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The Problems Lie Deep: The State of US Soccer

The Problems Lie Deep: The State of US Soccer

“Are you going to continue to be a bunch of soft, under performing, tattooed millionaires? You are a soccer generation that has been given everything; you are a soccer generation that is on the verge of squandering everything.” – Alexi Lalas, a United States soccer legend said on September 10th. Since this passionate outburst the worst imaginable has occurred: the USA men’s soccer team will not be participating in the World Cup this summer.

There are many people to blame. Both players and coaches are at fault to different degrees, but the problem is also institutional. Soccer players at DHS have lived through the youth system and seen the dismal end product it produces. If things don’t change culturally within the sport, then no improvement can be expected. Interestingly enough though, the women have dominated and exceeded expectations, proving that American soccer can excel – so why can’t the men?

Here are some US statistics. We are 3rd of all countries in population. 66% of American boys ages 5-18 play sports. The US has the most Olympic medals of all countries among both winter and summer games (Our 2,804, leaves the Soviet Union in the dust at 2nd with 1,204). The US also has 330x the population of the team that knocked out us out of World Cup contention …Trinidad and Tobago. I’m no mathematician but it seems like we have a fairly good advantage.

Not having enough players isn’t the problem. Not enough emphasis on the sport isn’t the problem. Not being athletic enough as a country isn’t the problem (I’m looking at you, Lebron). The issue lies in the fact that the US needs to choose soccer over other sports. It’s just not as popular.

The biggest struggle is in the Fall. America experiences, for the most part, four seasons and soccer is played in the fall at the high school level. Across the globe, soccer is the main sport and played all year by everyone. Male Fall sports usually come down to American football vs. all other sports.

Senior Cameron Raia expressed his thoughts: “It’s so tough every year to try and convince kids to play soccer over football. We know that if the best football athletes continued to play that we’d be much better.” He’s absolutely right. With American football being the country’s most popular sport, how can soccer, a sport that dominates overseas, be expected to compete? Soccer is the most popular sport in the world but, in the USA it’s at best a distant  #4. Football, basketball, baseball . . . leaving soccer trailing far behind.

Senior Cameron Raia has seen the ups and downs for the American youth system. Darien faces challenges both on and off the pitch with their struggles to encourage people to play. (Courtesy DAF Mark Maybell)

When talking US Soccer you’d be doing yourself a disservice to say that we as a country are untalented at the sport. The women have dominated and outperformed the men time and time again. Consistently from 1998 to present day they’ve been either #1 or #2 in FIFA’s world rankings. They’ve lifted the World Cup trophy three times since 1991 and have never done worse than third place in the tournament. They also have earned four Olympic gold medals since 1996. Clearly, soccer in the United States is only depressing for the men. Senior captain and elite goal scorer for the Girl’s Varsity Soccer team Katie Ramsay mentioned, “Even though the [women’s] soccer team is more accomplished, it’s crazy to see how many [fewer] followers the program gets.” She’s got a point. The men haven’t even been close to World Cup glory, yet here I am writing an article…about the men. A quick little shoutout to the women because they deserve it. They should be role models for the men. One thing that helps in terms of soccer’s popularity among women is the fact that as a fall sport they don’t have to compete with football.

Growing up in America, the average boy is exposed heavily to the NFL. It’s widely advertised and marketed. For an example, ESPN has a show that airs every day of the year at 4 P.M. (This is prime real estate because kids just get home from school) called NFL Live. They also have Sportscenter reruns playing for six hours every morning. As a child, it is more likely you will become more invested in the sport that is thrown in your face versus the one where you have to go out of your way to search for it.

Only a few US sports networks consistently broadcast soccer and those are normally in the super high numbered channels (I’m talking in like the 200+ region with paid programming and stuff so yeah it’s like Siberia up there). Even if you did want to watch the Premier League on Saturday or Sunday you’d most likely have to set an alarm to wake up for 7 A.M. block or 11 A.M. block. Senior and die hard Everton fan Connor Percarpio said, ¨It’s tough waking up early on the weekends to watch a team that may not even perform well, but soccer is a beautiful sport and those who watch will absolutely fall in love with the game.” The start times won’t change because this is an English league and the time difference is too large, but the major networks could easily show games in the mornings instead of endless 27 year olds repeatedly talking about the same NFL story lines over and over again.

