The recent success of the US National soccer team in reaching the final of the Confederations Cup in 2009 and winning their Qualifying group in the 2010 FIFA World Cup has raised a number of questions as to the future of soccer in the USA.
- How good is the US National team?
- How good is the Major League Soccer?
- What does the future hold for US Soccer?
All excellent questions and I feel have interesting answers.
- How good is the US National team?
It is not yet to the standard required to win the FIFA World Cup but then only eight nations Brazil
(5 times), Italy (3 times), Germany (3 times), Argentina (2 times), Uruguay (2 times), France (once), England (once) and Spain (once) have won the “Jules Rimet” trophy since its inception in 1930. So the US is in keeping with the other 202 FIFA member nations at this time. The important point to remember is that although soccer has been played in the USA since the late eighteen hundreds it is only in recent years that the sport has been organized and developed both at youth and professional levels throughout the United States. The US National team has come a long way in recent years. It has qualified for the last six World Cup finals. In the past the USA have invariably finished third or fourth behind Mexico and other Central American countries in the CONCACAF Qualifying round for World Cup finals and in 1982 they finished behind Canada and did not qualify for the World finals in Mexico. Today, following their success in heading the regions 2009/2010 World Cup Qualifying competition, they have now replaced Mexico as the number one soccer country in CONCACAF. The success of the US National team in the South African Confederations Cup in 2009 beating Spain in the semi-final and losing 3 – 2 to Brazil in the final after gaining a 2 – 0 lead has earned them respect as an up and coming soccer nation. With many of this year’s World Cup team in their mid twenties and the present U20 National team having eight players based in Pro Clubs in Mexico, one in Brazil, one in Portugal and one in Costa Rica all gaining valuable experience, the National team will continued to be very competitive in CONCACAF and World Soccer, not yet FIFA World Cup winners but a “Sleeping Giant” of the future.
- How good is the Major League Soccer?
“A poor League”, “Third Division Standard” “Rubbish” “A long way to go” are just a few of the descriptions of Major League Soccer made by some soccer media and soccer officials around the world and often said by the ethnic US soccer fans throughout the USA still remembering the leagues that they watched before coming to America. To an extent “Yes” Major League Soccer does have a way to go before it can be compared to top soccer leagues around the world such as Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga, and Italy’s Seria A. But one must remember that those leagues have been in existence for over one hundred years while the MLS is now only in its 15th year. It is now at 16 teams and will be expanding to 18 by year 2012. Twelve’s clubs now have their own soccer stadiums. No longer the baseball and American football stadiums of the 1970’s and 1980’s with their narrow fields, artificial playing surfaces and with baseball diamonds, and pitching mounds covered with grass turfs. “I personally remember it well”. To obtain a new MLS franchise, today a soccer stadium is a must or to have a planned stadium and the finance in place to build one within two years. Thus the perception to the US soccer fans now is that “This is soccer.” “ We have our “Home stadium,” we are a soccer club and not a poor relation to other US sports teams sharing their stadiums and playing a game schedule on dates to suit the other sports needs. We are independent clubs and under the MLS banner we will operate as a soccer club in a Professional soccer league.” The MLS has also controlled its finances by introducing a strict player draft system thus not allowing player salaries to sky rocket and bankrupt teams. The former North American Soccer League of the early 1970’s and 1980’s was a very good league in terms of the many outstanding world class players playing in the league. Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, Johan Cruyff, Carlos Alberto, Teofilo Cubillas, Rodney Marsh, Eusebio, Gerd Muller, Johan Neeskens, and the great Pele, were just a few of those playing throughout the league. The New York Cosmos had a superb team of International players with a payroll in the millions. Backed by the Warner Brothers Corporation and attendances in the 60,000 – 80,000 they could afford such stars. Unfortunately many teams in less supported cities, and without high financial backing such as Memphis, Houston, San Antonio, San Jose, Atlanta and St. Louis could not compete with the Cosmos. In their efforts to do so, they overspent and eventually folded. As clubs departed the NASL and no new teams wishing to join, the league eventually collapsed. The MLS, is with its strict financial control, attempting to insure that it does not go the way of the NASL. The direction that the MLS is taking is correct at this time but there are problems. With the MSL player salaries not comparing with those of top players around the world there is no longer the exodus of top players from other countries coming to the US. The MLS team rosters are basically former US college players and a strictly controlled number of foreign players not necessarily of top International standard. Consequently the overall standard of play in the MLS is not yet, as stated, up to the level of Premier League’s around the world. It cannot be at this stage of its development. Many US soccer fans are now seeing the top league games from around the world on their TV’s each weekend and are naturally comparing it to their local MLS team and requesting the same. With it not being so, they tend to stay at home. Another problem in my opinion is that the MLS must not expand too quickly. It is nice to announce a new team in a new city and to have a financial distribution of the franchise fee to the existing MLS teams but if the player pool is restricted to a draft system from the existing teams and a college draft, the player pool is being spread too thin and the standard of play diluted even further. The NASL expanded to 24 teams over a very short period of time and, as stated, some teams were under financed and others over spent in an effort to compete with the top teams within the league. I sincerely hope that the MLS, who have already made many excellent decisions as they build their league, does not follow the pattern of the NASL. We do not want our professional soccer league to fold again.
- What does the future hold for US soccer?
With the MLS being well organized and controlled we have a solid professional league. “Yes” we must improve the standard of play to attract the US soccer fans to the games played throughout the country. We cannot have any team fail. They cannot all be the champion but they can produce an entertaining and attractive product with an enjoyable atmosphere within their stadiums. We have already seen that recently achieved in new franchises in Seattle and Philadelphia attracting sellout attendances. With over 3 million registered youth players in the USA the development of young players is “a top priority” for the USSF. The new Academy League set up throughout the country is to earmark the best young players early and to have them in a controlled Development Program within their youth clubs. Restricting how many games they can play, which youth tournaments they can enter, how many training sessions each week and the quality of coaching received. The MLS clubs now have youth sections with their teams playing in the Academy League. “Showcase” tournaments are held two times a year when the National team coaches at all age levels are able to assess talent for their US National teams. An Academy Championship is held each year at the National Centre in Los Angeles again giving each player the opportunity to be seen and selected for “All Star Teams” to go on overseas tours. All of these programs in place to assist in the development of players for future International Teams.
Lastly, many young soccer players on completing their high school education at 18 years make the decision not to go onto college but to attempt to join professional soccer clubs around the world. Many of the US National team of today took that road and with ten of the present US National U20 team preparing for next year’s FIFA U20 World Championship playing overseas at this time the future for US soccer is at an interesting stage.
Not yet the power in world soccer desired but a
“Sleeping Giant” Waiting to be Awakened
Article written by Gordon Jago, Dallas Cup Executive Director