The Ultimate Sacrifice of America

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One of the biggest shocks of this installment of World Cup qualifiers is the failure of the United States to qualify automatically through the CONCACAF region by not finishing in the top three. They finished fifth when finishing fourth would’ve earnt them a spot in an intercontinental playoff against Australia, however, they failed to pick up the solitary point needed away to Trinidad & Tobago.

The US is a massive market for FIFA so for the US to miss out on Russia 2018 is a blow not only to the States but also the world governing body. The writing has been on the wall for awhile for anyone who took the time to notice. Former coach and Technical Director Jürgen Klinsmann pointed out during his reign that US players needed to go abroad to increase the standard of the national team and player pool.

“The more players we can get playing at the top levels over there, the better it will be. That is one sign of progress.” Klinsmann told journalist, Sam Borden.

This wasn’t the type of message that those in the Major League Soccer and USSF offices wanted to hear and especially to go public. MLS boss Don Garber went on the attack, believing Klinsmann was stepping out of line by giving his honest assessment of the local competition and state of the domestic game.

“I feel very strongly … that Jurgen’s comments are very, very detrimental to the league,” Garber told the media.

“They’re detrimental to the sport of soccer in America … and not only are they detrimental; I think that they’re wrong.

“I believe that Jurgen should embrace the vision for the future of the sport. That, to me, is his job. For him to publicly state issues that he has with Major League Soccer, in my view, is not something that is going to allow him to effectively serve the role of not just coach, but as technical director.

“We have a good relationship with Jurgen, but I do believe that we collectively need to ensure that everybody is aligned with the mutual goal that we have of growing the game and the league’s role in growing that game.

“In order to do that, we can’t try to denigrate or damage or disparage the very entity that will be the key driver of the sport in this country.”

Not only as the senior men’s coach but also the sport’s technical director, it is well within Klinsmann’s right to give his assessment on the current state of the game and where and how it needs to improve. Garber’s response suggests that Klinsmann must fall into line to a single vision so rather than shaping it, Klinsmann must adhere to it.

The major concern for Garber appears to be the image of the league which gives an insight into what is valued most highly amongst the leadership of the game in the US. They are more concerned with having the superficial aspects of a “big” league as opposed to having the solid fundamentals of a strong footballing nation.

Top down approaches can be good enough for sports which have limited appeal globally, such as American football and baseball. It can be enough when your league is far and away the best in the world in their respective sports, such as the NBA or NHL. However, the round ball game and the MLS do not fit either of these criteria. If the American sports model were the best for developing talent and growing a sport and a league, the Germans, English, and Italians would’ve jumped on board long ago.

However, the real strength of successful football countries comes from the grassroots. The solid base which supports the game at the top end. Most players don’t get their start at clubs like Bayern Munich or Manchester United, they work their way up. Many of the Premier League clubs didn’t start in the first division, they worked their way up.

Success in these countries is achieved – not by how many people attended a game – but who outperforms who on the pitch. Players don’t succeed by how much money their parents spent on academies and registration fees but by how hard they worked on bettering themselves. Effort and results earn the rewards. There aren’t any short cuts in these successful countries.

There are leagues around the world who are producing world class talent every day that don’t get close to the average attendance of Major League Soccer. They do it without a fraction of the TV or sponsorship revenue.

Stadiums, TV deals, attendances, license fees do not win points away to Trinidad & Tobago. They don’t make a player more technically proficient, tactically more aware, or have the desire or even know-how to push themselves to a higher level.

The league is in it’s 22nd season and has had the ambition from the outset to be the biggest league in the world. They’ve followed the American sports model, believing it to be the best for their situation but it seems to fly against their ambition. You have to beat them at their own game which doesn’t include slapping a facade on the local game pretending everything is rosy.

Football in the US doesn’t have the luxuries of isolation and position that the other major sports enjoy in the States. The MLS is competing against older, stronger, and more established leagues based in countries with generations of experience and an entrenched football culture that has been embraced rather than shunned. By and large, the strong football nations have followed a similar path of development to each other and their success and growth comes from the bottom up.

If the US wants to improve in the sport of football they need to learn from what those who’ve been doing it longer and better have been doing. Isolationism does not work in the global community of football. Bruce Arena, in 2014, showed his naïveté or arrogance when he spoke of the route football should take in the US.

“I believe an American should be coaching the national team,” Arena told US media.

“I think the majority of the national team should come out of Major League Soccer. The people that run our governing body think we need to copy what everyone else does, when in reality, our solutions will ultimately come from our culture.

