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Drawing parallels between English national team ‘problems,’ U.S. soccer

Oct 24, 2013, 5:17 PM EDT

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England isn’t the only soccer nation suffering from developmental problems. For a long time, American soccer has remained fairly static in its ability to churn out young products who can compete at a world-class level.

The English Football Association has set up a commission to improve the talent pool available for national team selection, and specifically increase the number of Englishmen playing in the Premier League.

“The FA’s investment in and commitment to coaching is exemplified by St. George’s Park [England's national training center],” FA chairman Greg Dyke (pictured) said during the commission announcement. “The Premier League’s focus on Youth Development through the Elite Player Performance Plan promises much.”

Premier League chairman Anthony Fry added: “It is evident from discussions with the clubs that there is a strong desire to see greater numbers of England-qualified players coming through their Academy systems that are capable of performing at both Premier League and international standard.”

source: Getty Images

Before becoming the head coach of the Portland Timbers in 2013, Caleb Porter amassed a record of 119 wins, 18 losses, 17 ties, and one national championship in seven years at University of Akron. (Photo: Getty Images.)

That sounds a lot like U.S. Soccer’s justification for setting up its Development Academy, in which every Major League Soccer club in the U.S. (and the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps) participates. The system is supposed to “provide the best youth players in the U.S. with an every day environment designed to produce the next generation of National Team players” by putting the best players in front of top-level coaches and scouts on a weekly basis.

The biggest problem, which nobody on either side of the Atlantic Ocean has thoroughly addressed so far, is how to ensure the quality of those coaches. Aside from U.S. Soccer’s Coaching Curriculum developed by Claudio Reyna and implemented or ignored by Academy teams as they see fit, the Player Development Task Force created in 2006 has done little to advance the level of play so far.

As Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers put it in an interview with Henry Winter of The Daily Telegraph: “We need to stop blaming the players. The players get the blame in this country. No. It’s the coaching.”

Rodgers’ team plays some of the most attractive soccer in the Premier League, as did his previous club, Swansea City. He will be invited to present his opinions to the FA commission, Winter reported, but his views should be heard in the U.S. as well.

St. George’s is a very impressive site, and it’s great that they [England] have the site. But I look at what we had at Swansea: We trained on an AstroTurf pitch at Swansea because we had no facilities. I used to get showered with the public.

We had nothing — absolutely nothing — yet everyone was wondering and talking about how we played football. It’s about football principles and defending those principles with your life. If you can get that fusion between the British players who will work their socks off but also have technique and tactical understanding, then young players will get better and better.

Rodgers named several lower-level and youth coaches who have never been given an opportunity at the higher levels. Instead, the Premier League — and MLS in the U.S. — rely on a merry-go-round of the same coaches, maintaining the status quo instead of evolving to a higher level of soccer.

The possible exceptions that have blossomed in 2013 have been Colorado Rapids coach Óscar Pareja and Portland Timbers maestro Caleb Porter. Pareja started his coaching career in the U.S. youth national team programs and as FC Dallas’ academy director, while Porter coached University of Akron.

Another coach trying to climb up the ranks in the U.S., Paul Dalglish, made similar observations on Twitter:

Dalglish, the son of former Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, began his coaching career as an assistant with the Houston Dynamo, followed up by stints in the lower divisions with the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Austin Aztex. He is the Lonestar SC technical director.

In February, MLS began a partnership with the French Football Federation to further coaching education among the league’s academies. As part of the agreement, one coach from each club is enrolled in the Elite Formation Coaching License course, which includes first-hand observation of top-level European academies.

France is in an elite group of European nations when it comes to player development, with its Clairefontaine facility churning out Thierry Henry, Hatem Ben Arfa and Abou Diaby, among others. But enrolling less than 20 American coaches in a foreign coaching course and expecting the knowledge to spread to the rest of the nation through osmosis is hardly enough.

The majority of Homegrown Player signings still don’t work. The biggest stars in MLS over the last few years, Landon Donovan aside, have been largely foreign players, much like the Premier League’s top crop. Players who go abroad still find vastly superior development opportunities.

It’s not that this country doesn’t have the coaches and players who could turn the U.S. into a soccer superpower. It’s that those people have been shut out in favor of a largely pedestrian old boys’ club who continually walk through a revolving door of high-level American soccer jobs.

Until that changes, the U.S. will continue to lag behind countries with lower population and less resources.

  1. overtherepermanently - Oct 24, 2013 at 5:56 PM

    Give Jay Heaps a shout too – Revs play some of the most exciting soccer in MLS, a far cry from the stodgy final days of Steve Nichols.

  2. talgrath - Oct 24, 2013 at 6:22 PM

    I think the struggle of the English men’s national team with regards to player talent are different from the US team’s issues. The US team, while better funded than ever before, is still underfunded compared to many other national teams; most soccer academies rely on fees from parents just to help keep them afloat, that means there is a huge pool of talent that is largely untouched by the system because their parents can’t afford to pay for it. Since most of the money for academies flows from parents and not from US Soccer, the owners of the academies feel much more beholden to do whatever it takes to bring in customers, even if that doesn’t match the plans of team USA. Additionally, the US is a huge place, with a spread out population, you need lots of academies in multiple places to see as much talent as possible, all of them taking up money.

    England’s problem is not a lack of funds, but has much more to do with the matter of population or lack thereof and style of play. England is a relatively small country, it’s worth noting that technically when you look at the UK on a map, that is not England, that is the UK which includes England, Scotland and Wales. England itself has a population of about 53 million, which is less than 1/6th of the USA’s population; sure that population is soccer-crazed and most kids dream of growing up and becoming soccer stars, but 53 million isn’t a lot of people. Population wouldn’t be such a problem if England was willing to look towards people that aren’t necessarily “English” by citizenship but by FIFA rules, but they don’t seem interested in that. Look at team USA’s roster, a lot of names on that roster live outside of the US and aren’t US citizens, Aron Johansson for example. Additionally, English soccer is unwilling to change itself stylistically; the English fans and brass want a hard-tackling, tough group of guys, but realistically that sort of soccer doesn’t play well anymore. Most modern teams use quick passing to avoid having to dribble past opponents and avoid tackles, a few touches and the ball is off to the next spot.

