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How we get from nowhere to winning the World Cup, Pt.2

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In part one we discussed expanding access to soccer for youth players. In part two, we’ll talk about raising the standard of coaching in the USA. And money.

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John Babiak, @Photog_JohnB

This is part two. For part one, click here.

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Axiom #4: We need more trained coaches. A lot more.

When kids are aged 6 to 9 in America, they are almost universally coached by a parent.

I am one of those parent coaches. I think I’m pretty good. I took a 4v4 course sponsored by United Soccer Coaches, and I plan to get my F license, and then an E license. I’m a former teacher, so I know how to teach. And of course, I’m a soccer fanatic, so I watch and study the game intently, and can talk about skills and technical development and tactics. So some parent coaches are great.*

But most parents in most clubs don’t take courses. They don’t watch soccer. They might figure out what to work on and how to get kids better, but they might not.

And of course, most of us have witnessed the dregs of this ‘volunteer unpaid coach’ system. A few weeks ago, as my team was practicing, another coach on another field was yelling, red-faced, at a group of nine-year olds about defense, getting back on defense, paying attention. Mind you, they weren’t practicing defense. They were just getting yelled at about it for 10 minutes. I can’t imagine that any of it made those kids better at closing down the man with the ball. Nor will those kids look back fondly on their soccer experience this season; they might rather grow up hating soccer. Personally, I wanted to go over and explain to the guy that he was murdering the game. That somewhere, the souls of Eduardo Galeano and Garrincha and Lamar Hunt and Ferenc Puskas and Johan Cruyff were calling out from the ground: ‘You are killing the beautiful game for this child.’

My point is: we don’t have enough trained coaches. Fifteen years ago, the tiny nation of Iceland went on a program to improve their standing in the soccer world, and eventually, make the World Cup tournament. Last week, they achieved that goal.

Part of their plan involved a massive investment in coaching - producing more coaches, and providing them all the way down to the youngest age groups.

Here’s the key quote from that Guardian piece:

“Even if you start training at four years old you get good quality coaching. Every coach in Iceland gets paid, we don’t have any amateurs. Every kid who plays pays an annual fee and can go and train with a professional club. My own kid started when he was three. One coach had the Uefa A licence and one the B licence.”

Three year-olds get A licencsed coaches! For comparison, Pablo Mastroeni coached his entire first season with the Rapids without his A license.

Iceland has one A or B licensed coach for every 825 citizens. In the US, we have an A or B licensed coach for ever 42,667 citizens. Part of the problem is, again, evangelism. US Soccer needs to aggressively promote coaching, and recruit more good coaches. And part of the problem is cost - those higher level coaching licenses are expensive, and they aren’t significantly subsidized.

Iceland is one story. Another story, which is too long to tell here, is Germany’s efforts to reinvent its soccer program in order to win the 2014 World Cup. Do yourself a favor- get ‘Das Reboot’ by Raphael Honigstein, and prepared to be enlightened. In short, they made a massive investment in... wait for it... coaching and youth soccer.

More kids with better instruction will produce better soccer players at the top levels. Instead of thinking ‘where do we find twenty-three World Cup caliber players?’, we’ll be forced to ask ‘Of all these incredible players, how can we only choose twenty-three?’, a problem some countries actually have.

The challenges: it won’t be cheap, and it involves a significant degree of disruption to the current US soccer system. And we need to do it anyways.

All this spending on youth soccer and coaching is going to be very expensive. There a few ways to at least start doing it. For starters, that $100 million surplus to US Soccer? Youth soccer. All of it. Boom.

Next: MLS needs to pony up. MLS as a league, the teams as teams, and the owners themselves need to put in a much larger amount of money into youth development. Phillip Anschutz, Bob Kraft, and Lamar Hunt once spent millions to save MLS from extinction. MLS and US Soccer need to hit them and every other owner in the league up for a development fund of epic proportions: a Marshall Plan to save American soccer from persistent global irrelevance.

And then, you go corporate. Adidas and Nike and Fox and ESPN/Disney and Gatorade and Transamerica and every other sponsor in soccer need to create a massive and deep pocketed foundation dedicated to spreading the gospel of soccer by ... say it with me now ... investing in youth soccer and coaching.

You also need investment and cooperation from local municipalities and YMCAs, from school districts and parks and recreation departments, to support and grow soccer. There are lots of ways to do that, and I know that some of that already takes place. We need more. One way to do this comes through MLS. If MLS chose the next rounds of expansion based on a city’s willingness to invest in affordable soccer in their communities and parks, instead of shady tax deals and publicly funded stadium boondoggles, it would help boost soccer culture in a way that, over the long haul, benefit MLS by creating more soccer fans.

