MiB: “What Happened” podcast about USMNT soccer World Cup disappointment

Men in Blazers have a podcast special of their live show in the New York last week called “What Happened”.

The topic: Why the US Men didn’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup and what should US Soccer do from here.

It’s entertaining as always and has two guests, Alexi Lalas and Hercules Gomez.

Lalas blames the coach and players and says they were basically not a good team.

My response to that is the same as my response to Davo’s (one of the Men in Blazers) belief that the U.S. just lacked a good center back pairing.

Their views are fine if you just want to squeak into the World Cup and hobble past the group stage. Their views do not hold if you want the U.S. to move from the Top 30 in the world to the Top 5 or 10 and have a shot at winning the World Cup.

I enjoy the ‘how to fix soccer in the U.S.’ discussion because it is the same as economic and political topics that I write about on this blog.

One economist I follow is Russ Roberts. Among many other things, he hosts the podcast, EconTalk. On it, he often uses the prairie analogy to illustrate emergent order.

A prairie looks simple, yet it is a complex, dynamic, emerging and evolving thing.

You can’t just take a patch of your backyard and convert it to prairie. You might be able to get something that looks like a prairie, but it won’t be a prairie and it’s not obvious why. Instead of having 20,000 varieties of plants, for example, you might only have 5 or 10.

The culture of soccer that has emerged in the U.S. is different than countries that occupy the tops of the world table.

Football in those countries are like the prairie, in Roberts’ analogy. Soccer culture in the U.S. is like the prairie knock-off that some guy try to plant in his backyard.

It has a lot of elements that look the same (e.g. the U.S and Top 10 countries all have youth soccer/football clubs) , but it isn’t the same and it’s not obvious why.

In the MiB podcast, they touch on several of the differences between soccer in the U.S. and in the top soccer playing nations.

Here are a few that were mentioned:

  • No Pro/rel (Promotion/relegation) in professional soccer in the U.S. vs. Pro/rel in other countries.
  • ‘Pay for play’ in U.S. youth soccer vs. very low cost soccer in other countries
  • Lukewarm soccer culture in the U.S. vs. the intensity of soccer popularity in the top nations
  • Opportunity costs faced by soft suburban soccer players in the U.S., who can become an accountant if the soccer thing doesn’t work out vs. players scrapping their way off the streets and out of poverty in other countries (Jonathan Vaughters expressed the same thoughts about US cycling vs European countries years ago).
  • Low-density of deep-knowledge-soccer coaches in the U.S. vs. much higher density in soccer-playing countries
  • Wide geographies in the U.S. that make it tough for small clubs to find competition to get off the ground (i.e. travel costs drown them)
  • Popularity of other sports in the U.S.

Here are a other differences I’ve noticed or have heard others mention:

  • Scholastic sports in the U.S. vs. club sports in other countries
  • Low club density in the U.S. vs. high club density in other countries
  • Fragmented soccer experience in U.S. youth soccer vs. more consistent and encompassing experience in other countries
  • Relatively tight control of coaching courses in U.S. vs. more accessible in other countries
  • The common play of 5-a-side in other countries vs. less common in U.S.
  • College athletic scholarships in the U.S. vs. no college athletics in other countries
  • Regular season/post season in US vs champion crowned in regular season in other countries
  • 10 month (Aug-May) youth soccer season in other countries vs. choppy seasons in US (Fall, Winter, Spring).
  • Lots more travel in US youth soccer
  • Multiple game weekends in the U.S. vs. typical 1 game/week in other countries
  • After school pickup play in other countries vs very little in the U.S.
  • Transfer fees and solidarity payment for clubs
  • MLS franchise vs club ownership in other countries
  • Deep network of pro and amateur clubs all connected through the ‘football association’ vs. fragmented club and team structures in the U.S.

I’m sure there are more differences. But above is more than 20 differences that are major and all may contribute to sub-optimizing the environment in the U.S. to produce players capable of competing against top world talent  — and maybe even top 100 teams (yes, that’s a dig at that last loss in Trinidad & Tobago).

No wonder there’s such disagreement on what should change in the U.S., there are a lot of things to pick from and it’s not obvious which things will make that much difference.

Further, each of these differences have more nuances beneath them.

For instance, the marriage of school and sports in the U.S. is an exception in the world. Other countries keep schools focused on education and have clubs that handle sports. I write more about that here.

Thoughtful discussion on these topics is as hard to come by as it is with politics.

In the pod, the topic of  pay-for-play is briefly discussed. Someone asks why it doesn’t cost as much for kids to be a part of a soccer club in other countries. Great question! But Lalas dismissed it by simply saying, ‘Coaches need to get paid.’

Sacha van der Most pointed out that his youth club in the Netherlands costs $250 per year for 10 months of soccer. That club is Quick. That compares with $1,500 – $3,000 in the U.S.

I think it would be interesting to know how a club in Europe can provide a youth soccer experience for 10% of the cost in the U.S.

The discussion of pro/rel was also disappointing.

Note to MiB Roger Bennett, Alexi Lalas knows a lot about soccer, but he doesn’t know a lot about ‘prairie problems’.

You ask great questions that deserve further discussion. Should you explore any of these topics in the future, I recommend that Lalas not be a part of that discussion. His domineering, over-simplification is exactly what is not needed in such discussion.

And, please, go out and find out how Quick can charge $250 a year for soccer. You can see what’s going on at Quick’s pitch anytime, live, on their webcam.

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