How do we judge the health of soccer in the USA?
Major League Soccer just kicked off its 21st season. It has grown to 22 teams from its original 12 with further expansion imminent.
It has lots of big-reputation, high-wage foreign players, some shiny new stadia, a fat TV deal and big plans for the future. But leagues across the globe can say the same.
What about the men’s national team? Despite the occasional flash they have yet to truly make an impact at the very highest level and the same can be said for the various boys youth teams.
The world’s richest economy and fourth most populous nation has resources and a demographic few can emulate.
So is it wrong to wonder why the US isn’t doing better at this soccer thing?
What happens if you look beyond the top level and examine the grassroots of the US soccer system? Perhaps this is a good place to get a proper prognosis on the state of play in the USA?
To find out we sat down with two soccer polyglots to discuss youth development in the US. And it became immediately apparent that the challenges facing the game in America run far and deep.
Ben Ziemer comes from a Californian soccer dynasty. His playing and coaching experience spans the US soccer ecosystem and beyond. He is currently a youth coach at the Sacramento Republic and the president of the NorCal Premier organisation. Ian Mork was a talented player, and is now a coach and scout with international experience.
They do not mince their words.
“It begins with culture,” says Ziemer at the start of our conversation.
The scale of this statement should not be underestimated. If the culture is not right then everything is wrong. But when and where do the problems begin?
“It starts at one to four [years of age],” Ziemer explains. “Arsene Wenger said that already the soccer motor skills are there. Americans are increasingly sedentary and increasingly obese. From four to eight; the kids don’t play enough.”
“The American athlete plays multi-sport but it is with their hands so it is different,” he continues. “You can pick the ball up; eyes and hands are different, the coordination is different. That is what everyone is missing; the degree of specialisation it takes to play with your feet and to what age.”
The US sports environment is almost unique in its diversity. Baseball, basketball, American Football, hockey – soccer faces a multi-dimensional battle for kids’ attention, parental focus and financial commitment. Whereas youngsters in other nations have little choice but to be faithful to a sole sporting vocation the American child is more adulterous.
Millions of Americans play soccer. Estimates vary but FIFA ranks them second only to Germany for the number of registered players and China for the total number of players. There is strength in numbers but only if you are doing things right.
Ziemer acknowledges that progress is being made with certain age brackets. But it is as the American soccer player enters their teens that other nations start to pull away.
“Eight to twelve is better but already our best coaches coach older instead of those ages,” he says.
“At Under 14 kids abroad start training four times a week, five times a week, six times a week. They go into residency, the best players get brought in whereas here all the kids go back to their clubs.”
So at arguably the most important stage of development US kids’ training becomes less intense. This places young Americans at a disadvantage compared with contemporaries in other countries. But there are other obstacles to consider.
“All the other sports it works for them to go to college. It works for track, it works for baseball, basketball, it works for football – it doesn’t work for soccer,” says Ziemer.
“Right now, unless you are at a professional club it is about going to college,” explains Mork. “So there is no connection to the top level. We have so many kids playing youth soccer but what happens if they don’t go to college? I think a big missing piece is what players do after they are 18 years old.”
The US has some very successful youth development programmes with some fantastic, forward-thinking, coaches. But there are structural problems in the system that surrounds them, as Mork explains.
“Our top 16, 17 years olds are playing against themselves and in another country they are playing against the top 19, 20 year olds. In other countries they are moving where they should be but we don’t have that yet. When players graduate from U18s you have to have the facility to let them keep going. It is still not in the culture here.”
This is not a glass ceiling, so much as a house with holes in the roof. Once they reach a certain level there is simply nowhere to turn for some young soccer players in the US. Left open to the wind their talent and potential just drifts away.
The implications for late bloomers or those who may have suffered injury, bad luck or prejudicial judgments from coaches or scouts, is obvious.
The peculiarities of the US sporting system mean that things which are taken for granted in most other soccer nations have a completely different meaning in America.
“There is a different definition of a club here,” says Mork. “If we were to ask you what a club is what would you say? But here it is youth, a youth club, and that’s about it.”
“We have told clubs to take youth out of your name. We want it to be from birth to death,” says Ziemer.
This point is critical.
Those concerned with the development of soccer in the US need to realise that the nations they aspire to emulate and surpass are operating under a completely different set of rules. There is no end of the road, no graduation; you don’t outgrow it. Soccer is for life – from cradle to grave.
