Why the United States Isn’t That Good at Soccer and Won’t Be Without Your Help.

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Soccer coaches, parents, players and fans: This article is for you and here’s why you should keep reading…

One simple decision by the U.S. Soccer Federation and the Major League Soccer Players Union would allow the US to become a reputable soccer nation.

- Some initial stats
- Why we have the wrong model
- How the US could fix it
- What you can do about it (petition & individual training on your own)

By Santiago Vélez, co-founder of Sidekick Holdings

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With some of the best infrastructure in the world and an abundance of athletes to choose from, it’s no surprise that the US dominates in almost every team sport that we pride ourselves in.

Take for example the recent Olympics in Rio, where the US out shined all competitors and brought home the gold medals to prove it. In fact, we have more medals than any other nation in total and consistently rank at the top in teams sports that we take seriously like Ice Hockey, Volleyball, Water Polo, Baseball, Softball, American Football, Basketball, and Lacrosse.

BUT WHY DO WE STRUGGLE ON THE PLANET’S MOST BELOVED SPORT OF SOCCER?

Why do we not come close to the best on the international stage, even though we have more registered youth soccer players than any other nation in the world?

Some argue that it’s because, in comparison to other countries, soccer is relatively “new” in the States (an excuse and false argument as soccer was actually introduced and played in the United States decades before Brazil, Argentina, and Chile).

Others argue that it’s because our top athletes are divided among various sports during formative years and throughout high school. But what defines a top athlete? Someone who is stronger, faster, and can out run the rest?

Well, our Men’s National Soccer Team is known for their athleticism. We ran more per game than any other country in the 2014 World Cup. Of course, high levels of endurance, agility, and coordination are necessary to play the sport professionally, but athleticism is not the defining factor. Look at Xavi and Iniesta (two of the greatest Spanish players of all time), they are not big, fast, or strong. Rather, they are intelligent, nimble, and technical on the field. Having great awareness, technique, and consistency outweighs the importance of strength, size, and speed on the pitch. As Italian legend Andrea Pirlo puts it: “Football (soccer) is played with the head. The feet are just the tools”.

A handful of Americans will highlight that soccer in this country is a female sport since the US Women’s National Team is ranked number one in the world and has been for decades.

However, upon closer analysis, you’ll see that the underlying reason for the US Women’s National Soccer Team’s dominance is a direct result of legislation passed in the 70's that provided women's sports with increased financial investment (programs such as Title IX). This allowed US women’s sports, including soccer, to progress more rapidly than that of other nations.

This is not to say that the players on the US Women's National Team are not incredible athletes because they are - their work ethic, raw talent, and reputable skills are extraordinary and they deserve those W’s. The point is that other countries are beginning to support women’s soccer and with effective developmental systems already in place, these countries may soon surpass us and take our reign as the best Women’s National Soccer Country in the world.

Some mention that soccer is played often but not taken very seriously at the youth level, but this counteracts the fact that soccer parents across the nation are investing thousands of dollars each year for their kids to play at the top level. They spend more money on their children’s soccer experience than any other country in the world. Yet, this is not translating into effective soccer players feeding into a thriving professional league and national team.

  • People also echo the above by saying that soccer is unpopular in the United States.  The current facts below dispute this:
  • ESPN’s recent survey indicates that soccer is now the second most popular sport among 12 to 24 year olds.
  • The US has more adults playing soccer (24 million) than any other country in the world besides China.
  • 30% of households have at least one person playing soccer.
  • MLS teams are averaging greater attendance per game than the NBA and NHL and TV viewership continues to rise
  • Over 100 million people tuned in to watch the Copa America this summer which was held in the United States for the first time ever. Attendance at games surpassed every other year since the tournament began a century ago.
  • 105 million people in the US watched the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the third largest audience in the world behind Brazil and China.

SO WHAT IS THE FUNDAMENTAL ISSUE HOLDING BACK US SOCCER?

Unlike the rest of the world, the US Soccer Federation (USSF) and the MLS Players Union (MLSPU) do not allow American club teams to participate in FIFA’s Laws regarding Training Compensation and Solidarity Payments.

In other countries, when a soccer player signs his first professional contract, the professional club is obligated to pay training and development costs to every club that helped develop that player between the ages of 12 and 21. Additionally, training and development costs are paid each time the player is transferred between clubs of two different associations until the end of the season of their 23rd birthday.

Solidarity Payments come into action when a player transfers to a club before the expiration of his contract. Five percent of the total compensation, not including training costs, is then allocated to the club or clubs that developed the player (for more details, check out Articles 20-21, Annexes 4-5 in FIFA's regulations on the status and transfer of players).

Meanwhile, in the US, youth clubs are not allowed to be financially rewarded for the players they produce that move on to sign professional contracts. Therefore, clubs have zero incentives to invest in the long-term development of their players.

This issue has taken the spotlight in the recent case with Dempsey, Yedlin, and Bradley who filed a class action lawsuit in a federal court in Texas against the MLSPU, an ongoing attempt to recover thousands of dollars in precisely what we’ve mentioned, training and solidarity fees. As mentioned in the highlighted article, “a win or even a settlement between the parties could force a dramatic restructuring of the US youth soccer system” - precisely what we are calling for.

