This article was originally written By Gordon Jago, Executive Director Dallas Cup in 2005 for the “Journal of London Football Coaches Association” and now updated as of June 2010.
“The aim of the United States Soccer Federation is for the USA to win the World Cup in year 2010”, was the statement made by Dr. Bob Contiguglia on becoming the US Soccer Federation President in 1998. A very strong statement especially when one considers that only seven nations have won the 18 FIFA World Cup finals since its inception in 1930; Brazil (5 times), Italy (4 times), West Germany (3 times), Argentina (2 times), Uruguay (2 times), England (1 time) and France (1 time). All were powerful soccer nations with strong internal professional leagues, many having been in existence for over a hundred years.
Although soccer has been played in the USA since the early 1800’s, it is only in recent years that the game has been developed both at the youth and professional levels. The Major Soccer League is now in its 15th year and although youth soccer is being played by millions of boys and girls throughout the country there is not a strong development system of amateur and professional clubs to allow American youngsters to develop as in the majority of soccer nations around the world. Even though this area of development has improved to some degree, can Dr. Bob Contiguglia’s aim of being World Cup winners in 2010 materialize?
One has to be aware of a country such as the USA when a President, John F. Kennedy calmly stated in 1961 “that within the decade America will place a man on the moon.” “Unbelievable” stated many at such a boast but it was accomplished by brilliant technology, outstanding engineering feats, great scientists and a group of outstanding astronauts all coming together and achieving that aim. It was a combination of man and machinery. However there is a big difference in such an historic achievement and the winning of a World Cup soccer tournament.
To win the World Cup it will depend on man alone, in fact 23 men. Yes there will be studies on physical development, fitness, diet and every aspect to bring a group of athletes to peak condition for a World Cup finals tournament but it will be the soccer abilities, the mental and physical fitness of the players and the tactics, selection and preparation of the coaching staff that will determine the winning of the World Cup finals in South Africa in 2010.
Can the USA succeed? A really big task! The first stage has been achieved. The USA will be one of the 32 countries competing for the FIFA World Cup championship in South Africa. The US National team has made incredible progress in the world of soccer over the past twenty years. It has now qualified for the last five World Cup finals and in Japan 2002 surprised everyone with excellent performances to reach the quarter finals losing in a very close game to Germany one of the most experienced teams in the tournament.
So what of the future? Can more talented US players be developed? Can the USA produce those three or four special world-class players such as Messi (Argentina), Torres (Spain), Kaka (Brazil), Rooney (England), Henry (France), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) and Drogba (Ivory Coast) who can turn a game with their exceptional individual performance? Good all round ability, excellent athletes, superb fitness, good teamwork and sound organization by the coaching staff have been the hallmarks of the USA National team’s success in recent years. With no disrespect to the fine players on the team, that outstanding individual or individuals that I believe are required to win the World Cup have yet to appear. Landon Donavan with his recent level of play during loan to Everton and now with the LA Galaxy comes to mind but will it be his year in South Africa? We will all know soon enough.
The biggest problem for US soccer at this time is the opportunity for talent to develop. As stated, millions of young boys are playing at all levels from YMCA and recreational programs to club soccer leagues. The majority of these classic/club teams are extremely well organized. Most with coaches, many of whom were excellent players who arrived in the US to play in the old North American Soccer League and have now retired, who enjoy the involvement of assisting the development of the young American player and many young American coaches who also played in the NASL and gained valuable knowledge from that experience. Teams travel abroad to tournaments in order to gain valuable experience in European and South American soccer and to test their abilities to the full. A limited number of US players in relation to the number actually playing on club teams also have the opportunity each year to attend the Dallas Cup and achieve the same thing without having to travel abroad as the international teams come to them. Many US teams do perform well in these competitions as their standard of play improves. All of this development is from the age of 10 to 18 years and comes about, in my opinion, owing to the ever improving standard of club soccer in the USA.
High School soccer for boys 16-18 at this time does not provide the quality of games and coaching necessary to take these youngsters to the next level. In most states, American football rules the day. American football that have stadiums with maximum 50 yard width fields (not ideal for soccer), high budgets for equipment and travel costs leaves very little money for school soccer programs. The coaches are often on the school payroll for other sports and are given the soccer coach’s position as an extra duty. Many outstanding young players in club soccer teams make the decision not to play for their schools and to me that is a disappointment for to represent you school is an honor. The difference in the quality of soccer played in school competitions and club competitions is immense.
