What Next For U.S. Soccer?
By Peter Staunton
"Where do we go now?"
It’s been a week of soul searching for the soccer community of the United States. The defeat on Tuesday night at a deserted and washed-out Ato Boldon Stadium against Trinidad and Tobago cost the national team their place at a World Cup for the first time since 1986 – a place that before kick-off looked nailed on.
That failure has brought widespread examination of soccer practices in the US about issues such as parents having to pay to play, the lack of promotion and relegation in MLS and the ability of American players to cope with the pressure of high-stakes soccer.
It’s a battle currently raging between those who remain steadfast that soccer in the superpower remains on track - despite this failure combined with more setbacks on the international stage such as missing out on the last two Olympic tournaments – and those who demand juddering reform.
ESPN pundit and ex-USMNT member Taylor Twellman verbalised a lot of the frustrations on the minds of American fans in the immediate aftermath of the T&T defeat, calling for an end to pay to play and a restructuring in US Soccer.
Federation president Sunil Gulati – in place since 2006 – insists he won’t quit despite calls to do so, while outgoing coach Bruce Arena claimed that no drastic measures need to be implemented.
"They should have got out of their group, no doubt about it,” former Toronto FC captain Darren O’Dea, who played in MLS between 2012 and 2013, tells Goal. "They didn’t but I don’t think there should be too much panic about ripping up everything and we need a new plan. Slowly but surely things will come along for them."
The most pressing of those measures discussed would be the introduction of promotion and relegation to MLS.
Sports media rights giants MP & Silva offered MLS a $4 billion, 10-year deal for the league’s global media rights over the summer according to the Sports Business Journal – but only on the condition that promotion and relegation be introduced.
Company owner Riccardo Silva has vested interest of course given that he’s also the owner of NASL side Miami FC, which currently has no hope of playing top level soccer Stateside as long as MLS operates on a franchise and expansion basis.
MLS was not set up to be like European leagues though, where a Leicester City can zoom through the divisions and win the title. It was designed to be more in line with other North American sports leagues like the NBA and NFL.
"There’s no chance, I can’t ever imagine that," says O’Dea of the prospect of promotion and relegation. "You have to pay $150 million so imagine you go into the league and get relegated out in the first season?
"How would you go about getting new franchises to come into the league when they have to pay the extortionate amount of money that they do?"
But without relegation, a season can be dead in the water at the three-quarter stage with no playoffs to which to aspire and no drop to stave off. Is it only natural that complacency kicks in?
"We were bottom of the league and we had nothing to play for," says O’Dea of his first season in Toronto. "When I say nothing to play for, you didn’t even have players worrying because you can’t go down.
"Let’s say even with a quarter of the season to go we knew there was no hope in a million years we were even getting the playoffs. It’s straightaway about the next season so you write off a quarter of the season.
"I was actually told when I signed to just get a feel for it. Don’t worry about your fitness, your performances. Just get a feel for the city, settle in and get ready for next year. That’s exactly the way I was brought into it.
"I thought, 'this is crazy, in England you’d be fighting relegation or you’d be fighting for something'.
"There’s no worries at the club, you find players might drop off a little bit because there isn’t the stress of relegation. That is a negative."
Another issue identified was the so-called “pay-to-play” system where talented young players have to pay fees to be affiliated with elite clubs before gaining college scholarships or going pro.
While scholarships exist in some cases at the elite clubs, generally if a player doesn’t live close to - and get spotted by - an MLS academy or their parents can’t afford the fees then the chances are they might never be discovered. No doubt this chokes the pathway for some talented but less well off families.
"I couldn’t believe that a place like Toronto wasn’t absolutely hoovering up every bit of talent possible that they could," says O’Dea.
"Celtic do that in the Scottish league. They see a young player, they break into a team, five or 10 games, straightaway they are on Celtic’s radar. Another five or 10 games later they could be bought. And Celtic bring players in all the time. They might get on well, they might not, but they hoover up the talent.
"At Toronto I’ve seen quite a few players coming through now which is great. Jonathan Osorio was one that came through when I was there.
"For a place like Toronto or New York or LA, surely you can’t be struggling for talent coming through as long as you’ve got the right coaches and the right infrastructure. A place like MLS, North America, they should be one of the leading countries in the world when you look at it.
"The national team should be doing a lot better and the US should be producing a hell of a lot more players than they do.
"Football, from a point of view of growing up in Dublin, all you need is a ball. Football within Britain and Ireland is a working man’s sport. There’s no airs and graces to it.
"Even where I grew up there was no grass so I played on the street with a ball. That’s where I developed as a player more than anything else.
"I trained twice a week maybe for an hour. I played on a Saturday for whatever it was – 60 minutes. I probably played the majority of my football on a street with a ball. You don’t need money for that.
"[Pay-to-play] is absurd. That will restrict things more than anything. If they have to pay that’s crazy. If players are having to pay $3,000 that will hold them back more than anything."
And when the players come through, salary caps - even with the obvious exception of the “Beckham Rule” that permits Designated Players - make it difficult to build a squad of even quality.
"Everyone’s brought into Celtic because they are at that level and the manager’s decided they can play at that level," says O’Dea. "You can be sure as hell if they are not at that level they’ll be out quickly.
"What you find in MLS because of the salary cap, you could have two players, both the same age, same position, one’s much better than the other but you might take the other because he fits the salary cap or doesn’t take up an international spot.
"So much more comes into it. In the end, it’s a squad balanced on the amount they cost.
