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US Soccer in Crossroads and Crosshairs

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Dan Leo takes an in-depth look at US Soccer, the problems it faces and what the future holds for soccer in America.

Soccer isn’t big in the US. It’s not a major sport. It’s not even a second tier sport. It’s below that.

The top American soccer league MLS draws the attendance numbers similar to small European nations, which makes it an insignificant presence on the American sports scene.
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fifa logo 1 US Soccer in Crossroads and Crosshairs

Generous FIFA and Elo Ratings

FIFA has the US ranked at 28, while Elo has them at 29. Both are probably tad too generous, as the US national team plays far too many matches at home and against weak CONCACAF opposition. It rarely meets a quality international squad under a duress of sanctioned competition. The last time the US sent a squad – albeit of a B/C level mls badge 1 US Soccer in Crossroads and Crosshairs- to an international event, it lost three straight games at Copa America with a 2-8 goal difference.

Major League Soccer is no great shakes either. In a recently completed Pan-Pacific tournament, the MLS champion Houston Dynamo was trounced 6:1 in the final by the Japanese Gamba Osaka club that was missing its top six Japanese players due to their national team commitment.
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eddie johnson 1 US Soccer in Crossroads and CrosshairsDemand for Yanks Abroad

The worldwide demand for the American born and MLS bred players is lukewarm at best. Marginal USNT performers like Pat Noonan (Aalesund) and Clarence Goodson (IF Start) could only find employment with the smaller Norwegian clubs. A once promising starlet Eddie Johnson was sold for relatively low (reported as $2M) fee to the relegation battling Fulham. Other players left on a free and signed with third tier European teams.

Americans already in Europe don’t fare much better. Outside of a few exemplary performances by the US goalkeepers (Blackburn’s Brad Friedel and Everton’s Tim Howard), most Americans are employed by the dregs of the Premiership – Derby County, Fulham and Reading.

Not a single American field player can be found with clubs that survived the New Year in the two major UEFA competitions – the Champions League and UEFA Cup.

And yet, the overall hopes and reams of the US soccer can be qualified as optimistic.
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World Cup 1994 Opened the Gates

world cup 1994 US Soccer in Crossroads and CrosshairsAll one has to do is to look back to the year 1990. While the soccer (aka football) world was preoccupied with Maradona vs. Romario, Völler vs. Rijkjaard and Beckenbauer vs. Beenhakker duels in its quadrennial event, the US sent a team of amateurs, college students and part-timers to Italy. The US youngsters were clearly “just happy to be there” and promptly went out after losing three games in a row.

But the big change took place between that World Cup and the one held four years later in the US. For the 1994 competition, the US Soccer Federation hired an experienced Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic. Playing not to lose but hoping to win, Bora played an exceedingly cautious football and waited to capitalize on a lucky bounce. He was aided in his strategy by a motley crew of naturalized foreigners (Fernando Clavijo, Roy Wegerle), the newly discovered Yanks-by-blood (Earnie Stewart and Tom Dooley), a sprinkling of the European based professionals (John Harkes, Eric Wynalda, Tab Ramos) us soccer flag balboa lalas US Soccer in Crossroads and Crosshairsand a few recent US college graduates (Marcelo Balboa, Tony Meola, Cobi Jones, Alexi Lalas, Mike Sorber) to form a united, if not always coherent, group.

The bounces also went Yanks’ way, especially when the late Colombian defender Andres Escobar deflected an innocent looking John Harkes’ cross into his own net for the only US victory of the Cup.

It may have been ugly but the US qualified for the knock-out round where it ended up losing to a 10-man Brazil on a late goal by Bebeto.

Ugliness or not, the US was afflicted – albeit temporarily – by soccer fever.

It went away soon, as the US performances dropped off its 1994 high and its new home league showed a remarkably poor brand of soccer that brought few to the stadiums and too few to a nearby TV screen.

world cup 2002 US Soccer in Crossroads and CrosshairsIt took eight more years for the US soccer to begin feeling good about itself.