Each ESPN channel on weekend mornings features some form of football talk shows. The day ESPN inks a deal with the UEFA Champions League broadcast partners, will be the start of a new level of exposure the sport needs in the states. The Champions League is a tournament that features all the best clubs from across Europe and places them in a world cup style format with the best players squaring off. It takes a year to complete and it’s as good as it sounds.  ESPN has no idea what they’re missing out on.

The day ESPN inks a deal with the UEFA Champions League broadcast partners, will be the start of a new level of exposure the sport needs in the states.”

Along with a lack of media displaying the sport, soccer also needs to be taught well. Kids who do love the game and invest their time should be getting the best coaching. The playing style in the states is also disparate in comparison to England, Germany, and other hotbeds across the globe. Senior Jake Kooyman is an elite forward with great vision and feel for the game. He doesn’t play for DHS because he travels around the country with Beachside F.C. amongst a select group of talent. Players like Jake are what America needs.  Kooyman experienced the dullness and outdated playing style that is preached in the American youth system. “They don’t try to emphasize working on technique enough, focus too much on direct play to the forward,” Kooyman said.

What’s most important to understand about soccer is you don’t need to be a freak athlete or six-four. You need to be smart, agile, and collected. American sports so heavily focus on physical attributes and god given abilities but in soccer anyone who works hard can be great. Don’t believe me? PSG midfielder Marco Verratti is world class and rumored to be headed to Barcelona next summer. He is 5’5, 132 lbs, and not particularly fast. Lionel Messi is the arguably the greatest ever. He is 5-7 and 159 lbs. Neymar, who might be the hottest player in the game right now is 5’9 and 150 lbs. Technique over physique should be a pillar of what is relayed to the future of USA soccer.

Systemic flaws lie deep in the heart of US Soccer. Captain of the DHS boys varsity soccer team Justin van de Graaf spoke critically about the youth system saying, “I would say the reason US soccer has been weaker is the lack of a coherent, well organized youth system. The best players play separately from others. In England they have young systems and stuff that funnel into professional. In the US that kind of program is in American Football essentially. A lot of times the best athletes don’t play soccer.” Justin has seen the flaws in real time and has lived through the problems. On the other hand, American football tends to have a much more developed program.

Senior Justin van de Graaf absorbs the loose ball in the heart of Darien’s midfield. He’s attempted to change the culture for soccer in Darien.

Switching gears here let’s talk about the future of the NFL. As science improves, the NFL has proven that it can’t catch up. Commissioner Roger Goodell has the backing of the majority of self-interested owners who could not care less about head injuries as long as it makes them money. In the past 20 years football players who experienced a lot of head trauma when they played have begun to get diagnosed with the lethal Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). As the issue of CTE becomes more exposed and diagnosed nationwide, the number of concerned parents who allow their children to play football is free-falling. However the biggest threat to American football isn’t necessarily CTE. Figureheads and yes-men like Roger Goodell are catering to the owners every needs and refusing to adapt to the modern times. Inevitably, the moms of the USA will start to say no when their kids ask to play tackle football in 3rd grade. While the future sounds promising why must it take people’s lives to understand that at the current way it is played, soccer is far more safe to play then football?

Believe me, I am a huge Chicago Bears fan, watch football all day on Sunday’s, and I played football from third grade to sophomore year. I know that it is THE most fun sport to watch and to play but unless radical rule changes take place or new helmets are developed then 25 years down the line we may be talking about soccer on Sundays. Speaking as a football fan I know for a fact that if new penalties and limitations on tackles are introduced then the sport could be ruined. You can’t tell a guy he has to play in the NFL and he can’t touch another man’s helmet. It’s just not how the sport was designed.