“Come on. We can’t copy what Brazil does or Germany does or England does. When we get it right, it’s going to be because the solutions are right here. We have the best sports facilities in the world. Why can’t we trust in that?”

Arena doesn’t mention anything about expertise but instead reinforces the belief that “facilities” is enough. The fact is that there is a strong football culture in the US but it is largely shut out when it comes to making decisions and guiding the game. Much like Australia, there are large ethnic communities who grew up with the game thanks to their parents and heritage.

Also like Australia, these groups have been largely ostracised by the non-football people controlling the game today. A system which locks clubs out as well as pay-to-play for players are two of the biggest problems facing the sport in the US and Australia.

Restriction of opportunities not only hurts the players and clubs but the game as a whole. The beauty of football has always been it’s accessibility for people of all backgrounds. Taking that away, takes away the very thing that has made it the number one sport on the planet.

The value of MLS side’s is increasing, they have record TV deals for the sport, they’re frequently expanding the competition with more teams, attendances are healthy but on the field they’re failing. MLS teams continue to struggle against Liga MX clubs, and now the men’s side are not even capable of finishing in the top four of CONCACAF.

Relying on imported players to fill rosters is not going to strengthen the player pool to a level which will make them a regional powerhouse let alone a global one. Currently over 50% of starting spots on MLS teams go to non-American players. Questions need to be asked with so much money being spent and one of the highest participation numbers, how can there be such a struggle to field a majority of US talent in the MLS.

Croatia produce some of the best footballers in the world. Their top flight has only ten clubs with only three of them playing in stadiums with capacities over 15,000. Five of the clubs play in stadiums with capacities under 10,000. Top flight clubs Lokomotiva and Rudeš can’t even play in their home stadiums because they don’t meet the 1.HNL license requirements so they share the Kranjčevićeva stadium.

Every Major League Soccer team plays out of a stadium with a capacity over 18,000. They average 21,823 to their games as opposed to 3067 in Croatia. A match this season between Rudeš and Osijek drew only 200 people.

Three networks in the US show Major League Soccer for a combined 114.8 million (AUD) a season. Sweden’s Allsvenskan pulls in 58.9 million from TV . Major League Soccer’s total revenue for 2016 was almost 830 million as opposed to Allsvenskan’s 250.5 million.

The disparity between the MLS and the leagues of Croatia and Sweden in terms of attendances, TV revenue and overall revenue are significant. The gulf between MLS and many of their CONCACAF rivals is not much closer. The point is, what is happening at the top of the game – while important – is dwarfed by how crucial it is to have a solid and unified base. Countries who have taken the time to nurture and cultivate the culture of the game and encourage and incentivise the grassroots and lower tiers, reap the rewards at the top.

A path of isolation from the global football community and segregation from those who live and breathe football has been significant in leading the US in being absent next year in Russia. Australia, now needs to get past CONCACAF’s Honduras or we will be picking second teams like millions of Americans will be during next year’s World Cup.

Much of what the A-League is today has been modeled on the MLS. The commercialisation and marketing of the game to the broader public at the expense of the wider football community has been the order. The leagues and the governing body seem to be working more for each other than the game as a whole. An imbalance has been created that sees the game going backwards on the field, allowed regional rivals to bridge the gap, and created disenfranchisement and division within the game.

The US are now experiencing the ramifications of moving too far away from the global principles of the sport for more comfortable and familiar domestic tropes.

Perhaps this recent failure will be a catalyst for the game in the States to start the long overdue reform from the ground up?

Perhaps they will see that giving more support to their local players will benefit them more than giving support to aging stars looking for one more big payday?

Perhaps the thousands being frozen out for the sake of the few will be brought into the fold to help unite the game and grow it to it’s full potential?

Whatever Australia’s World Cup fate is in November, hopefully the US’s fall and our own struggle is enough to ensure that our game doesn’t have to hit rock bottom before we have reform. Criticisms are not always malicious attacks but instead portents to what could be if we rest on our laurels or cower from honest and regular self-evaluation. Wanting to see improvement and an introduction of the mechanisms that will help that improvement isn’t hating, it’s caring.

The sooner we stop making excuses for failure, the sooner we can start building for success.

Adam Howard

Adam is one of the founders of Football Central and the creator of OSAussies.com.  He has followed the career paths of Australian footballers playing in leagues all over the world.  Born in Adelaide and currently residing in Hiroshima, Adam brings a unique perspective to Australian football.  He is an ardent supporter of Australia's domestic competition and national team.

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