Matt’s Musings: I hate to say it, but American soccer really sucks
Avid readers of this column (hi Mom!) know my birthday is today, Oct. 10. Avid followers of American soccer recognize the date Oct. 10 for a slightly more infamous, yet just as important, reason. Two years ago today, Bruce Arena and the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) single-handedly ruined my birthday by dropping a giant deuce on the hopes and dreams of American sports fans everywhere when they lost 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago in the final game of the 2017 Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) World Cup qualifiers.
A couple of very important questions were raised on that fateful Tuesday night. Important, of course, was the matter of why they chose my birthday to drop said deuce. CONCACAF scheduling, you say. Well, to that, I say…touché.
Of equal relevance was the matter of how the USMNT’s metaphorical colon had become messed up to the point where it was plausible that they could lose to Trinidad and Tobago’s B-team in a must win game. I snapped on the rubber gloves and conducted a metaphorical colonoscopy of the sport in America to discover the root cause (I promise, I’m done with poop jokes), and this is what I found: soccer in this country is not competitive enough.
To be fair, this is not really news to anyone who follows the sport here. St. Louis’ own Taylor Twellman frequently talks and tweets about this. I even wrote an article about the USMNT directly after this loss back in 2017 for my high school newspaper. However, I thought it was appropriate to reexamine the issue again on the two-year anniversary of the loss.
Now, before you bring up the women’s team’s victory in France this past summer, I just want to say that the men’s soccer and women’s soccer exist in two entirely different ecosystems. But, if soccer federations around the world continue to grow the women’s game while US Soccer rests on its laurels, the United States women’s national soccer team could find itself falling behind. So this applies to you too, ladies.
With Major League Soccer Playoffs coming up, I thought it would be appropriate to bring up one of the areas where America’s soccer softness is apparent: the lack of a promotion and relegation system.
For those who do not follow soccer, in most of the world, domestic club soccer is organized into a pyramid, with different leagues corresponding to different levels of the sport. Let’s take England as an example. In England, the Premier League is the top flight, where the 20 best teams play. However, at each season’s end, the three worst teams in the league get relegated to the second division, known as the EFL Championship. Meanwhile, the Championship promotes its two best teams, plus the winner of a playoff between the teams finishing third-sixth. Three teams go up while three others go down. And this happens across the entire pyramid, which has a total of 11 levels. As you go higher up the pyramid, the fewer leagues there are per level. And because of promotion and relegation, clubs are always changing divisions.
This system creates a highly competitive atmosphere, one bereft of tanking and other ills that plague American sports. It forces teams to always be improving, for the threat of relegation awaits those who are not and the ambition of promotion calls to those who are. Every game matters, since just one point can be the difference between salvation and damnation, ecstasy and mediocrity.
The American system is quite different, with two tiers of soccer (MLS and USL, which was formerly known as United Soccer League) that do not feed into one another. MLS, currently sitting at 24 teams, is still expanding, with four more clubs joining over the next four years, including a franchise in St. Louis. Commissioner Don Garber has talked about wanting to get MLS to 30 teams eventually, and that seems like a foregone conclusion at this point. Top flights around the world differ in the amounts of teams they have, but none come close to 30.
This environment also makes it possible for MLS owners to invest little in their clubs and, most crucially, in youth development. In other countries, this investment is how worse-off clubs get better; they bring up youngsters through academies from young ages and have them playing professional soccer by 18, 19, or 20. Right now, all the best American players go to Europe at a young age to get a proper soccer education, from Christian Pulisic to Weston McKennie to Tyler Adams, all of whom went to Germany as teenagers.
There is a real lack of urgency in soccer here, made evident not just by our flawed league system but also the recent predicament of Pulisic. Over the summer, he made the move from German club Borussia Dortmund, his home since he was 16, to English powerhouse Chelsea for a whopping $73 million. However, the deal was done back in January, and by the time Pulisic made the switch, a new manager was in charge at Chelsea, club legend Frank Lampard. Pulisic has struggled for game time thus far in London, prompting many fans to complain about Lampard’s bias against Americans.
In reality, Pulisic is in a tough spot, with at least four others currently ahead of him in the winger/attacking midfielder pecking order. A lot of Americans seem to think he should be playing just because he moved for a lot of money. However, that’s not how it works overseas. You need to prove your worth every practice and every game minute you get. And while I’m confident he will eventually break into the first eleven, we need patience because he needs to EARN it.
A sense of entitlement permeates American soccer culture. People here just expect it to magically get better, simply because this is the U.S. of freakin’ A and we’re the best at everything, WOOOO (cue bald eagle screech and rock music)!
But we’re simply not the best at soccer, and nothing is ever going to change by sitting on our asses. Our system needs to emulate the systems of England, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, where kids fight from an early age to be the best in the sport. There is no high school soccer, no pay-to-play model of clubs. We’re actually about even with those countries until we reach the age of about 12, when academies begin to take in prospects. Here, at 12, you play middle school soccer and maybe for a club. The gap in skill widens and widens until it is insurmountable by the time players become adults.
So, for my birthday this year, as the two-year anniversary of that fateful day down in the Caribbean, instead of serving cake, I’m giving every American soccer fan a slice of humble pie. Enjoy.