How U.S. Soccer is like the school cafeteria

Jon Townsend does an eloquent job in his article, “Deconstructing the American Game and the Problems So Many Thought Never Existed,” of laying  out the key issues in U.S. soccer.

Here’s a key issue:

The United States has no shortage of resources, players, fields, minivans, orange slices and participants. What it doesn’t have is a true culture on a large-scale basis. Vital elements like self-play, recreation games, and street football are not woven into the fabric of society in ways that basketball, American football and baseball are.

Too many people believe systems and coaches develop players and that’s where they spend a good deal of their energy.

They overlook a key truth: Culture develops players.

That’s been true of the sports woven into the fabric of our society forever, but it’s a cause and effect that’s hidden in plain sight. Few notice.

Near the end of the article, Townsend writes:

There is unlikely to be a single solution that operates as a panacea for all the ills and deficiencies of the domestic game from the youth to professional levels. If there is one, it is a truly open system where player development becomes an industry. Where investment in all tiers of the game is not a Ponzi scheme but a truly open and free market. Additionally, incentivising player and coaching development must be key drivers. Creating and fostering football as a cultural pillar is paramount.

Yes.

It’s tough for many folks to imagine the difference in outcomes between open and closed systems, but it’s big.

Restaurants are an open system. From it we get a lot of choices on where and what to eat, as well as when.

If restaurants were run like soccer in the U.S., our dinner choices would look more like school cafeterias. Decent, but mediocre, at best.

Of course, we wouldn’t know because we wouldn’t be able to imagine what we were missing.

For those pushing for an open system, we’d hear critics say, yeh but…some restaurants will fail, and that will put people out of work, and nobody will invest in a restaurant if there’s a chance it could fail. These are the types of reasons advocates to keep our closed soccer system.

But, imagine replacing your favorite restaurants with school cafeterias. The quality and selection would be meh. Hours of operation might be shorter and they may not be as conveniently located. The atmosphere may not be as nice. You may not be able to get your favorite cocktail or that one dish at that one place that you look forward to each month.

You may still not be able to imagine all that you’d be missing.

I remember visiting a family member in a different state. I couldn’t get beer after 10 pm because all the state liquor stores were already closed. When I went out the next day, I had to drive a good distance to get the beer.

At home, where the liquor market was more open, there are a dozen or more places within a short drive where I could get beer at any time.

Those that lived in the closed system were used to it. They didn’t know what they were missing.

I’ll keep my open system, thank you. Most will after experiencing it.

re: US Soccer firing Jurgen Klinsmann

This Warren Buffett quote came to mind:

When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.

There are structural challenges (like ‘bad economics’ in business from the Buffett quote) in the U.S. soccer environment that keep its soccer talent from developing to a level that can consistently compete with talent developed in countries where the soccer culture is more optimized to produce top 10 talent.

The current soccer landscape produces talent that allows the U.S. to hang around on the edge of the Top 25. Think about that in terms of college basketball or football. #25 won’t often beat a top 10 team.

Until those challenges are removed, firing the US Soccer coach will happen every so often on disappointments like the latest two US losses in the World Cup qualifiers, because I’m skeptical that any coach can turn Top 25 talent into Top 10 talent.

What’s missing isn’t a coach that can take a group of Top 25 players to the next level. What’s missing are key steps in soccer development the players go through long before they ever get their US Men’s National team call up.

Putting so much expectation on the coach, and players, is like thinking you can take a group of good 8th grade math students and compete, in a math competition, against college math majors. They won’t be successful because they’re missing 5-7 years of math progression.

With our soccer environment, we get good athletes with sound fundamentals and good X’s and O’s, but they will get beat by the top 10 talent that adds creativity and ninja-like abilities to control the ball and read the game (and think 1-3 steps ahead) that come from amassing 5-10x the amount of soccer playing time against good competition and soccer learning time in their life times — starting from a very young age.

Here’s the kicker…if those structural challenges were removed, I believe the US could produce talent that would make the current crop of soccer greats — e.g. Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, Suarez — look pedestrian.

So, what are those structural challenges? I’ll cover what I think they are in another post.