What will it take for the US men’s team to be an international contender in soccer?

Soccer has grown substantially over the past twenty years. MLS and USL continue to go from strength to strength with glamorous stadiums, new teams, and the growth of academies across the country. However; questions need to be asked about the relationship between MLS and the United States Soccer Federation given that the US men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The bottom line is the US is a country that should be competing for a World Cup and not failing to qualify for one. So given that the US has new leadership under Carlos Cordeiro, the question is asked; What will it take for the US men’s team to be an international contender in soccer? Here are five ideas that could transform the US men’s game into a competitor on the international stage.

1. Bring all the stakeholders together through an open system.

The United States soccer pyramid is a confusing place. Currently, there are many stakeholders all vying for their share of the game in this country. MLS is the current first division with the USL Championship being the presumptive second division. Next year, USL League One (the third division) is planning to launch along with NISA (another third division). Below that sits the amateur NPSL, UPSL, and USL League Two (PDL). With these different leagues moving in different directions without an open system, there is complete chaos with many lower division clubs becoming insolvent after only a few years of operation.
Given that virtually every country around the world has an open system where teams get promoted and relegated based on merit, this should be a no-brainer for USSF. This important conversation needs to start now as MLS reaches the latter years of expansion because if pro-rel doesn’t happen between the many different leagues in this country, domestic soccer in this country will plateau. This will be detrimental to the US’s chances of competing on a global stage as the current closed system continues to promote mediocrity and shuts out many communities that want to participate in the domestic game.

2. Grow a futsal/pick-up culture among young kids.

The number one pick up sport in this country is basketball. The current pick up culture of basketball in the United States is where some of the best NBA players got their start. Pick-up soccer, however, is not very prevalent among adolescent teenagers/kids and that is a problem.
Soccer is the most accessible game on the planet. If you visit South America, there are futsal courts everywhere as kids of all ages and sizes play for fun. In these futsal courts, kids develop muscle memory as they play creatively in small spaces. This ultimately creates more technically gifted players.
The type of street soccer culture that is in South America can be here if USSF and other organizations like elementary schools can organize programs that give kids unfettered time to play soccer for fun with others their age. By creating a stronger pick-up/futsal culture, the game will be more accessible to younger children and give them the ability to develop their technical skills from a younger age.

3. Create a coaching program that promotes an attacking style of play.

The current approach to coaching the US men’s national team is haphazard and disorganized at best. If you look back at past World Cup performances the US men’s national team has had very few moments of inspiration, but against the best, the US doesn’t even come close with our men’s team often resorting to “freestyle” soccer often lacking an identity. This is partly because USSF continues to change its coaching licensing program to model other countries around the world like Spain and the Netherlands.
Copying another country’s philosophies isn’t a good idea when it comes to growing the game in the US. The US needs to rethink its coaching curriculum and create its own creative attacking style of play that values mental resilience, creativity, and an understanding of how space is open and compressed at the highest levels of the game.
This is a hard thing to do at the current moment because the current USSF leadership isn’t open to thinking about new ideas as to how to run the game in this country.

4. Partner with media companies to promote soccer at home.

Tom Byer, author of the book Soccer Starts at Home believes that by getting kids to play with the ball for fun while they are young age not only promotes a love for the game when they are holder but helps their technical skills on the field as well. By playing with the right sized balls around the house and practicing certain technical moves, younger kids will continue playing it with the mastery of certain technical skills.
By mastering technical skills when they are young, kids won’t have as much trouble playing the game in an organized environment and won’t quit later because they are not frustrated with it. Kids will also be able to understand the game better from a tactical perspective from an early age because they are not spending most of their time learning how to master their first touch. By creating short television programs about how to master the basics of the game, kids can have interactive education at a young age and continue playing the game later in life.

5. Educate parents

Today’s youth soccer organizations like AYSO often don’t promote a long-term love for the game. Many young kids are left feeling frustrated as coaches often prioritize winning over trying to develop young talent. This comes at a cost for parents who want their kids to succeed and grow as soccer players. With very few other avenues to develop talent, keeping kids involved in recreational soccer later in life is important if the US wants to expand its player pool.
By educating parents about what to say to their child in specific situations when it comes to youth soccer development, we can have better conversations that can create small changes in a kid’s life that hopefully lead to a lifelong love for the game. One organization that is leading the way in creating progressive change in the parenting community is soccerparenting.com. It is a leading resource for parents who have trouble addressing the sensitive situations that are apart of almost every kid’s journey through youth soccer.

These are just five ideas that could go a long way into developing a soccer culture that can match that of other successful soccer countries around the world. There are many other ideas I didn’t mention, but they are just as valid.

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