Moving on from the NFL let’s do something that hasn’t been done in this article….talk with some optimism. Current winger and star for the USMNT (United States Men’s National Team) Christian Pulisic is one of the many reasons why this sport has hope. He’s delivered, carried, and inspired hope for the US, and he’s only 19. He’s been killing it overseas in the Bundesliga, and hopefully his success is something we can build off for 2022 (Yeah I know it’s so far away). Senior Nick Cardone (Possibly the only Dortmund fan i’ll ever meet in my life) when talking about Pulisic his eyes lit up and said, “Pulisic is now a key player for Dortmund, a role most fans didn’t think he’d have for years. Not only does he have the potential to be special, he’s fulfilling quicker then anyone could have imagined.” That’s coming from a guy who actually watches every game and traveled to Germany to see them. The only problem with a guy like Pulisic is that he’s forced to play at a club like Borussia Dortmund. Don’t get me wrong BvB is an amazing team for a young man like Pulisic; but if the youth system is the issue then we need our best talent playing in the States.

One of the many beautiful and important parts of American culture is the acceptance and freedom offered to all people. The US boasts people from all over the world allowing an in depth and mixture of all types of culture. When talking about population growth DHS AP Human Geography (It’s a great class I suggest all take it) teacher Mr. Dennis Cabrera explained to me his thoughts saying, “Latinos are one of the fastest growing segments of US population. The vast majority of that growth comes from people like me who were born in the US to Latino parents. I grew up watching soccer with my dad- as did many people like me. I predict that the growth of soccer culture in the US and growth within the Latino community will combine to make MLS the fourth most popular professional sports league in the country surpassing the NHL.” Overall it’s important to understand that the demographic change won’t occur overnight, but this figure will grow over the next 25 years as the Latino population and community extends. We all know the MLS has problems and isn’t taken seriously but for us as a culture to make strides and improve we must start from the peewee leagues and develop players seriously like they do in Europe. It is common for big clubs like Roma, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Real Madrid to sign 8 year olds or younger to their club. It rarely pans out but it shows how serious the clubs are for developing their future players. The MLS also consistently has a plethora of Central American and and South American players playing which is good for the league but bad for the USMNT. It’s going to be hard to shake the stigma that the MLS is second to other leagues and more designed for old players to retire their very last years playing in a fun setting (Beckham, Gerrard, Villa, Pirlo, and many others). If the MLS were to grow and expand their scouting networks then the USA would begin a stronger youth system setup and it would help expand the culture across the country (Help us win some games too).

Senior Katie Ramsay has had an incredible varsity career and has provided the goals for the Blue Wave this season. She should continue to dominate in her upcoming basketball and lacrosse seasons. (Courtesy DAF)

Speaking more about coaching let´s take a look at the sad state of our coaching staff. Jurgen Klinsmann the former boss who emphasized the future was beneficial for the country. Klinsmann got out of the “group of death” in 2014 World Cup. He also gave Christian Pulisic his first start. He also used a lot of foreign born US citizens who weren’t true Americans. While flawed he had a plan for the future. Sadly in soccer you also have to win games to keep your job and he started to fail at that. Adding in a short term fix like Bruce Arena only sets back the idea of progress that every fan delusionally believes in. He plays boring, uninspiring, old school soccer with no actual plan. All he did was place the most talented players out on the pitch with no true identity in place. Soccer teams need creativity and structure. Arena is exactly what’s wrong with US Soccer. The question the USMNT has to face next is what type of team do we want to be for 2022?

While writing this it looks like there is going to be a new president of US Soccer and a new national team manager. Personally I want the man with whom I started this article with….Alexi Lalas. He understands the problems in the USA and he’s a passionate leader. Oh and also he’s American.

Sadly the failure to qualify for the World Cup is devastating and extremely detrimental for the growth of soccer in the States. I’m not going to sugarcoat it there’s absolutely no way to spin this positively. For the moment the USMNT should feel ashamed and embarrassed, but they shouldn’t give up. There are an unbelievably large amount of flaws in US Soccer but they only way from here is up…right? Right?

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