"In MLS the levels of players are so, so up and down. So you get Giovinco at Toronto, but you’ll get him sitting in the dressing room beside a boy on $50k a year that has never played a first-team game but could be 24 years old.
"In Britain or in Ireland that would be a 16-year-old kid beside you who hasn’t played."
That in turn leads to a huge divide in terms of a squad’s ability man for man and makes it more difficult to raise the overall standard.
Some USMNT stalwarts have found their way back to the league in recent seasons, most notably Clint Dempsey with the Seattle Sounders, and Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore with Toronto.
Ex-national team coach and technical director Jurgen Klinsmann was famously baffled by these senior players’ decisions to abandon Europe for MLS and encouraged American players to pit their wits abroad.
"It’s not even debatable," says O’Dea. "Is Altidore better playing in the Premier League in England or MLS? He’s going to be playing at a far, far higher level in England, it’s undisputed."
However that effect has to be measured out against the positivity their signings bring for the league.
"Is it good for the league that these players came back? Absolutely," says O’Dea. "It grows the league. I thought Bradley’s signing was huge.
"I didn’t get excited when Steven Gerrard signed. I couldn’t be bothered with signings like that any more, like when I see Ashley Cole going out. I’m not interested in that.
"It’s the ones that are going over at 24, 25, 26… they’re the ones that are proper signings that will develop the league. And they have already developed the league.
"It makes the league better and it makes the league look better to other players. When they see him still involved in the national team then other American players might think I don’t need to leave this league to develop or to be involved or to do well."
One thing they won’t get in MLS though is that unique, pressurised environment on offer in Europe. O’Dea played away at AC Milan’s San Siro in the Champions League knockouts aged only 20 and marked Cristiano Ronaldo the following season.
"Would it help if more Americans were in better leagues? Absolutely,” says O’Dea.
“There’s no debate that that was a massive part of my education and a massive part of toughening me up. It was a case of sink or swim and you see how strong your character is.
"[But] MLS are not going to say: 'To help our national team what we’re going to do is let players go.'"
American players who play solely in MLS may well be possessed of the requisite personality to cope but the risk is that they never get to find out until it’s too late. Do-or-die games like Tuesday's defeat to T&T could find them wanting.
O'Dea thinks there is a more relaxed outlook towards the sport that is at odds with the psychology he finds at home in Ireland or elsewhere in Britain.
"Even at Dundee, if I lost a game I’d keep my head down," says the current Dundee FC captain. "I’ve never had one ounce of bother but you’d understand it’s not just the players’ lives, it’s the fans’ lives.
"There are people there that earn minimum wage yet they spend £500 on a season book ticket that they can’t really afford. Yet they do it year on year. Their life is the football as well.
"I remember my first ever away game at Toronto. I arrived and let’s say it was a Friday and the game was Saturday. I asked what time’s dinner? You’re allowed to go out and have dinner in the city. You’re allowed to go off on your own.
"I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t get my head around it. I was actually angry.
"The longer I was there, I embraced it. I understand this is their way. They’re more relaxed with the way things were.
"The way we train and when we are actually on a pitch [in Britain] is a lot more intense. Even the way players are with each other. It’s something I had to adapt to [in MLS].
"I’m used to being in an environment where if you make a mistake you’re told in no uncertain terms that’s not acceptable, you need to do better. There’s more of a softness to the way it was explained to you in MLS.
"Players coming out of college, they’re fully educated which is great, but football was like a hobby to them. It wasn’t the be all and end all.
"There’s no relegation so it’s easygoing. It’s either success or nothing. You don’t have failure really. I’m talking about real jobs-on-the-line type stuff which you have in [European] football.
"The Americans, I’m not going to criticise this because I think it’s fantastic they do go through college, but some of these lads were playing their first game of proper professional football at the age of 22, 23. It’s impossible to do that and expect these guys to develop quick enough to become national team players.
"I played with a lad that was a qualified accountant and you could tell football wasn’t the be all and end all.
"And sure enough now he’s an accountant and doing very well out of it. You don’t see that in Britain. It’s your life."
But now is not the time to rip it up and start again.
"They need to embrace it rather than say we need to be more like England or we need to be more like Spain," says O’Dea.
"Be American, but understand that’s what you have to work within. And find a way to get the best out of everyone within that.
"It will never be like the Premier League. It’s the same sport on the pitch but that’s basically the only thing that’s the same. It’s 90 minutes of football but everything outside that is different in MLS.
"I get frustrated with someone that’s ignorant to MLS, who says 'they need to do this and that'. No they don’t. They need to improve the way they are doing things, yes. Everyone can improve. But within their model. And their model is completely different anywhere in the world.
"You’re going to find the majority of young, good American players will stay within MLS. And it’s MLS’s job to make sure it’s the best possible league, that they can develop the environment of playing in the best possible standard.
"So that when they go and play with the national team and play against other international teams that they are playing week on week against good quality players.
"I know MLS is doing that but they are just doing that at their own pace and within a business model.
"That’s the big thing: it is a business model. They are doing it at their own pace and slowly but surely it’ll come."
As far as professional leagues go, MLS is still quite young. Its first season was in 1996, two years after the country hosted a World Cup.
And had Omar Gonzalez’s block carried into the arms of Tim Howard instead of over his head then this conversation perhaps wouldn't be happening.
But there is little point bemoaning U.S. soccer culture, says O’Dea, because this is the path they’ve chosen. The key is to make sure a World Cup qualification catastrophe like this never happens again.
"I was there in 2012 and it’s 2017 now," says O’Dea. "The league has come on massively.
"Come another five years and it will come on massively again. Then the national team will naturally benefit from that."