Failure of USA to Beat Belgium Reflects Negatively On MLS

An easy, somewhat lazy narrative has developed through the years that Major League Soccer has helped the United States Men’s National Team grow. While this is true from a pure standpoint of quality of squad depth, the league has from my perspective not helped develop the very top players.

Before MLS launched in 1996, the USA reached one of the highest water marks in terms of success at Copa America 1995. The famous 3-0 win over Argentina, perhaps the best performance for the United States ever in a competitive match in the modern era, occurred on foreign soil, in Uruguay. At the time every US player was based in a league outside the United States. While the squad lacked depth, it had more technical players and arguably more tactically-aware players than the current US squad.

The growth of Major League Soccer has been fantastic for building the business of soccer in the United States. It has grown the club game and developed a real soccer culture in this country. MLS has proven to be springboard for the runaway success of the Barclays Premier League and other international leagues in the United States market.

The business of soccer has never been bigger or better in this country. It is possible for people to make a decent living, living entirely off of this sport. That was not the case before Major League Soccer came into existence. From a business standpoint, it is one of the top leagues on the planet. It’s well run, well marketed and — contrary to the views of some critics — extremely well supported.

But if you separate the business and culture of US soccer from the development of national team success, you realize Major League Soccer hasn’t delivered what was hoped. The top American players by-and-large are no more tactically savvy, technical on the ball or creative than they were in 1995. The United States has long been in a holding pattern from a player development standard as the lower leagues remain a political mess.

The US Soccer National Academy in Bradenton, Florida opened in 1999. It originally turned out top players but by and large has been a failure over the course of the past 10 years, producing very few top professionals and even fewer national team prospects. The “pay to play” schemes of American youth soccer did not help in the efforts to develop and identify top talents at a young age. Instead those whose parents could afford to buy their way through the system advanced rapidly. US Soccer’s leadership as well as Major League Soccer understood this was a problem and worked hard to set up a national development academy program as well as MLS club youth academies. But to this point even this more sensible approach has not yielded many top players because one can presume the technical and tactical management is simply not good at a high enough level.

Against the backdrop of stagnant failure, Jurgen Klinsmann was appointed as the Head Coach in July 2011. Inheriting a side full of relatively mediocre players and a youth system whose most recent international results had been nearly disastrous, the German legend sought to revamp the structure entirely. For many years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the USA performed well at the youth international level thanks to the Bradenton Academy and the players familiarity with one another. Most of the players on those youth teams however did not become full national team regulars. In time, the youth teams virtually stopped producing national team caliber players altogether.

Klinsmann’s solution has been to restructure the US system from the bottom up while scouring the globe looking for players eligible to represent the USA. Klinsmann needed to find players who had grown up in a proper youth development system who could represent a stopgap on a decaying national program that was producing fewer and fewer top level players.

Major League Soccer has had a hand in the failure to develop more top level players. The league, through its new academy structure, is trying to address this. But one of the criticisms of the league itself is the failure to evolve stylistically. The league employs many former players as head coaches, largely because of their network of contacts within the country and their knowledge of the salary cap and other peculiar MLS rules. This has inhibited the development technically and tactically of many young American players who come through the domestic system.

All of these factors have contributed to a malaise in the results for the US Men’s National Team. In each of the last four World Cups held outside of Europe, the US has advanced from the Group Stage. But in none of those World Cups has the United States finished with a positive goal difference or advanced beyond the quarterfinals.

In hindsight, that 1995 Copa America run looks like a continued high water mark for American soccer. Jurgen Klinsmann’s goals for the US team are to maintain more possession and to be able to control tempo of matches with greater regularity. But to achieve that, the United States must develop more technical and tactically aware players. Right now Major League Soccer and the US Development system is not accomplishing this. Klinsmann’s short-term results are less important than the long-term changes he hopes to bring to US soccer. Having inherited a set of players who came from a flawed setup, he has valiantly and creatively managed this side. The results may be decent but the problems continue to be deep. Thankfully, unlike after the 2002 and 2010 successes, the United States has a head coach (and now technical director) who has a long-term vision and a long-term plan of how to move this national program forward.

36 thoughts on “Failure of USA to Beat Belgium Reflects Negatively On MLS”

  1. Great article Kartik. I agree with pretty much everything youve said. One of my friends and i were just discussing this last night.

  2. MLS has proven to be springboard for the runaway success of the Barclays Premier League and other international leagues in the United States market.
    you lost me there? I agree with the youth/money/well off parents diatribe but sadly i don’t get what that a fore mentioned statement means? How has the MLS been a springboard for the success of the EPL?