In 2002, this time under an American born coach Bruce Arena, the US made it all the way to the Quarter-Finals. While it again needed prodigious quantities of luck – in the last group stage game, the already qualified South Korea defeated a much more talented Portuguese squad -united states world cup 2002 1 US Soccer in Crossroads and Crosshairs it also benefited from a much improved roster of pros. Brad Friedel by then was ably performing in the nets for Blackburn while Kasey Keller did likewise for Real Vallecano. Tony Sanneh, Claudio Reyna, John O’Brien, Earnie Stewart, Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter, Eddie Lewis, David Regis, Joe-Max Moore had various degrees of success along the European battlefront. Even some MLS based players (Landon Donovan, Brian McBride) had a cup of coffee in Europe and weren’t intimidated by the big stage.

Since then, Arena’s tactical shortcomings led to a poor US showing at the 2006 WC and the less can be said about Arena’s successor Bob Bradley, the better.
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Subtle Yet Positive Improvement

However, the general state of the US soccer has shown subtle improvement in many areas.

us soccer ball4 1 US Soccer in Crossroads and CrosshairsMore and more Yanks depart for Europe and establish a bridgehead for other Americans. At this point, over 20 American players are found in top ten European leagues with many youngsters recruited for the pros straight out of high school. The MLS quality, while uneven, has slowly improved over the years and allowed it to be very competitive visavis its nearest and biggest rival, Mexico. The recent infusion of foreign talent, on the pitch and on the bench alike, can only bode well for the league’s future.

2007 concacaf gold cup logo US Soccer in Crossroads and CrosshairsThe national team managed to eke out a win in the 2007 Gold Cup, and will head to South Africa in 2009 as the CONCACAF representative. The team may lack the tactical nuance of the top world nations but it’s athletic and hard working. Give it another Bora and another knock-out round World Cup appearance can’t be ruled out.

Now where does one go to find another Bora? There surely has to be one available.

P.S. Below is my list of American players based in Europe that have been either capped in the recent past or stand a good chance to get capped in the near future. Just note that any of these lists are by nature incomplete and presumptive.
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tim howard 1 US Soccer in Crossroads and CrosshairsGoalkeepers:

Tim Howard (Everton)
Kasey Keller (Fulham)
Marcus Hahnemann (Reading)

Two recent arrivals – QPR’s Matt Pickens and Valerenga’s Troy Perkins – may be candidates for the job as well. The reigning MLS GK of the Year Brad Guzan‘s transfer to Aston Villa was canceled in late January due to his inability to obtain the work permit but he looks to be headed back to Villa in the summer anyway.
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Defenders:

carlos bocanegra3 US Soccer in Crossroads and CrosshairsSteve Cherundolo (Hannover 96)
Oguchi Onyewu (Standard Liege)
Carlos Bocanegra (Fulham)
Heath Pearce (Hansa Rostock)
Jay Demerit (Watford)
Cory Gibbs (Charlton)
Jon Spector (West Ham)
Danny Califf (Aalborg)
Clarence Goodson (IF Start)
Frank Simek (Sheffield Wednesday)
Eddie Lewis (Derby County)

The great unknown here is Neven Subotic, a rising star of Mainz 05 in Germany’s second Bundesliga. The 19 year old had played for the US U-17 team but is also eligible for Bosnia and Serbia due to his birth in the former Yugoslavia.
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freddy adu US Soccer in Crossroads and CrosshairsMidfielders:

Michael Bradley (Heerenveen)
Benny Feilhaber (Derby County)
DaMarcus Beasley (Rangers)
Bobby Convey (Reading)
Sal Zizzo (Hannover 96)
Lee Nguyen (Randers)
Josh Wolff (TSV 1860)
Jeremiah White (Aarhus)
Freddy Adu (Benfica),
Clint Dempsey (Fulham)
Danny Szetela (Brescia)
Bryan Arquez (Hertha Berlin).

