There is an immense amount of criticism that has been levied towards the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The criticism has come at the advent of back-to-back losses versus Mexico and Costa Rica. For those of you who have decided to pile on to Klinsmann, your arguments are misguided and I will enlighten you as I place you On Notice!
As a Seattle Sounder fan, I am used to seeing players such as Brad Evans, Clint Dempsey, Deandre Yedlin play for the Stars and Stripes. I am proud of our boys and realize exactly what the USMNT comprises and like Klinsmann, I understand where he wants to take this team. But to paraphrase the Bard, the fault lay not within Klinsmann my dear friends, it lay within the American system. American players are not good enough, and that is the problem with the current makeup of the team as well as the development system.
US Soccer is not good enough
From day one, Klinsmann has proselytized the need to get better personnel.
That is very difficult for any American to hear; but it is true. Klinsmann is not being a jerk by saying so, and I am not being unpatriotic by stating it. The FIFA world rankings list the USMNT as #29 in the world. If we extrapolated that to College Football, the USMNT would be a Mississippi State or Memphis State. These are nice teams, but they aren’t going to win the National Championship with their level of talent, they are just happy to go to a bowl game.
And that is what the USMNT is, it is a nice team, but not an Argentina or a Germany. The USMNT will be happy going to the World Cup, but have no real chance of winning it.
Why is it not good enough?
There are 3 problems.
- Soccer is an exclusionary rich kids game, in the U.S.
- The American system is set up to funnel players through college
- Americans are pushed out of Europe, forced/incentive to come to the MLS
Rich Kids game
Around the world soccer is the sport of the “every-man.” In America, soccer is the game that a lot of kids play, but only those with affluence tend to continue playing. In a study from 2013, 21.47 million kids between 6 and 17 play soccer. In that same study, we come to understand that the kids who tend to continue to play, have parents who earn more than $100,000 a year in income. For a myriad of reasons (such as cost of club sports, cost of equipment, inner city appeal of basketball), the poor and lower middle class kids tend to get left behind opting to play other sports.
Soccer in America is set up to get kids to college teams. Don’t get me wrong, I love college (my favorite 6 years was getting my 4 year degree), but soccer players who go to play in the NCAA spend 1/2 of their time studying in class. In Europe, the best players go to an academy sponsored by their team when they are teenagers. They don’t just learn soccer, they are immersed in soccer. The best players learn from professionals as teens and get tutored to earn their high school diploma. This is similar to Major League Baseball, where generally the best players go to the minor leagues rather than college.
The point that is most relevant to the Klinsmann discussion is that Americans have been forced to the MLS. Big contracts were given to the likes of Clint Dempsey, Micheal Bradley, and Landon Donovan to come play in the MLS. The MLS offers exceptions to the contract that these US players can get, and they tend to pay much better than the Euro League counterparts. Unfortunately, the star US players lose their edge by not playing against the best on a constant basis.
Younger Americans, such as Deandre Yedlin, get lost in the shuffle in Europe. Yedlin who was a star attacking right back in the MLS with Seattle Sounders FC, is a reserve midfielder in Tottenham. Many MLS players faced with less playing time prefer to come back to the MLS to make starter money and a name for themselves. Klinsmann would prefer that these players stay in Europe– the opportunity to practice against the best in the world is key in developing players–Klinsmann is not wrong.
The loss to Mexico
Why did the USMNT lose to Mexico? If we can agree that in its current state the MLS is at a lesser level than the Euro leagues, it becomes apparent. Here’s the breakdown of where each starting 11 plays at club level:
MLS: 8, Premier League: 2, Bundesliga: 1
Liga MX: 3, Portuguese Primeira Liga: 2, Dutch Eridivisie: 2, La Liga: 1, Serie A: 1, Bundesliga: 1, Premier League: 1.
The fact of the matter is that the MLS players just plain aren’t up to snuff with what Mexico has. The MLS has not stepped up either. Looking at the following spreadsheet we see that the MLS pays big bucks for over the hill Euro players and a precious select few Americans. Honestly, each year the MLS ranks swell with has-been international, second tier internationals and never-were Americans. And Klinsmann is deciding, that he wants the Americans playing at the highest level, not the mediocre players at the MLS level.
Klinsmann wants American players to play at the higher levels–Euro leagues rather than MLS. This is in direct conflict with the US Soccer fans who would like to prioritize the MLS, to make it to the level of the Euro leagues. The fact of the matter is that it would be 20-30 year project to get it to the level of some of the Euro Leagues. In the meantime, there are young players who need less time playing in the “minor leagues” that is the MLS and more playing under the limelight of the big time Euro leagues.
What the USMNT needs
What the USMNT needs are more of the Deandre Yedlins. The young American, up and comers who make the leap to the Euro ranks. The problem is those are few and far between. Some programs luckily subsidize their costs for all players, but when you see MLS teams who are still charging thousands of dollars for players to join their academy or pre-academy, you have to wonder who we’re disenfranchising with this type of gentrified system. The youth ranks of soccer in America skews to the upper middle class and letting many athletes slip through the cracks to basketball and football.
The entire system needs to be fixed, not Klinsmann. He is telling us where, when, how, and what needs to be done. But many of you want instant joy from the broken toy. If you don’t listen to Klinsmann, then listen to me, we need to fix the system, not the man.