U.S. Soccer’s fragile system for finding talent vs. the world’s anti-fragile system

In his book, Antifragile, part of his five book Incerto series, Nassim Taleb describes systems that are fragile and the opposite of fragile, which, for lack of a better term, he coined, “anti-fragile.”

A good example he gives to illustrate his point is that of a flame.

A candle flame is fragile. It can easily be extinguished by a breeze.

A wildfire is the opposite, or anti-fragile. A breeze makes it stronger.

The same stressors that can put out the fragile flame, can invigorate the anti-fragile wildfire.

A fragile system doesn’t like randomness, variability and shocks. These things make anti-fragile systems stronger.

The under performing U.S. soccer system under performs because it is a fragile system.

It’s fragile because folks who run U.S. Soccer think that creating talent is a linear process that they can manage, like a project, and it looks something like:

Rec soccer –> Club soccer –> Development Academy –> College/MLS/USL –> National Teams

That seems to work good on the women’s side, often the counterpoint to criticism about U.S. Soccer. But, looks can be deceiving.

The success of women’s side can be traced to Title IX, which made soccer more popular among females in the U.S. than in other countries. This create a more anti-fragile system for women’s talent in the U.S. than in other countries. Those countries are trying to catch up doing on their women’s side what we do on our men’s side (see linear process above).

So, U.S. Soccer’s linear process is not responsible for the success of the women’s side.

It’s also true that top talent on the men’s side aren’t necessarily products of U.S. Soccer’s system.

Pulisic and Sargent are two good examples. Both played in clubs in the U.S., but dig into their stories and other things pop out, like the fact that both have high-level soccer-playing parents, who likely introduced them to developing key skills early (probably not intentionally, for fun). Pulisic spent a year early on in England that took his interest in the game to a new level. And, both are extremely self-motivated and hard working.

I think it’s pretty darned incredible that a couple of kids that spent hours playing with the ball in their backyard have gone so far. Imagine if they had also played lots of pickup against really good talent everyday, too, like most of the players they go against in their respective leagues.

Most folks think the purpose of the soccer system is to develop talent. It’s not. It’s to discover it.

Talent is an extremely random variable. There’s no sure-fire recipe for developing it.

Even the world’s top and best funded development academies rely more on finding talent than they do on developing it. This is reflected in the high percentage of players that exit those programs below the top-level.

They try to find the world’s best players and make them a little better, but even most of those attempts fail.

Messi, for example, was already good when he came to Barcelona. In fact, he had to be eye-opening good for them to agree to pay for his growth hormone treatments. He was also already good when he joined his local club in Argentina as a boy. The club didn’t make him good. It just discovered him.

When you dig into the U.S. Soccer system structure, it’s easy to see how talented individuals may never make it onto the radar screen.

The current gatekeepers may be looking for the wrong players. In the U.S. we favor athleticism and treat ball skill as secondary, yet ball skill is pretty clearly what beats us on the world stage against top-tier countries.

Or, it may be too difficult for players to jump through the hoops to get on a development team to get recognized. Maybe it’s too far away from home, too expensive to move or they don’t even know about it.

Or, their families may not want to pay the for their kids to be on a club team, especially when they see the players in the club as inferior. Their kids get better competition in their backyard for free, why pay for lesser competition? I’ve seen this happen.

I also recall manager of a Mexican restaurant told me he had tried out and made the Chicago Fire in the early days of the MLS, but decided to stick with restaurants because it paid more and he couldn’t afford to take the lower wages of pro soccer.

After that, I remember thinking that many of the Americans I see playing in the MLS are people whose families could afford for them to play in club soccer and afford for their kid to pass on higher wages of other jobs to play pro soccer.

It made me wonder how many better players are out there and not in the MLS and USL simply because they can’t afford to be.

Those are just a few places people fall through the cracks.

Since talent is such a random variable, the best way to discover it is by casting as wide of a net as possible.

What that means is getting as many people as possible involved in trying to find that talent.

FIFA has created an anti-fragile system for doing just that, which includes promotion/relegation in a country’s soccer leagues and incentives for clubs to find talent.

These incentives have worked amazingly well around the world to get talent in the system and get them recognized by getting them to as high of a level as possible.

It’s like trying to find a $10 million diamond buried in your big field. How long will it take you to find that diamond on your own? Long-time, if ever. How long if you tell people you will offer a reward of $200,000? Faster.

It’s possible for you to find it on your own. You may get lucky.

But, if you incentivize others correctly, you don’t have to hope to get lucky.

Currently, U.S. Soccer wants to find those diamonds on its own and cut everyone else out of the deal. It hasn’t worked out well.

That’s because the U.S.’s fragile system that doesn’t handle the randomness of talent discovery well is up against the world’s anti-fragile system that thrives on randomness.

U.S. Soccer is penny-wise and pound foolish. They don’t want to adopt the world’s anti-fragile system, because they want to save that $200,000 for their preferred partners, MLS owners, not realizing how many $10 million diamonds they may be missing.

Why U.S. Soccer is hypocritical for de-sanctioning NASL’s Division II status

U.S. Soccer de-sanctioned NASL’s Division II status because the NASL wasn’t in compliance with U.S. Soccer’s Professional League Standards of minimum number of teams and minimum number of seats in the stadiums, among other things.

I wonder when FIFA will de-sanction U.S. Soccer since it doesn’t comply with FIFA standards of promotion/relegation, training compensation and solidarity payments, among other things?

Soccer (non)culture in the U.S.

U.S. players have less ball control than players from around the world. This means they can’t play at the same quick tempo and intensity as players from football-plalying countries.

Americans are also not known for our finishing, aka scoring.

Christian Pulisic is an exception. But, he is more of a product of English football culture.

Which is the first part of the problem, football culture in the U.S. is lacking.

Club soccer is not a culture. It’s baby-sitting.

Here’s a good description of soccer culture in Germany. We don’t have that. There may be pockets of it here and there, but it isn’t widespread.

Culture is kids of all ages playing on the playground for hours everyday without an adult, emulating their heroes they watch fervently on the weekend.

Culture is former pros not having to teach 10-year-old kids how to trap the ball (a basic skills that would be like having former MLB players teaching your kid how to catch) at training, because those kids learned that with family and friends when they learned to walk.

That type of culture sparked Pulisic’s interest when he lived in England for a year when he was 7.

The difference culture produces in ball skills is like the difference culture produces in language.

The language we were born into is natural to us. Second languages are not. You can become fluent in a second language, but native speakers can tell it’s not your native tongue.

My son’s gym class was playing baseball. His classmate from England stepped up to the plate and grabbed the bat awkwardly. Everybody in the class corrected him. He said, That’s how you hold a cricket bat! 

Few kids in the gym class play club baseball, but they all know how to hold a baseball bat. They learned it from our baseball culture. The British student didn’t know how to hold a bat because he did not grow up in the baseball culture.

When I watch Americans play soccer against players from soccer cultures, it’s like watching kids play baseball who grew up in a cricket culture. They’re playing similar, but different games.

Building soccer culture is easier said than done.

More to come…