Eddie Lewis has also played in left midfield for the US.
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jozy altidore US Soccer in Crossroads and CrosshairsForwards:

Eddie Johnson (Fulham)
Pat Noonan (Aalesund)
Charlie Davies (Hammarby)
Nate Jaqua (Altach)

Josmer “Jozy” Altidore, the 18 year old star striker of the New York Red Bull, was rumored to be almost sold to Reading during the January transfer window but the deal hit the snag at the last moment. Jozy, as he is called in the US, will likely go in 2008 or 2009 at the latest.

It’s not difficult to see where the US is most bereft and where it’s most affluent.

Comments (12)

  1. You have mentioned that no American survived the New Year in the major European competitions, but DaMarcus Beasley plays for Rangers, who not only survived through the new year, but made it to the quarter finals. Likewise, Everton and Tim Howard just now lost in penalties to Fiorentina.

    For the most part, this is a comprehensive article. The only thing I don’t like is the negative attitude towards US Soccer, implying that improvement is slow and not permanent.

    However, after 2001, average attendances in the MLS has been constant, with slight fluctuations, including a 1,000 person increase from 2006 to 2007. With the expansion teams coming in and the quality of play improving, it will only get better.

    As for the national team, they do need to get out and play high quality European competition more often. Nobody will argue with that, but to say that the only reason we progress in World Cup competition is by luck is pure ignorance. In 2002, we beat Portugal, drew Korea (who ended up knocking Italy out), and also beat Mexico. Sure, we lost to Poland, but there were way bigger upsets in that tournament (Senegal). We lost to Germany in the quarter finals in a match where we out-possessed (58%-42%), out-shot (11-6, 6-2 on target), and generally out-played the eventual World Cup runners-up. See http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/archive/edition=4395/results/matches/match=43950058/report.html

    Also, you contradict yourself when you say that there has been no success in club soccer for players abroad, but then you mention that there are over twenty American players in the TOP European leagues. To me, that’s a hint of success.

    Improvement in American soccer is on the way, but it won’t happen overnight. The thing that most American fans lack is a fundamental amount of patience, and when the next US success comes, and they keep coming, there will be people like me to tell you that I told you so.

  2. One thing I forgot to mention: it is generally accepted that football is a more popular youth sport than basketball, pointy football, and baseball. The grassroots level has embraced the sport just as much as in any other country.

    So like I said; patience young Jedi.

  3. young Jedi? :) ever been called that Dan?

  4. I haven’t been called anything “young” for a while – a Jedi, a whipper-snapper or even a dude.

    As to me being negative, I’d respond that the US soccer in general has been a horrendous underachiever and my description of it accounts for the improvement of its quality over the last 4-6 years.

    Had this article been written back then, when the US was still struggling to beat the CONCACAF “powerhouses” – whereas now it only struggles to beat them on the U-23 level – my sentiment wouldn’t have been as nearly as kind.

    As aside note, there’s an old golfing great Bobby Jones line about Jack Nicklaus “he plays the game with which I am not familiar”.

    This line applies to the American soccer/football … except in the negative. Americans can often look as if they’ve invented a new game, not something most of us have grown up wth. There’s very little ebb&flow and skill to this “new football” but there’s certainly a lot of running involved.

    Come to think of it, the Americans might be happier with the ball removed from the pitch entirely. It’s not like your average US born MLS player can dribble it, pass it or shoot it anyway.

    PS. DaMarcus Beasley injured his knee in agame against Stuttgart in late November and has been unavailable to his club since then. So, while Rangers are still in the UEFA Cup in 2008, Beasley hadn’t been playing for them.

    And Tim Howard is a goalkeeper, which the US seem to produce in droves.