“So it is a lifelong love for it,” continues Mork. “It doesn’t matter the level, allow the players to keep playing. If that model can start to take off a little bit more in the US then that will make a big difference. But the leagues and the people running them have to have that vision – it’s part of the issue.”
Before meeting Ziemer and Mork I watch the Sacramento Republic U16s play De Anza Force. The two teams compete in the same league but operate very differently.
Sacramento Republic’s senior team plays in the USL, the notional third professional division of the plateau-like US soccer pyramid. Their ultimate goal is to become an MLS franchise. They count former World Cup and Premier League players among their youth coaching staff. They do not charge pay-to-play fees of their players.
“You are here at a good time with Sac Republic because it is the beginning of exactly what is needed in a lot of the big metropolitan areas in the US,” says Mork “Now they can rival San Jose [Earthquakes]. They are trying to do it from the very top all the way down.”
“Right now we have something for kids to aspire to: ‘You guys try to get there! Sacramento is 40 minutes from your home? Try to play for them!’ They have got this fan base here, they have got the energy going and when that starts to happen it makes a huge difference.”
Based in Silicon Valley, De Anza are one of the most respected youth teams in the US. They have several professional alumni, award winning coaches and list the former head of Barcelona’s academy as their technical director. They are a not-for-profit and a thoroughly impressive organisation. Their focus is strictly youth, they have no post-18 teams. It costs several thousand dollars a year to play for them.
Recent changes to the youth soccer structure in the US are starting to change the landscape somewhat. In 2007 US Soccer implemented the Development Academy program which brings together clubs and teams who meet specific developmental criteria to compete against each other. It is a move in the right direction.
Clubs in the US pro-divisions have begun paying more attention to their own youth development programmes and the fabled pathway to the top is beginning to open-up. This is a big step but the journey is long and there will inevitably be bumps along the way.
De Anza recently lost a host of players to the San Jose Earthquakes when their Silicon Valley neighbours reorganised their academy. The Earthquakes are an established MLS club with a gleaming stadium, coaching facilities, team buses, a senior team to aspire to . . . and can offer all this for free. There is no pay to play in San Jose.
Clubs with very different structures are competing for America’s talent. What this means for the future is open to question. But it is difficult to build anything long lasting on uneven foundations.
Mork then poses an interesting question which illustrates the clouds that darken the path of some aspiring players in the US.
“Take a 14 year old, not in the Sac Republic, another club in the US, and ask him: ‘You are 14, you are the best player on your team, what is your path? How are you going to get to the top?’ He is not going to be able to tell you. He would say: ‘Well if I keep doing well I might get selected for the national team, if I go to college and get a good scholarship I might get picked up by MLS . . .’ There is no vision. It is still not clear.”
Northern California has a population of 15 million. It has five development academies, two of which are professional. England by comparison has more than 100. The US is huge – both geographically and demographically. This is both a blessing and a curse.
“In Los Angeles they estimate there are sixty thousand unaffiliated players,” explains Ziemer. “I think there are 10-20,000 unaffiliated players in northern California. They estimate 60,000 in southern California. If you go nationwide there a lot of players that never even enter the mainstream. There are players who have gone and played in Mexico.”
“The difference is that some of those players have to make it to the top in order to survive and do something for their family,” continues Mork.
This is where one of the most contentious issues facing soccer in the US comes into play.
“Whereas other kids never have any worries in their lives, they know they are going to go to Stanford, or wherever, no matter what. They are playing and it’s great . . . but where that ties in for me is the promotion/relegation issue as well. So when you start to think about all the levels, there is never the mentality of you can go up or you can go down,” says Mork.
The US soccer league system is unique in its exclusivity. There is no promotion and relegation between the various professional divisions. This is perplexing to foreign eyes used to open completion as a fundamental element of the soccer experience.
MLS is expanding but remains a mono-culture, operated in ways typical of the traditional American sports. Whether this situation should continue is the source of contentious, heated, debate. Regardless, the stasis clearly has implications for all levels of the US game.
“My brother played for a fourth division club [in Germany]. He got injured and left,” says Ziemer. ”The coach of that team did well and he moved up to the third division, the team did well he moved up to the second division . . . there is a promotion relegation for coaches as well. I won the fourth division amateur, I almost beat MLS teams with my amateur teams. In Europe I would have gone up with my teams. All those players would have as well.”
Foreign teams are well aware of the potential in the US. There are famous examples of American kids making the grade at major European clubs. A recent clampdown on the transfer of young players by the world governing body FIFA has made international moves much more difficult. But the question remains: Are young Americans best served by moving abroad?
