American Soccer's Future - An Englishman's Opinion!

Published: Mar 06, 2014 18:46pm EST
By Jason Bardwell, Sports Writer for Konsume Sports

Please Note: This article was updated Mar 06, 2014 @ 06:46pm EST

 

Recently I was reminded of an article I read on a British website titled ‘Major League Soccer: Can the MLS revolution survive and thrive?’ The answer I think is yes it can, but it has to keep changing and evolving with the times. The real question is can soccer as a whole thrive in America where Football, Baseball, Basketball and even Ice Hockey take more sport column inches than the Worlds game.
 


Interestingly the British article focused on the numbers from the game stating that the League is currently ending it’s 18th consecutive season which now makes it the longest running professional soccer league in US history, beating the much troubled NASL which broke up in 1984 after 17 years. Averaging nearly 19,000 fans per game it also ranks third in numbers through gates behind the NFL and MLB.
 


It is true MLS as a league is growing but you have to wonder whether the big money invested in starting new franchises might be used in other ways? How different and ‘local’ can teams be when they are all centrally owned by the MLS? That is something for the higher ups to debate. On a personal level I would love to see the League combine the East and West into one table, maybe then splitting into two separate Leagues from there with a top tier league and a second tier league and promotion and relegation.
 


That, however, is not the make or break point for American soccer and, after last year, I can confirm that Baltimore at least has a healthy youth system in place.

 

I was invited to a game in which a friends son was taking part. The game was not of the highest quality of course but I would have loved to have seen the coaches be a bit more vocal in guiding the team with pushing up, marking opposition and a whole variety of other instructional and educational calls but the main thing was the kids were out on the field, kicking a ball around and having fun. I am not for the coaches berating kids for mistakes but the fact is if you are not constantly coaching and instructing them their game tends to drift off and once a bad habit is learnt it takes a lot of re-educating to get them back on the right track.

 

By contrast, on another day, I saw a whole different level of players. These were young girls, of all differing age ranges taking part in a soccer tournament. The team I had gone to see won their initial match 2-0 in what was a well drilled performance. Regular substitutions, encouraging shouts and tactical guidance was very clear and distinct. As a result each girl knew her role, duty to the team and what to do in the situation she was in. Now there were no sixty yard cross field passes and in fact the turn over in play was frequent, but that was a good thing, all of the girls got a lot of touches on the ball. Needing one more goal than they got to progress the team I was watching were level on every stat with another team in the competition and so had to go to a penalty shoot out in order to determine who would progress.
 


During this time the coaches kept the girls relaxed by practicing penalty kicks against their keeper. The coaches would watch each girl and then give feedback if needed on their technique. One coach took up a position behind home plate, which was the makeshift goal, and proceeded to give the keeper advice on her role in the shootout. The point is they were still being educated on a part of the game they will not have to face everyday but the session was kept informal, relaxed and to the point I am not even sure the girls realized it was an impromptu training session. Needless to say when the girls stepped to the spot each of the four girls who took the spot kick for our side, scored. Meanwhile the fifth girl was not required with our keeper saving two of the opponents attempts.
 


The problem is not with the passion for the game at this age, nor really with the set up of the MLS, although I would like to see promotion and relegation as said before. The problem seems to be at the late teen level. Three million youth soccer players should equate to more pro players than we currently produce, but we also need to insure quality over quantity.

 

In America a lot of the professional sports teams get their talent from the college teams playing in college leagues. The colleges offer scholarships based on talents and their particular schools sporting interest, so once football, baseball and athletic scholarships are taken care of how much is left for soccer players?

 

It is not fair to put this burden on colleges alone and I think it is certainly time for the MLS clubs to take the lead with their own youth programs and teams. If they could work out deals with the local colleges that could be a great way to encourage the young players to apply. For me, rather than throwing more money at new franchises and new stadiums, although both are great, it would be better for the MLS and its teams to invest in their own youth programs, and with it, their own talent pool for the future.
 


That doesn’t always work though and clubs need to be careful not to rush the ‘product’ before it is finished. DC United and the authorities made a mistake a ten years ago with Freddy Adu and it his not his failure but that of MLS that he now plays for Bahia in Brazil rather than a Milan, Manchester or Madrid.

 

In 2004, aged only 14, he was touted as the next Pele. That’s some big shoes for a 14 year old to fill. Pele had quit the New York Cosmos almost 30 years before and all the players developed in all the World since, not a single one has eclipsed Pele. Maradona came close and is a star in his own right, and today you have Messi and Ronaldo but none started for their first team until at least 17. So much pressure was being put on his young shoulders that the best case scenario would be what we have now after he was rushed into DC United’s first team and scored his first goal aged 14.

 

What would have been better would have been to had him in a DC United youth program, developing the skill and shaping the player for another four to five years, even loaning him out to take part in European youth teams would have been good. With his development out of the spotlight I think when he would appear on the worlds stage, still 18 or 19, he would be a much better all around player and now at 24 be looking at him to make an impact at the World Cup in Brazil, rather than being obscure in a Brazilian league. Last time he made an impact with the US Men’s National Side? Two goals in a 4-2 defeat to Mexico in the Gold Cup in 2011.

 

So the balance has to be right, as a country it is important to encourage and nurture the raw talent I have seen this past weekend but not be in such a rush that we neglect it and in the process ruin it. So can the Worlds game state a claim on the American psyche? The answer is that it already has for a large part of the country, we just need to get to that tipping point and that is closer than we all think. If you took a picture of that field in Baltimore on Sunday, you could have fooled anyone in believing it was any field in Europe. The youth system is there, the coaches are ready and the kids are willing. With the MLS we have a good domestic league and it gets better each year, it is now up to us to not abandon the kids right before college.


 

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Jason Bardwell
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