US Soccer Learning That Change Isn’t Easy

Judging by the strident tenor and continuing strength of the ongoing, online, venting session emanating from the US Soccer fan and pundit communities, the 4-2 Gold Cup Final loss to Mexico could be interpreted as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

However, rather than it being simply “one loss too many,” or even the fact that it was a loss to the USA’s most significant rival, there’s something greater going on here.

There is, slowly but surely, a realization that answers we seek are not going to be easy to find. The problems are complex and deeply rooted.

Let’s be honest, if the fix for the USA’s ills was as easy as the very common “Bob must go!” refrain, people would all feel quite a bit better.

Maybe Bob must go. Fine.  He has certainly provided examples of questionable decisions in the 20/20 that is hindsight. (As all coaches will.)

But anyone who’s paying attention also knows that Bob alone isn’t the problem. A chef can only make an exemplary meal with exemplary ingredients. Our player pool is not providing those ingredients.

And that’s not Bob’s fault.

The problem is systemic. And systems are hard to change.

The USA has “grown” a national player pool filled with adequate athletes, that tend to be very limited soccer players. It has prioritized brawn over creativity.  Durability over soccer cunning.   (There are notable execptions, sure.  But we know that exceptions are there to prove the rule, don’t we?)

Frankly, the discussion should be less about who replaces Mr. Bradley, and more about the structure that would lead to long-term success.

Replacing one coach with another is unlikely to change much.

Sure, there would likely be a momentary surge in on field focus and motivation to impress the new guy. There may be some personnel shake-ups on the field. Maybe some new tactical decisions and sophistication might be seen.

But at the end of the day, the new coach will still deal with a mediocre player pool (relative to the world’s best, or even our southern neighbor) that lacks any cohesive system or style.

The bigger issue is that the new coach will assume a position that offers very little influence over changing it.   To foster true change, our youth, professional and National programs would need a discernable style and priority alignment that what exists today.

The question though, is do we have it in us to make the hard changes?

This isn’t new. Let’s not pretend. It’s just hard to deal with.

On August 4, 2009, I went ahead an picked a “style” for the USA to target, and suggested a change:

“If we want a true “style” — and one of possession-oriented, attacking soccer I’d hope — a simple switch of coaches won’t make much of a dent in our current direction. I’d suggest we need to find someone that has a history of building teams with such a style, guarantee them time to experiment and learn the US system (since I suspect this person is not American) and give them greater-than-normal control over the US Soccer development machine. That greater control means they would have a say in both the development and management of quality players.”

If the idea of a newcomer having “greater-than-normal” control sounds familiar, it did to me too. In that post, I said, “Sounds a bit like what almost happened with Jürgen Klinsmann, no?”

But this isn’t about Klinsmann the man. I’m not sure he’s the right person.

However, the right person would be a “name” like Klinsmann I think. Someone who demands respect and can command the attention of our many politicized soccer factions – because a stylistic change needs some level of buy-in from independent sources like MLS, which is becoming the new training/proving ground for US Soccer. One who preferably has a history of building systems, developing players and cultivating a style of play.

And a connection to the ever-expanding Latin player pool in our country via language or experience sure wouldn’t hurt.

There aren’t many of these folks around around.

So what now?

What would be a meaningful move, and thus unlikely, would be a summit somewhere involving Sunil Gulati, the coaches of all Youth and Sr. National Teams (perhaps including the more powerful “new guy”), Don Garber and key MLS leadership, and a smattering of NCAA and Lower Division professional leaders that would discuss some major changes that need to occur for soccer to really move forward.

In fact, nobody should be allowed to leave that summit until some fundamental and strategic changes are identified that all parties can support in that room. Looser NCAA rules for club participation?  Funding changes for Youth Soccer that allow it to better reach the masses (urban or otherwise) and not be confined to the pay-to-play crowd we have today? A plan to increase the level of play in MLS in non traditional ways and by putting money out in the league to support it.

Oh, and they should invite Adidas. Or Nike. Or whoever writes the bigger Qatar… I mean check.  Because, without finding a way to dangle a big check in front of these disparate audiences, many won’t line up.

Because after all, we aren’t trying to fix soccer.

We are trying to fix American soccer, and even in – or especially in – this economy, money still talks.