“We encourage kids to leave the country if they are good enough and they have a place to go,” says Ziemer. “But now everything has changed because of the Barca ruling and you have to have an EU passport and you have to be 16. Even in Mexico the federation is being tougher in allowing kids to go to Mexico.”
“We have kids who are good talents. We have so many kids that Mexican clubs come in and pick up, the kids the colleges don’t want. What do we have for them? There are so many, the ones who are missing that we don’t even know about.”
It cannot be denied that there are talented American players. But is the US doing all it can to make sure they are found and developed? Scouting in such a vast and diverse nation is difficult and talent cannot afford to go undetected.
“I scout inside of the development academies,” says Mork. “But there are so many players outside even the league we work with.”
The structure of the US system is riddled with holes through which talent and potential can escape far too easily. Ziemer points to the cases of Germany international Marco Reus, a classic late bloomer, and former US national team defender Jay DeMerit, who slipped through the cracks in the MLS before reaching the Premier League and World Cup.
“Here someone graduates from college unless they are willing to travel around the country they are not going to find a team. It will end up being Sunday league,” he says.
The system in the US cossets some players and disenfranchises others. College provides a sheltered environment. Do American players need to get angrier? More streetwise?
Since 2009 Ian Mork has coached the Belize national team on three occasions. Interestingly, even a team ranked 161 by FIFA can offer lessons for the US.
“The youth development isn’t organised,” he explains. “The top players when they are 15, 16 they play with the adults because there is nowhere else for them to play.
“So then all of a sudden you get these players who are top talents at 16 and they are playing with adults. By the time they are 20, 21 they are good players and that is in a place where the structure is zero. We are still missing that here.”
Ziemer has coached teams on the id2 programme which selects promising U14 players from across the US to tour Europe. The results, against the youth teams of Europe’s elite clubs, have often been positive and occasionally spectacular. There is certainly talent in the US. But how much is it being held back by the system?
“At Ajax at 14 they ramp up the training,” says Ziemer. “It is child’s play until that age and then it becomes serious. Here it is almost the reverse. You go into high school, you train less as you get older here in the clubs. Can you imagine? I have watched sessions with Denis Bergkamp talking about having your arm in the right position to spin off someone when the ball is played in. Where is that happening here? Little details, six times a week. A Wayne Rooney here would never have been pushed up.”
There is room for improvement in other key areas. Despite its place as the world’s richest economy the US still lacks resources compared to the traditional soccer powerhouses.
“At Fiorentina there are six coaches on the field for every training,” says Ziemer. “They have kids where they pull them out of training and work on one specific like chest-trap-volley and then put them back in the session and the next kid comes over: chest-trap-left foot, chest-trap right foot. Here I share a field two nights a week even at the professional level.”
There are glimmers of hope and signs of progress however. US Soccer has implemented positive changes to the way it administers its coaching badges for example. While NorCal Premier, the organisation Ziemer presides over, promote subsidised coaching seminars from elite level European academy coaches for their members. There are pockets of positivity it just feels like growth is slower than it could and should be.
“It is going to take some time,” says Mork. “But I think in another 5-10 years you’ll see another step and then hopefully another. If you go to a first team game people are passionate, the culture is gradually changing. We are moving it could just be so much quicker.”
Promising youngsters still face a battle to let their talent do the talking. Unless they are lucky enough to be on the right team they will be left jumping blindly from platform to platform like Super Mario. The path to the top should be clearly. Is it any surprise that many players don’t make it to the next level?
Soccer in the US has come a long way since the 1994 World Cup. But there remains a lot further to travel before it can really step out of the shadows.
It takes time to change a culture. Until that happens though, it will be difficult for soccer in the US to reach full maturation. The US is in no place to limit its talent pool. Scouting and coaching education must be improved, the path from junior to senior soccer made clear. The distinction between clubs and youth clubs needs to blur. And then there is the spectre of promotion and relegation.
What is clear though is that the issues impacting youth development in the US are shared by the wider soccer community. Improvement at the top requires improvement at all levels.
“They say the elite game only survives because of the grassroots,” says Ziemer. “The higher the grassroots the higher the elite. Here they don’t understand. It is almost like they are looking only at the elite and they don’t even understand elite.”
There are still fundamental issues facing the progress of soccer in the US. The game is changing but has yet to get up to speed in comparison with the elite level nations. There are pockets of progress and flickers of light, but the path is still shrouded in shadow. Where will soccer be in the USA in another 20 years?