    1. Heres how (cynically):
      People watch MLS (actually they dont anymore) and think “Wow this sucks!” Then they see the EPL and by comparison they think “Wow this is awesome!”

      1. how is that even possible. people who watch the mls, actually turn out to be fans. that why the mls is getting more supporters and respect.

      2. let me end it. if we dont support the mls, then the national team will never win the world cup. their no if,and, or but about it. and if they say i am lying their epl fans who think they know everything. the england squad it mostly made of epl players and what happened. S**T. this was the best the usmnt played since 2002 and 1930, and this squad is made of what, F*****G MLS PLAYERS.

  3. Just wait til the MLS starts adding more teams into the league next year and beyond. The talent pool will become thinner, and the quality of play will take that much longer to catch up to previous levels. Signing aging A-listers only papers over the cracks.

  4. It feels a bit unfair to say we need to mirror European leagues in development policies but shouldn’t focus on hiring former players, which is the main coaching pipeline in every country (and really every sport). Ultimately I agree that youth need to be better developed, but I can’t blame an MLS coach presented with a roster of non-technical players continuing to deemphasize technical playing styles in pursuit of immediate wins.

  5. What you/we need is promotion and relegation in between the MLS and USL. The penultimate carrot of success for the USMNT. home grown and reared on the consequences of what failure brings and conversely what is at the end of the rainbow…

  6. This is a good article, however you are missing the success we had in 2009 at the Confederations cup in South Africa. We beat a Spanish side that had a record unbeaten stretch as well as being in the midst of an incredible dynasty (2008,20012 Euros, 2010 world cup) during that run and lost to Brazil in the final 3-2 after putting ourselves up 2-0. All of that aside, we do need to revamp our development and I think we can do that with the success of 2010 and 2014 world cups and the awareness surrounding the sport these days.

  7. We need talent that start for clubs like Chelsea and Real Madrid rather than San Jose and Real Salt Lake. The MLS is a crap league, with by and large crap talent. There will never be any world class talent that gets developed from the MLS for the next several decades.

    If the US wants to get to the next level, the players need to be playing every week at the highest level possible. If this turns out to be the MLS, we are in deep trouble.

    1. MLS has pretty much stopped pretending as if it actually cares the future of the league, and of American soccer as a whole.

      As noted by a commenter above, MLS is adding teams like there’s no tomorrow. The quality of play will suffer, but the team owners will hardly care since short-term financial gains now take precedence over all else. As long as the expansion fees, TV money, and free tax dollars for new stadiums keep rolling in, who cares if the games are still distinctly second-rate?

      USMNT is overachieving on the World Cup stage in spite of MLS, not because of it.

  8. MLS is semi retirement league. All our goals in this World Cup scored by players who either grew up in Europe or spent best years of their career playing for a European Club. Our young players need to follow the lead of Dempsey and join European clubs to improve their game by working with the best coaches and players in Europe and help National Team does better in future World Cups and other international tournaments.

    1. Just like basketball..the best Euros and South Americans come to the NBA. They go back and play for their national teams.. and the U.S. demolishes them in international competition. Hey we are in the top twenty internationally – not too bad. MLS will over expand and it will become even more rough n tumble rather than refined and crisp. We need the best in Europe playing

  9. It is an American myth that the best athletes in America don’t play soccer to explain away the failing of US soccer. LeBron James could have taken up soccer as a kid I doubt he would be an elite player because soccer requires a far bigger skill set than simple raw athleticism. The fact many NBA superstars like Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Tony Parker are failed soccer players shows it is harder to be an elite soccer player. Friedel, Howard and Altidore excelled out the other sports and could have gone pro in them.

    The problem for US soccer is making the sport more accessible to Latin, Black and White people of poorer backgrounds. This is where US soccer differs from the rest of the world. Youth soccer in America has been monetised where the aim isn’t to find the best players in each state, but to find parents willing to pay the massive fees for their children to make a massive profit. US soccer needs to start an academy programme that removes the massive cost of playing organised soccer in the US and reach out to the communities of a lower income it has ignored for so long. In soccer the best athletes tend to come from poorer backgrounds and the USA getting players from a very small pool of talent due to the cost of the game.

    1. I agree with your statment about LBJ possibly not excelling in soccer. But I can add some insight on the NEW US academy system and from what i have seen, it is looking really promising. The old ODP (Overly Determined Parents) is slowly dying out. I personally know 2 kids on the u16 boys national team that played in Italy this past winter. USSF and the partnership with Nike takes care of all the cost for the players. They are both being courted by a few Liga MX teams as well because of their hispanic heritage. Getting seen to be able to make the team is a different story, whatever Club or coach they play for needs to find market trainings for them to go to. The PDP program is the future to US Soccer, completely free and it identifies talent at a very early age (u10).