High school soccer is one problem for the development of the American youth soccer player but college soccer is an even bigger problem. Compare the development process of the American boy and the European or Central/South American boy. The American boy at age 18 goes to college to a soccer program that plays a maximum of 20 games per season and due to the difference in standard of play between many of the colleges, only a small number of that 20 game schedule are really competitive. There is also the problem that college soccer has certain substitution rules. A player substituted in the first half cannot return in that half. If substituted in the second half he can return one time. With such rules, how can an 18-21 age player develop even a 90 minute fitness let alone develop his skill abilities? At the same age boys in the majority of other soccer countries have already been involved with professional soccer clubs for a number of years, training with experienced players, receiving daily coaching in a highly competitive environment and most importantly playing over 40 competitive games each season. Many of them reach first and second team positions at 19 and 20 years of age. Compare this development to the American college players.
Carlos Alberto Parreira, the famous Brazilian coach, stated when coach of the New York MetroStars that by the time a player comes out of college at 21 or 22 he cannot be taught the fundamentals that should be learned much earlier in his career. You cannot then fully develop players. What is the answer to this problem? American college soccer coaches will state that their task is not to produce professional soccer players but to assist the players in obtaining an education and that soccer is a college sports activity. A correct attitude…..education first, sport second.
The USSF fully recognized the problem and brought into being the Soccer Academy in Bradenton Florida. Forty selected players between the ages of 16-17 are full time participants. There is school in the morning and evening and soccer training in the afternoon. From this group of boys USA National teams have been selected and traveled to play in major youth tournaments around the world including the Dallas Cup and FIFA World Championships.
A further National programme, the Olympic Development Program (ODP), was also put into place. Throughout the whole country selected players attend regular local coaching sessions with the country divided into four regions. ODP teams are selected to play in state and regional tournament and a final 18 players are selected for Regional ODP teams that compete in USA and International youth competitions. The object of these programs is to find the best talent and to expose it to the best possible competition. The success of the USA team in World U17 finals and the excellent results of ODP teams in past years show that the programs greatly assisted the development of the young players in the 12-18 age groups.
A criticism of the two programs was that there was a fee charged for participation and this prevented some of the best Hispanic and inner city players from involvement as they were coming from working class families that did not have the disposable income to spend on the programs. This problem has to be overcome, for many of these players possess the individual ability and brilliance that is missing at the senior level of the USA National team.
A third and far more reaching program was brought into being by the United States Soccer Federation in 2006. A program designed to ultimately develop young players for future National teams and to provide a higher grade of player entering Major League Soccer. The
USSF Developmental Academy (under 18 and under 16) was formed and top youth clubs from around the USA were invited to participate in regionalized leagues with a limited number of games between teams from other regions. A strong set of conditions and precautions were put into place to insure the best preparation possible. A restriction on the number of games played in a season, a required four nights of training and initially only two tournaments were authorized by the USSF for participation by academy teams, the Disney Showcase and the Dr Pepper Dallas Cup, no more than one game played in a given day, are just some of the “Best Practices” initiated by the academy. As the program has only been in existence for a few years it is probably far too early to judge if the program will be successful. The overall concept is certainly correct. As with the majority of new ventures it still has to be “tweaked” as various problems arise. The best preparation and highest possible standard of competition for the soccer youth of the USA should assist in bringing the desire of the USSF to produce many more highly skillful, more knowledgeable and more competitive players for the National programs and Major League Soccer.
For the current time, the continuation of many of the best USA players playing overseas in top soccer leagues throughout the world is vital. The overseas experience gained by players such as Tim Howard (Everton), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Demarcus Beasley (Glasgow Rangers), Jonathan Spector (West Ham United), Oguchi Onyewu (AC Milan), Maurice Edu (Glasgow Rangers), Michael Bradley (Borussia Monchengladbach) and others have proved to be of tremendous value to the US National team and it is interesting to note that in Coach Bob Bradley’s 23 players for the World Cup finals, 19 are playing professionally in various countries around the world. It is also interesting and encouraging that the majority of the 19 began their professional careers in MLS teams. Major League Soccer overall is not yet to the standard of top leagues around the world. In only its 15th year one cannot expect that and patience is needed but with the mix of player’s experience in view in South Africa MLS is gaining ground in the right direction.
To win the World Cup in year 2010 as Dr. Contiguglia stated in 1998 is a huge task and I personally feel that any added pressure to win by the US sports media is not needed. World Cup Champions in 2010? No! But with the progress that has been made in recent years, the USA National team has shown that it is fast becoming a strong soccer power and it WILL be the champion in the not too distant future.
Gordon Jago, M.B.E
Executive Director, Dr Pepper Dallas Cup