Tough Break in Trinidad
October 10th, 2017. The legacy of that infamous day still lives in the heart of many US soccer fans, representing one of the greatest disappointments in the organization’s history. The task was a simple one; a win or a tie against a Trinidad & Tobago team, that at the time was ranked as 99th in the world, would guarantee a place in the 2018 World Cup, the pinnacle of international soccer and a competition that the United States’ men’s team had not missed for 27 years. The media expected an easy win, and the air was ripe for celebration of the triumph that qualification represents. And yet, fate had other ideas. The United States lost 2-1 in Couva, and everything was thrown into chaos.
The United States men’s national team is by no means a global soccer powerhouse. mediocrity has been the norm for its 100-year history, as the team is generally considered good enough to cause upsets, but nowhere near the level of more respected European and South American giants. Where it does shine, however, is in North America.
The United States and Mexico dominate CONCACAF, the North American soccer region. The US has won 6 out of 15 Gold Cups (a biannual tournament containing only teams in CONCACAF), mainly due to the lack of formidable opponents. Most countries that make up CONCACAF are small island countries that do not have the infrastructure to organize a serious soccer team. Because of the lack of competition, CONCACAF is considered by pundits and fans one of the easiest regions to qualify for the World Cup, making the United State’s failure to do so in 2018 even more baffling and humiliating.
The surface of the issue lies in the quality of American players. In club soccer, Europe is where the best players are, and the goal of most young professionals is to play somewhere in Europe. Typically they will start in their home country’s league, do well, and hopefully get signed by a European side to advance their careers. Players from Argentina and Brazil often do this, and go on to become global superstars in Europe.
The American league, Major League Soccer (MLS), was formed to be the stepping stone for young American talents. The idea was that players would develop at their local clubs, and go on to do great things. However, the plan wasn’t working. Out of the 23 players that were available to play in Trinidad, only 6 players played outside of MLS. This statistic reflected the general American pool. Most American players only briefly left the MLS, trying their luck in the Netherlands or England, and eventually disappointed, returning stateside. This pattern repeated itself again and again, and eventually, it got to the point where you could count the amount of Americans outside America on your hand. Promising American players were getting “stuck” in the MLS, not being good enough for Europe but not facing the high caliber opposition they needed to grow in the MLS.
A classic example of this is New Jersey native Michael Bradley, who captained the United States against Trinidad. Bradley was highly promising as a young player, turning professional at just 16 and transferring to Europe at just 19. However, he struggled to find his feet in the high level of European soccer, bouncing from club to club, not really finding consistent playing time anywhere. Eventually, he returned to MLS, signing for Toronto FC (Despite being an American league, MLS includes two Canadian clubs, the other being Montreal Impact). He excelled at Toronto, winning titles with the club, but he never took the national team to the heights expected of him.
This story repeated itself with other promising Americans, like Clint Dempsey and Freddy Adu. Despite showing potential from a young age, they struggled in Europe and eventually returned to the MLS to carve out a mediocre career for themselves. Quite simply, we didn’t have enough natural talent to compete, and the talent we did have had no opportunity to improve.
However, this issue cannot be the only problem with US Soccer. Despite not being the best league in the world, MLS is arguably better than the Brazilian or Argentine leagues, which continue to churn out world-class talent after talent. The real issue lies in the manner in which US Soccer scouts their players.
Most American sports follow the same structure. If you’re good, you make your high school varsity team and get scouted by colleges. If you do well for your college team, you might get drafted by a professional team. This tried and true system has produced many of the American sports greats. However, it doesn’t work as well for soccer. For one, by the time a player is drafted, they are already 22 years old. This doesn’t seem too old, but in soccer, most players will have been playing professionally since 18 or 19. In a career that typically lasts until the mid-thirties, the extra years of experience count, years of experience that players who come through the college system won’t have.
Secondly, the college system works well in other sports because the American league is a dominant force in those sports. The NFL, NHL, MLB, and NBA are all top sports leagues, and most players are content with staying there. The majority of the players are American, went through the same process, and therefore, can compete against one another. But when the goal is to leave the league, in MLS’s case, it’s far too big a jump for many. Going from playing college soccer for years to playing even mediocre professionals in England is a big jump, hence why many players returned to the comfort of the local league.
The issues with playing college soccer and trying to then go pro in Europe are known by US Soccer. The federation realized that players started too late to forge a career for themselves in the elite European leagues, and so years ago, they started creating soccer academies. The idea was to group together the best teenage players, giving them a soccer education that would be finished around 18 or 19. The best from those academies would then go to the MLS, starting younger and being able to move quicker. This is the system used in Europe, with the only difference being that European academies are typically run by professional clubs rather than by independent organizations.
The academy system worked decently, and the MLS became home to younger players as a result. However, it still wasn’t enough to carry the country to an elite level, as shown by the loss in Trinidad. But that loss in Trinidad proved crucial, as widespread media analysis finally showed where the issue had been along.
To put it plainly, academies are expensive. The costs of maintaining a young soccer player’s career are high, even for the mediocre players. There’s constant traveling for tournaments, and many parents have to pay hundreds of dollars for each team that their child plays on—typically two or three for the best. It’s hard work being a soccer parent, and is simply unsustainable for those in lower-income areas.
Ironically, in South America, many of the elite players come from poor areas, learning to play on the streets before being noticed by their clubs. But in the United States, the poor can’t afford to pay for fancy academies that are really the only path to a serious professional career. Scholarships are sometimes available, but when the academies are located in affluent areas those without means have no way to get there.
These issues were widely commented on by media in the aftermath of the World Cup failure and dubbed as the “pay-to-play” system. This is a fitting name, because those who couldn’t pay weren’t noticed, and therefore, couldn’t rise through the ranks and become professional. The makeup of the national team showed this, with many of its players coming from middle-class backgrounds. (Princeton, New Jersey is actually one of the top producers of soccer players, so that’s a plus for state pride.) If the national team was going to change, changes had to be made to the way players were produced― and change certainly came after the disaster that was 2018.
A lot has happened since that game in Couva. It’s only been two years, but it seems like the national team is filled with superstars. Part of this metamorphosis actually began before 2018, as players were starting to migrate to Europe at an even earlier age, in order to play in the European academies. Christian Pulisic is a great example of this. He actually started the trend, moving to the Borussia Dortmund academy in Germany in 2015, when he was 16. He quickly showed his promise, so he made his professional debut for Dortmund months after. He was a rising American star, and even though he couldn’t drag the team across the line in Trinidad, many players followed his example. Players like Giovanni Reyna and Weston McKennie moved to Europe while still teenagers, and came through the European academies.
The national team is now reaping the benefits of this new trend, with a huge amount of young talent suddenly appearing. In addition to the early migration, MLS academies are improving vastly, with clubs like the Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls seeing the value in investing in elite academies, and then selling their young players for large sums. This in turn helps the national team, and now, guys like Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams are rising up as well. The pay-to-play system is largely still in place, but with increased media coverage there is hope for reform.
The failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup might have been catastrophic, but it was the catalyst for a much needed change at US Soccer, a change that may just push the national team to the top.