      My biggest concerns is the ease of getting a coaching license and who is aloud to coach the youth. Soccer isn’t like other sports in America, were you can just read some articles and watch youtube videos of training to teach a player to be technical, turning out of pressure, etc. But with that being said the new curriculum being instilled by Jurgen with help from the USSF is very promising for the development. The biggest problem i see are coaches being too structured in games, getting upset when a player goes at a defender and loses the ball and instantly attacks the player for being a ball hog, we need to encourage attacking, even if they fail the first time sooner or later they will beat someone and their confidence will grow and their creativity and thats when we will have a true #10 and not 6’s and 8’s trying to be 10’s. once that happens the US will be deadly! And it is coming, I’d say in the next few cycles (16 years)

    2. Steve Nash is not a “failed” soccer player. He simply realized he could make much more money playing Basketball.

      You are just simply wrong to say that Lebron would not have made a great forward. Good luck marking-up on a 6-7; 250lb guy that runs like a gazelle. Had Lebron played soccer from day one; he would be a superstar in that sport today. Sorry to burst your bubble. Soccer DOES compete for the same athletes and loses every time.

  10. I think the problem is that soccer culture in America just doesn’t penetrate deeply enough yet. It’s a generational thing.

    When I was a kid in the 70s/80s and through the 90s, lots of soccer “coaches” for kids had never played before. They were just Dads helping out because nobody else wanted to coach or because they were raging control freaks. And….when those little kids played soccer on Saturday, they had no opportunity to watch/read about soccer the rest of the week. They played soccer, but didn’t LIVE it, so they didn’t really see how the rest of the world did things.

    Now, little kids are almost all coached by someone who actually played as a younger person. That’s an improvement, but still….todays’ coaches didn’t grow up watching soccer the way todays kids will. So, today’s coaches just aren’t quite as worldly as coaches elsewhere in the world in their same age cohort. This will change over the next 20 years as today’s 15 year olds who grew up trying to copy Neymar moves from YouTube in their bedrooms.

    Parents play a role too. When my daughter plays, the number of white parents who have a clue about the flow of a U-10 game is pretty small. Compare that to the Latino parents who are ALL over what should be happening in the game. They know because they grew up in a soccer culture. Middle-class America still yells bad advice to their kids on the field, cant’ recognize a good/bad coach for their kids and can’t help their kid at home.

    It’ll happen. It just takes time.

    1. I disagreed with your analysis….specifically that coaches and or parents need to have played to produce exceptional talent.
      History tells us that exceptional talent was produced in all of the major sports despite not having the ingredients you described.
      USA soccer will flourish and dominate when soccer develops the same infrastructure as the other major sports.
      That is developing leagues and fields in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods and remove most of the pay to play costs. I would be willing to bet my life that if the usa could get 1 million more black youth playing your would find more than one Pele or Ronaldo.

    2. There’s also an aspect of luck to it as well. If the U.S. can just produce one Ballon D’Or level player, a la Messi or Ronaldo, then children across the U.S. will pick up soccer as their new chosen pastime, regardless if said player plays in the MLS or EPL or Bundesliga. One star player could change everything.

    3. I am a middle class white guy who speaks spanish – trust me poor advise screamed from the sidelines is not middle class monopoly. I see on a regular basis 5-8 latino fathers, all well meaning by the way, screaming at the top of their lungs a regular torrent of advise, admonition and dissent that equally runs the gammot of interesting to patently absurd.

      I do agree that in the next generation there will be a larger pool of youth soccer coaches to start kids out at the lower levels. Which will make the sport a better experience and hopefully keep a few more kids involved.

  11. Good article.
    I’ve been surprised to not see more articles about the decline of Michael Bradley since his MLS move.

  12. I think everyone above basically covered my criticisms of MLS. The only positive is that ESPN shows highlights (or is that lowlights?) of people jumping up and down wearing scarves at Seattle Sounders matches every night so it keeps soccer in the minds of sports fans.

  13. Can MLS follow J-League’s vision when it was founded?

    J-League vision was to develop an interesting/attractive league by signing foreign players, but they also tried to sign players who were considered “teachers”/”mentors” to local players. Hence, they signed Zico, Uwe Bein, Careca, etc.

    I have no problem singing “old” or “semi-retired” players but there has to be a “greater cause” other than just to attract big names.

  14. Ok by that logic then we can thank MLS for getting us out of the group of death when no one thought they would….Awesome!