And. And! The Federal government should pony up a little too. The annual budget of US Soccer as of 2016, before their announced massive $100 million surplus due to the Women’s World Cup, was a tiny $91 million. The budget for the Department of Health and Human Services was $1.13 trillion. You know what’s really good for kids health? Running around chasing a soccer ball. The budget for the US military was $639 billion. The cost of one single F-35 attack plane is $122 million. Crazy idea: you know what would actually, literally, make America great? Winning the World Cup. Instead of buying 1,763 F-35, buy one less. Buy a hundred less. Give the money to youth soccer. Soccer bombs, not actual actual bombs, will change the world, Mr. President. We could, actually, be “so sick of winning.”**

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All of these investments are long term in nature, which is always a hard sell to short-sighted corporations that are usually motivated by an uptick in tomorrow’s Dow Jones. It will take until 2030 at the earliest until the potentially expanded pool of soccer kids of today take the field at the senior level.

But these investments are essential. The cost to MLS, US Soccer, and every company affiliated and invested in soccer in missing the 2018 World Cup is massive. Millions of kids will not be exposed to the game next summer. Millions in ad revenues and sponsorships went up in smoke the minute Alvin Jones’ ball rocketed into the upper 90 of that goal in Port of Spain. If nothing is done to improve and expand US soccer, it will cost everyone associated with soccer in the US, literally, billions of dollars. And on the other side, the financial windfall to all those companies if the US wins the World Cup will be massive. Imagine how much Adidas will make when every kid in America clamors for the newest ‘Weston McKennie’ shoes, and how much in sales Gatorade will generate with World Cup champion Christian Pulisic’s face on every bottle.

There are some aspects of breaking the old financial model for clubs that will be easy. And others that will be hard.

Youth soccer clubs in America are not big wealthy behemoths that can spend oodles of cash. To reinvent the way they do business by eliminating pay for play is potentially going to throw many into chaos. Most soccer clubs get a huge chunk of their money from their very expensive competitive travel clubs and pricey tournaments, and if take that all away by creating cheaper alternatives, some clubs will not adjust.

As the guys from Total Soccer Show mentioned in their ‘What next for American soccer?’ podcast last week, the reason this model of affordable youth soccer works throughout Europe is because most European clubs use the profits gained at the top level to funnel it downwards to the youth clubs: not out of some sense of altruistic benevolence, but because it is an essential aspect of player development. It is cheaper to grow the next Christian Pulisic or Mario Götze than it is to buy him on the transfer market for an eight-figure fee.

There is one easy piece of club financial reform that US Soccer has stubbornly refused to make, and that is solidarity payments. This article is long enough already that it virtually needs a table of contents, so for a thorough examination of solidarity payments, go here or here. But in brief, when a professional is sold from one club to another, a small percentage of the transfer fee is sent to that players original youth club. For a lot of clubs, a $200,000 solidarity payment could fund a significant percentage of the club’s operating budget and allow to club to pay coaches and offer soccer for kids at a reasonable price. MLS and the players union have not allowed them to this point, which I flat out don’t understand. As I understand it, they just simply don’t want to give some youth team in New Jersey 5% of the sell-on fee from Matt Miazga’s sale to Chelsea. I think that’s criminally dumb and should be changed. This is one antiquated US Soccer financial policy that needs to die. Now.

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American soccer’s old guard complacently believes that everything is fine.

Apparently for Sunil Gulati, denial isn’t just a river in Egypt; it’s also a moat around a soccer field in Trinidad.

Nope. It’s not fine. It’s only marginally fine if the US has the eternally mediocre goal of getting to the World Cup only to be eliminated in the round of 16. Wholesale changes are sorely needed.

I do not aspire to mediocrity. We can do better. There is no doubt that it will be very hard and complicated to reorganize the way soccer sustains itself in America. It will take thoughtful planning to wean soccer clubs off of all their income from affluent suburban parents and towards a more balanced and affordable model for all. But the alternative of having a soccer system that draws the bulk of its players from only those that can afford it is doomed to fail our national team. We cannot win the World Cup without reaching the maximum number of American kids.

With planning and forethought, and with the desire to create a more equitable system, we can build a powerhouse of a national team that would be befitting of a great nation like ours. I will accept nothing less than the World Cup trophy. I hope the leadership at US Soccer has the same lofty aspirations, and the same willingness to change the things that got us to here, to this low point of American soccer.

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* Maybe I’m great? I’m enthusiastic and knowledgable at least. And I care more about development and the kids having a lot of fun than I do about winning and losing.

** I have not noticed a lot of winning, in either the literal or metaphorical sense, with this president. If I were USSF president, it sure would be fun to meet with our president and say ‘Dude, give me just a billion dollars; 1/600th of our military’s budget, and you can brag to the country about all the ACTUAL winning we’re doing.’