! We have a thousand midfielders who are good at keeping the ball, but not at dribbling or shooting.
Major League Soccer can only do so much with what it has, but it should be taking a serious look at what happened in Italy. The Azzurri have failed to qualify for the last two World Cups because they have populated their league with more foreign talent than ever. And all they’ve done is make Belgium, the Netherlands, and everybody else better. Meanwhile, who has MLS helped? The league has been a wonderful opportunity for Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other Concacaf nations to get better. How do you think Panama reached their first and only World Cup in 2018? Also, you can’t spend millions of dollars on the likes of Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard and claim to be developing players: You’re preventing an opportunity for a young player to compete so that another player can comfortably retire.
Now let’s look at how coaches are made. Here’s a good story. A couple years ago, I gave a speech on player development at the annual United Soccer Coaches Convention. Afterward, I had a beer with a professional scout from Holland who’d heard my talk about American players. “We’re very much enjoying seeing the US shoot itself in the foot every year,” he said. I asked him what he meant. He smiled, paused, then said, “Out of curiosity, why are only 10 coaches – in a country of 350 million people – allowed to get their US Soccer Pro-level coaching license every year?”
He’s spot on: If I were trying to ensure stagnation in America, I’d populate the federation with ideas that prohibit us from growing the number of coaches. Why are we implementing European-style programs suited for countries of 10 million people in a country of our size? In other words, America has a lot of players – but if you limit the number of coaches, what can they do?
This has been going on for years, and we never learn because we’re always looking to Europe for ideas. And we keep getting the same results. Every American youth player of a certain age remembers the first time they heard that English accent. Those accents over the years have changed from German to French to Dutch to Portuguese. We end up trusting experts who aren’t good enough to succeed in their own countries. Though if I were a mediocre foreign coach who couldn’t get a job back home, I’d come to America.
Why? Because there’s no pressure here. We’re married to mediocrity.