  15. Clubs need to establish proper youth academies, scout their communities, and not let middle school, high school and college coaches retard their development.

  16. MLS is never going to employ world class players in their prime. If you’re that good, you’re going to play in Champions League. Our best players still need to go overseas to get better and play against the best. Brazil has a great domestic league, yet 90% of their national team players still play in Europe.

    I don’t think USA going out in R16 reflects poorly on MLS. It is what it is. A fun domestic league that shouldn’t be counted on to produce elite American talent. The best we can hope for is for these MLS academies to develop kids enough to make them palatable for European clubs to sign them while they’re still young.

    1. Biff, you hit it on the head. That is the dealio pure and simple. All of my South American friends are fans of their local top league, Peru, Chile ect and also follow Euro leagues. That’s what we have now and what we will have in the future. When the national team, all playing in Europe, convene then the press will attack them as a bunch of spoiled millionaires who only want to party and don’t care about defending the honor of the homeland. It’ll be awesome…we’ll be just like every other non – Euro soccer enttity.

  17. Excellent read and his point w/ US coaches is an interesting one. The thing is, US coaches are usually picked because they succeed in the league and foreign coaches don’t typically. So I don’t know if changing coaches fixes that or that if US coaches are better at not only navigating US intricacies but also getting the most out of a tactically and skill level deficient pool of talent. I like JK and US Soccer’s new youth vision. I think we need to continue that to pay dividends. I also think MLS scouring the globe for untapped talent in lower leagues and bringing them hear will increase the skill level. .

    1. Absolutely, you need to win to keep your job…period. D 1 College coaches are in a similar situation..the guy at Duke starts losing and.. oh..guess what he gets fired. This is America and no one cares about style points.

  18. What about DeAndre Yedlin, Diego Fagundez, Gyasi Zardes, Jack Macinerney, Will Trapp? Joey Altidore even came through New York Red Bulls. Darlington Nagbe is a very skilled domestic player. The academy players could lead the 2018 team. It takes time though.

  19. This has already been mentioned, but the newer youth development system is magnificently better than the ODP of the past, and I do believe we will see the results of this in the next 8-16 years.

    Former MLS players are hired to coach teams because they can succeed due to their better understanding of the MLS rules, this is true. But this is bad? I’m not so sure. Just because the overall style of play in the MLS differs from that in European leagues does not mean that it needs changed. All great national teams have their own identity on the field, and JK has begun to develop the US’s own. That should be the prevalent style of play in the US on ALL levels, in my opinion.

    Another point: the continued expansion of the MLS is not a negative, if you ask me. Yes, the possibility of talent being diluted for a few years exists. However, consider the fact that the US is larger in land area than all of the extremely successful nations of soccer, and that large masses of people are spread out all over this area. Taking that into consideration, it would only make sense that teams are continually integrated into the US in areas that do not already have teams. Why, you ask? Because with bringing teams into the MLS comes an academy system that starts scouting and developing talents at U10. This will allow US Soccer to penetrate populations that are likely to have great soccer talents more thoroughly.

    Just a few of my thoughts on the article and some of the comments already made.

    1. I like the ODP ( overly determined parents) that is pretty good. Yes, with all its flaws the Dev Academy is good. The MLS teams will float to the top and the other clubs will provide good competition for the kids who want that level. There will be a few non mls clubs that will do really well and it will feed a two tier system: College and Pros. I think that despite what everyone thinks that potentially the U.S. system could be the best for the kids. The kid from the Sounders Academy who doesn’t make it to the u21 team instead goes and plays for Oregon State get’s a degree has some fun at college. That same kid in Spain —what does he get — a kick in the a…and and adios amigo.

      Be careful what you wish for.

  20. Ironically, the attempt to springboard American soccer internationally (Project 2010) actually had the involuntary effect of springboarding Mexican soccer internationally. Since then, Mexico has won 2 U-17 World Cups, and the Gold medal in Olympic soccer in 2012.

  21. It’s hard to say that the academy isn’t working when you aren’t getting top talent period. Europe’s academies work because they get their top talent, everyone wants to play futbol. In the US you lose talent to hockey, football, basketball, and baseball. Soccer is option 5, and even if at a young age a lot of kids play soccer they still opt out for other sports. In HS we didn’t get a decent team until we hit a combination of those who understood the sport and those who got sick of politics in Football and came back to soccer. It was the combination of athleticism with understanding that let our team even do well. Had the whole team been top athletes who understood from a young age it would have been asinine. So there’s your real problem, it’s not MLS, its the fact that the US has so many other richer options, who wants to make $50k as a rookie in MLS when you can try to make $500k as a rookie in the NFL.

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