  5. You can’t possibly be serious with some of the negativity here. For a league that started just over 10 years ago, the MLS has already solidified their place as a 2nd-tier league in the United States at the worst. Attendances are nearly on par with the NHL, which like it or not is also a 2nd or even considered 1st-tier league, since it draws near the same as the NBA. Indoor arenas and league size are factors that lead to misreporting in using a full league attendance schedule. Outdoor hockey has proven that you could get many more fans to see a hockey game.

    The MLS is constantly growing, and again for just over 10 years it has made astonishing strides. The quality, as much as so many people like to deride it, is on no worse a level than a 2nd tier European league (such as the Eredivisie in Holland). If you put any club in the EPL into the UEFA Cup, they would have a fighting chance, 3/4 or so for Spain (evidence of those two is Tottenham, Bolton, and Getafe), and probably near 1/2 for Italy, Germany, and France. The MLS is nearly identical to the Eredivisie in having 2 or 3 powerhouse teams and a couple that can’t compete.

    On Houston’s results in the PPC, the equivalent comment can be made about them as was used as the “excuse” for Chelsea’s embarrassing (for whatever reason) defeat to the MLS All-Star team. This is the preseason for the MLS. When you have two sides of 2nd-tier quality and one isn’t match fit, you’re going to have goals. When that happened in All-Stars v. Chelsea, you saw just the 1 goal in it. That’s not the case when slightly less quality is out on the pitch and not in match fitness.

    You also give a shockingly poor review of Bob Bradley in 2 sentences. The more the better — get his name out there! There is no reason that he cannot be a quality National Team coach. Would they have liked a Klinsmann or someone with that type of experience, sure. But Bob Bradley is in the same mold as a Bruce Arena (MLS manager –> US Team), who did achieve a World Cup quarterfinal berth.

    Take a look at some recent performances of the full-strength US squad. Since Bradley has taken over as manager, the US has defeated 2006 World Cup participants in Ecuador, Mexico, Sweden, and the very underrated Switzerland (the last of which was played at St. Jakob Park in Basel). In addition, the team has defeated 2010 participant South Africa, Denmark, China, and drawn with Mexico, continuing an unbeaten run against the team formerly considered the far and away class of the region. Mixed in there is a hard-fought loss to Brazil in which the Yanks showed great spirit and effort against a side that featured some of the best in the business.

    Too much is made about the Copa America. The tournament was effectively (if anything negative) a disgrace to our invite by sending a B-team for match experience, which may just prove useful in the long run. Add to that terrific youth development (look at the U-20 team in the Canada World Cup — disappointing result overall, but certainly one of the best teams fielded there).

    For having only had a professional league (and still no relegation system, which I think would help quality immensely, truth be told) since the 1994 World Cup, the US has made terrific strides. Could they be making more? Probably. But England should have had the development and the quality to make Euro, and failed. Everyone has the little failures in the little battles. In the overall scheme of things, the US and the MLS are progressing nicely. Remember, British footballers can get their start in the EPL academics at 10 or 11, or if they’re not quite at that tier, hone their skills in one of the 27 LEVELS WORTH of Leagues in the country. Establish some pride competition by expanding the number of Amateur sides in the US Open Cup, discuss a relegation system with USL1/2, and keep expanding as is available and economically/logistically feasible. The US will be in great shape.

  6. Mike, I agree with everything you said, but the fact is that the promotion/relegation system cannot work with USL-1 and USL-2 because the difference in money is immense. That’s why USL A-League had to split into USL-1 and USL-2. The smaller clubs just could not compete with larger clubs because of the size of their budgets. Put a team in USL-2 up against MLS teams week-in, week-out and you would see some very lopsided scores.

  7. I am inclined to agree with you on the money, but installing a system balances that money issue a little bit. If Harrisburg suddenly has a chance to play DC United or New England game in and game out, they’re not just going to draw 500 or 1,000 anymore. Also, I don’t think you’ll see those results game in and game out, because every year (albeit I don’t think the MLS teams really care, like the League Cup in England), two or three of those USL teams beat the MLS clubs in the first round they face them.