BUT THE MLSPU IS DECLARING THIS A “SHAKEDOWN FOR MONEY” AND THE US SOCCER FEDERATION CONTINUES TO SWEEP THE ISSUE UNDER THE TABLE. NO SETTLEMENT HAS OCCURRED SO IT’S UP TO US TO DEMAND THIS CHANGE.     

WHY IS ALL OF THIS SO IMPORTANT?

Without training compensation and solidarity payments, the priority for a youth club is to get as many players as possible to sign up at a high price (approximately $1,000 per season) to play for their club and rack up league titles and tournament trophies with whomever is willing to coach (regardless of their experience or knowledge of the game).

This emphasis on winning is extremely damaging to player development at a young age. Instead of encouraging teams to pass the ball around, taking risks to beat defenders, and pushing the limits of their abilities everyday, coaches resort to preaching “kick and run” (kicking the ball upfield and chasing it down, relying on the other team to make a mistake).

A pass to keep possession increases the chances of a mistake being made by the passer and the receiver of the ball, since a teammate is a much smaller target than “up-the-field”. Taking on an opponent with a new skill move or testing out a new creative deceptive touch also increases the chances of a mistake being made. These mistakes can lead to giving up goals and losing matches, which in turn leads to frustration and uncertainty in a team that doesn’t understand and live by long-term player development

The “kick and run” style of play significantly reduces the contact that each player gets with the ball while benefitting players that are, at the time, more physically developed (Malcolm Gladwell wonderfully explores this topic in his book Outliers). While it may help win games at the youth level, it does not stand a chance at the professional level.

The alternative to “kick and run” is possession and total football - the kind of game that you see Barcelona and Germany beautifully master on the pitch. This playing style requires specific skills that must be developed at a young age.

If the MLSPU and US Soccer Federation were to remove the ban on training compensation the following would begin to occur as it has in other successful soccer nations:

Clubs would start focusing on the long-term development of players into well-rounded, savvy, technical, and effective footballers and nurturing the proper habits and skills that will benefit them later in their careers.

The top development-focused clubs would be able to hire better coaches, improve their facilities, and enhance their entire organization.

Registration costs would go down and scholarships would go up allowing lower-income players to participate.

The level of soccer in the US would rise as the next generation of players start playing professionally

CLEARLY, THE US SOCCER MODEL IS BROKEN. OUR NATION FOCUSES ON IMMEDIATE GAINS WHEN IT COMES TO YOUTH SOCCER, INSTEAD OF ACTUALLY TAKING THE TIME TO INVEST IN EACH PLAYER FOR THE LONG-TERM.

As soccer coaches, parents, players, and fans, we have to demand change in order for the US to become a top contender and win a World Cup. Imagine living in a country where youth clubs become the birthplace of the next Messi, Pogba, or Ronaldo. A nation that proves to the rest of the world that Americans can master the beautiful game.

A place where people attend a local MLS game to witness world-class soccer played, not just by retired international stars but, by American phenomenons. A home where you, your children, and your children’s children can admire the US Men’s and Women’s National Teams. All of this is possible.

Needless to say, the future of US soccer depends on YOU to join us in taking action.  Ask yourself - Do you want the United States Men’s National Team to win a World Cup and the Women to retain their reign at the top?

Even more so, do you want young people in the US to have access to outstanding coaches and clubs that exist to foster the long-term development of soccer players?

In the spirit of democracy, we have created a petition letter demanding the US Soccer Federation to comply with FIFA’s Law of Training Compensation, allowing youth clubs to be financially rewarded for the players they produce that move on to sign professional contracts.

Will you be joining us in demanding this transformational change?  

But signing the petition is not enough - We need to lead by example as players, coaches, parents, and fans. By becoming a student of the game, we can all make an impact and create change within the system. Below are 8 essential habits and skills, brought to you by Coach Santi, for being an effective soccer player that likely have not been addressed or emphasized enough by your coaches:

  1. Check your shoulder and see what’s behind you before receiving a pass.
    • This will allow you to know whether you have space to turn or not  
  2. Create space for yourself with deceptive and decisive movements before receiving a pass.
    • This will give you more time on the ball to make the right decision
  3. Have a purpose with your first touch.
    • Direct it where you want it to go
  4. Move your feet in-between touches.
    • This allows you to have many options with your second and third touch.
  5. Lift your head up in between touches to identify teammates and spaces.
    • This allows you to see your options to keep possession of the ball.
  6. Be comfortable receiving on the half-turn and outside foot turn.
    • Turning while receiving will open up the entire field for you
  7. Pass the ball with pace.
    • This gives your teammates more time on the ball
  8. Constantly move into open space when you don’t have the ball.
    • This will allow you to always be an option for your teammates on the ball

By practicing these habits every day, I guarantee you will see a huge improvement in your game. Thank you for joining the movement to improve the quality of US Soccer. With all of our efforts combined, we stand a chance of winning a World Cup in our lifetime. Let’s make it happen!

For more analysis, updates, and training videos to help take your game to the next level, sign up for the Sidekick Training Academy.