    England’s largest issue by far is simply this, there isn’t a lot wrong with English soccer but the fans expect much, much more. England already qualified out of UEFA, one of the two regions we would expect to see a World Cup winner from and one of two toughest regions to qualify in. England will likely have a good showing at the World Cup as well, at least getting to the round of 16. The problem, is that fans expect them to bring home a World Cup trophy, even though they haven’t won one in decades, because they have the most popular soccer league in the world. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming about a World Cup, but expecting it is another thing entirely. The panicked changes that English soccer tends to make to try to “fix” the national team are a big part of the problem, I think.

    • bostonredsoccer - Oct 24, 2013 at 6:45 PM

      All the members of the US team are US citizens, including Aron Johannsson. Maybe all are not “US-raised”, but that’s a different issue.

      I think England does have to think outside the island to improve. Since they have the top paying league, they attract more outside talent and are adding more non-English players to their academies, crowding out other players. Most English aren’t willing to go elsewhere in the EU to grab a roster spot and are content to stay in the lower levels of the structure, because the money is still better than elsewhere.

      • talgrath - Oct 25, 2013 at 2:32 PM

        Sorry, yes he is a citizen, but he lives in Iceland and has dual-citizenship.

    • mlsconvert88888 - Oct 24, 2013 at 8:04 PM

      I think you make a great point about a lot of kids in the US missing out because their family can’t afford to get them into the comp club system. One of the brilliant things about soccer is, unlike sports like hockey, you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment play, just a field and a ball really. You would think that would open soccer to the masses, but unfortunately (at least when I was growing up) the expense of the comp club system turned it into an almost elitist white collar sport.

  3. bostonredsoccer - Oct 24, 2013 at 6:39 PM

    The daunting task when it comes to upgrading US coaching is the sheer number of coaches needed. We have about 1.5 million registered players (not counting high school and other organized soccer efforts). It would take a lot of coaches to make a change to that big a number. Plus, we can’t import foreign soccer coaches as easily (visa issues plus salaries offered).

    • midtec2005 - Oct 24, 2013 at 7:31 PM

      I agree, and a good thing is that I think this problem partially fixes itself. The sport is growing and more and more people are playing. As these players get done playing competatively, many of the quality players will try their hand at coaching.

      I can’t believe now, knowing what I do, that I personally didn’t have a coach that played soccer himself until I was 13. That’s something that kills development, and something that will decline rapidly as the new generation comes into coaching.

  4. seanb20124 - Oct 25, 2013 at 7:25 AM

    If top athletes in USA continue to pick basketball and football we will always be average on world stage.

    Why play soccer if I think I can play either of those professionally

  5. mvktr2 - Oct 25, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    The article is rather unfair to MLS academies. It’s only been a required effort for what 3 seasons now? Considering some teams take it very seriously and others less seriously it will obviously for some time be a mixed bag. However logic dictates as financial & performance success stories emerge from academies the less interested clubs will take note. More importantly logically academy development is incentivized more in MLS with it’s salary cap rules than any league in the world. The academies are beginning to show life in producing players which is amazing for such a young system. Admittedly some of the players who’ve emerged in say Columbus are less than up to par thus far while others have many notable attributes of their ability to develop into international quality player, Fagundez, O’Neil, & Osario come to mind along with a host of others.

    Add in the efforts underway in Philadelphia with a residency program, first in MLS, and other teams such as LA whom has a very serious academy and the investment in Toronto starting to show signs of fruit and I believe MLS academies are going to be a boom to US Soccer. In a decade we’ll sing a different song about academies in MLS/US Soccer.

    Now about the US Soccer residency program in FL. It was a great program, has had an impact, hasn’t had as large an impact as hoped for. I think the problem with it is size/scope. It’s been in existence over a decade now and hasn’t grown. In September they named 28 players enrolled in Bradenton’s U17 residency program, TWENTY EIGHT!!! My first concern is that a national team residency program is basically started at 16 yrs of age. Ideally it’d be pushed earlier by a few years. That aside even more troubling is the idea that 28 players is all the capacity or worse yet is all the players the academy ‘desires’ to intensively train. At issue is there should be 6 or 8 or 12 regional training facilities like Bradenton each training 40 U17 players. Think of 12 of these facilities x 40 students all receiving this type of intensive developmental approach. To see the problem compare the top 28 high school Sr QBs from any rivals, 247, scout, etc list in the past 20 years and see how many of them went on to become NFL starting QBs, ie difference makers at the highest level of play. I didn’t even qualify the question with the word ‘effective’ before starting. The statistics are clear, very few kids at 15 or 17 go on to fulfill all their athletic promise, that’s why it’s a numbers game and US Soccer isn’t playing the numbers game smartly!

    Thus for me it’s a numbers game. USMNT needs more competition and more good players to choose from. When that occurs more difference makers will emerge which is what’s required to win consistently at the highest levels of the game.

    • 127taringa - Oct 25, 2013 at 1:07 PM

      Actually, the Vancouver Whitecaps have the best program. I’m pretty sure that they had full Residency (not a cash cow “Academy”) first which is most comparable with the best in Europe. It is only a few years old so judgement will have to wait. Every MLS and NASL club should mirror the same and then you will start to see something.

      The clubs that are serious should have Residency programs at no charge.

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