    One advantage for them is pitch. Look at Arsene complaining about the turf at the JJB. Harrisburg and teams like that have such advantages, playing on high school and middle school grounds that aren’t anywhere near in the shape that an RFK stadium or artificial pitch might be. The real gap is the amateurs to the USL-2 and development league, because you regularly see 1 or 2 Open Cup first round ties going 10-0. If you can’t relegate/promote (even if it was just 1 team, which I think is economically feasible), at least expand the Open Cup — that generates more interest to the Amateurs who think they’ll get a shot against DC or NE or Red Bull, and it trickles down to the fans of those people like Reaganomics. It would generate some extra soccer buzz in the States, I suspect.

  8. I, for one, am tired of the “MLS is only 10 years old” excuse.

    If you go to an Italian restaraunt, would you accept the “we’ve only been around a short time” reasoning or would you care more about its food and service as a whole?

    BTW, Houston’s loss to Osaka was bad but the worst thing about it was that the J-League is itself a second tier level at best. Subsequent to that loss, Houston went to the glamorous Guatemala City and managed only a scoreless tie against CSD Municipal, which is arguably not even a 4th tier team. DC United likewise got a tie at Jamaica against Harbour View.

    Harbour View’s claim to fame (according to Wikipedia)is that they were the first Jamaican club with a website.

    As to being out of season,m maybe someone can ask Dick Advocaat how he did it with Zenit.

    DL.

  9. Using that analogy as the explanation for hating such a claim is, in my opinion, stupidity. Certainly, at a restaurant you have to have quality food and customer service from the get-go. In sports leagues it is an entirely different story. Should every expansion team in every league to ever exist be shutdown immediately because it goes 4-12 (Jacksonville, one of the consistent upper-tier AFC teams) in it’s first season?

    Inherently in having a sports franchise, or on an even higher scale, a full league, is gaining more recognition through refinement, expansion, better settings (new stadiums), and quality play. That doesn’t happen overnight, or the MLS would have been great in year 1. We all know it was far from such. In the mid-90s when the MLS started, every team with maybe the exception of DC United would have lost to CSD Municipal 8-0, if not worse. The quality was much lower, and the talent that was there was short-fused and whiny (Eric Wynalda) or generally aloof because it was a hobby more than a job, kind of like the WNBA when its players make bigger bucks overseas.

    Franchises have to build respect, credibility, and quality, and that takes the most important aspect: Money. Look at the MLS earnings reports and the player salaries. Some of the nobodies are probably still working Olympians’ Home Depot jobs in the off-season. Even the biggest nobody on Derby County or a Championship side isn’t worrying about that. MLS salaries are more akin to Minor League baseball than the EPL.

    How that changes is with credibility, marketing, and recognition. Teams are doing alright, they’re getting notability for working with governments to open sparkling new stadiums, and spreading the game through community outreach. Similarly, it’s gaining recognition in Europe and the rest of the world, where maybe some young guys from South America hone their skills one final time trying to get into the European leagues, and European leagues are even interested in our players. Two teams even have direct collaboration agreements with major European stalwarts (Colorado Arsenal; Real Salt Lake Real Madrid). The league even has such a partnership with the Bundesliga.

    Just like a draft, the MLS started with the “remaining” players that no one else wanted as well as US Talent from the World Cup team that couldn’t get overseas, and make it stick. No expansion leagues or teams ever go .500 the first few seasons. We’re not contracting the Devil Rays though. The MLS has developed substantially since it’s post-World Cup product, and that’s exactly what you have to hope for.

  10. I couldn’t agree more, Mike. Well said.

  11. Mike – well said. Agree with your comments.

    Dan – Your ignorance is fascinating to me. To use the Copa America as a barometer of U.S. success shows just how much you researched this article.

  12. This is a great write up! I have so much hope and belief for the future of soccer here in the states.