October 1, 2023

Is U.S. soccer in trouble? Expanding game’s reach may be crucial, experts say

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By Ricardo Arguello From Post-Crescent

As this year’s FIFA World Cup concludes with Sunday’s championship between France and Croatia, it wasn’t difficult to notice one team missing from this year’s 32-team tournament: the U.S. men’s national team.

The USMNT failed to qualify after losing to Trinidad and Tobago 2-1 last October. That surprising loss left the U.S. fifth in the 2018 CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) standings and out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

The loss to Trinidad and Tobago stunned national soccer enthusiasts, especially after the team reached the round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Kimberly boys soccer coach Carl Gardner said the team’s absence in this year’s World Cup raises a question: Is it time to panic?

“I would say yes,” Gardner said. “If you’ve been watching the World Cup, the game’s advanced in system of play and style of play. Some people will say, ‘Oh, it looks just like the same old soccer.’ But there are little intricacies going on that have evolved the game. And if we’re not in the World Cup right now, we’re behind. And because of those advances, by the time the next World Cup comes around, if we’re challenged right now to make it based on our developmental process, what are we going to do when it comes around next time and we’re not prepared then?”

Solo comments trigger discussion

A possible reason for the USMNT missing this year’s World Cup may lie within the structure of the sport in the United States, according to Hope Solo.

The former U.S. women’s national soccer team goalie, two-time gold medal Olympian and member of the U.S. World Cup championship team in 2015, set social media ablaze with her comments at a sports conference in New York City recently.

The sport of soccer in the U.S., with its costly and seemingly countless academies, she said, prices out potential players from economically disadvantaged areas.

“My family would not have been able to afford to put me in soccer if I was a young kid today,” Solo said at the Hashtag Sports Conference. “That, obviously, alienates so many communities, including Hispanic communities, the black communities, the rural communities and under-represented communities. Soccer, right now, has become a rich, white kid sport.”

Jay DeMerit, 38, a former three-sport standout at Bay Port High School and a member of the USMNT from 2007 to 2011, thinks there is some validity to what Solo said.

“I think our opinions are formed by our experiences and all I have is my experiences and all I have is my experience to understand what I did,” DeMerit said. “And, I mean, the fact is, I didn’t come up through an academy system. I played a lot of sports and I was a well-rounded, multi-sport athlete that did other things and had other hobbies. I know that it’s not the way that it works anymore.

“That’s my only gripe on the system is that it is becoming kind of a one-dimensional system and me coming up through an unconventional way, I need to fight for guys like me that maybe can’t come through an academy program or haven’t always been picked. So that’s where I see it and I guess that’s what Hope is saying, that there’s a lot of kids that are not given the opportunity anymore because they’ve been falling through the cracks or they can’t afford to play or they can’t travel two hours one way. So these kids aren’t getting a look and therefore are being bypassed. I would definitely agree with that.”

Lauren Sesselmann, 34, a Green Bay Notre Dame graduate and former member of the Canadian women’s national soccer team, also believes the “pay-to-play” system makes it difficult to find those hidden players.

While recreational soccer leagues are in most cities nationwide, the cost of elite-level academies can be restrictive for players with more modest means.

“I’ve had this conversation with other female soccer players because we’re trying to change that,” Sesselmann said. “Sports are expensive, and I don’t think it’s just for soccer, but a lot of different sports in general. I think we miss out on that hidden talent. I think there’s a lot of people making headway into helping with that.

“One of the girls that we’re working with, she was a pay-to-play player. We didn’t even know someone was paying for her way through her own career to play and she had no idea. She always thought it was her family paying. So we all came from different walks of life. Her talent was discovered because of that. And I do feel we’re missing out on a lot of talent that’s here in the U.S. because of how expensive the sport is.”

Sesselmann said the “pay-for-play” topic can be a bit of an elephant in the room in soccer circles.

“It’s kind of hard to really talk about that topic, but I do really feel that things need to change or there needs to be ways where we can find that hidden talent,” she said. “You see all these different countries where they’re grooming these kids at 10 or 11, so young. We don’t have anything like that. My generation of males and females, a lot of us have spoken together on how we can change the system to really discover talent like that.”

Expanding the game’s reach in urban cities

Hayden Knight, a retired professional soccer player who attended Appleton East High School and is Marquette University’s career scoring leader, said that there is work being done to have the game of soccer reach disadvantaged kids in metro areas who normally would not be introduced to the game.

Knight, 61, said he and several Milwaukee-area coaches are working diligently to promote the game within the city of Milwaukee.

“I spend a lot of my time now volunteering and doing low-budget or no-budget soccer programs in the Latino communities, the black communities down here in Milwaukee,” Knight said. “We definitely have to make soccer accessible to players who can’t afford it in this country. We need to start putting the futsal courts up in the neighborhood like they have in Brazil and in France and everywhere else in the world, so five or six little guys can go out and play a little soccer for an hour or two on their own.”

Knight also thinks Solo’s remarks on “pay-for-play” were legitimate.

“Structurally, our club system in this country is really hurting the development of players and funneling up to the international team level,” Knight said. “Every little club is its own little kingdom. Right here in Milwaukee, we have five or six clubs that are always fighting trying to steal each other’s players and then why? Because they need to make these teams so they can pay these coaches. And what happens to the little black kid who can’t afford to pay $1,400, $1,500 a year to play on a good club team with a professional coach? That kid goes and does something else.”

Gardner, meanwhile, said other countries are not only structured differently in terms of finding the best respective soccer talent and nurturing it, but that those countries also tend to have their best male athletes playing the sport as well.

“When you look at other countries, their best athletes play soccer,” he said. “Our best athletes are not all soccer players. They’re playing football, baseball and basketball. And what you find is, because of our structural pay-for-play, we run into where it’s not necessarily the best player that’s being given the opportunity. It’s the player that has the most exposure and most financial opportunity.”

Dawn Crow, the head coach for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point women’s team, echoed Gardner’s statements.

“Our young athletes have so many different options here than everywhere else,” she said. “I read a tweet from Web Smith (Friday) morning talking about how there’s 200 Mbappés (French soccer star Kylian Mbappés) in the United States, they’re just all thinking they’re going to be cornerbacks in the NFL. We laugh because people understood that they could make a heck of a lot more money playing soccer playing European football than American football and for a longer period of time. But we still have the bigger sports are what motivates people to do it.

“But I also think as more and more people start dealing with the concussion aspect of (playing American football) and some of the other sports, we could probably make more players to play soccer.”

Reaching the World Cup in 2022 critical

DeMerit said the U.S. has to do whatever it takes to reach the World Cup in 2022 in Qatar.

The U.S. is assured of a spot in the 2026 World Cup because it will be hosting the event along with Canada and Mexico. The field also will be expanded to 48 teams that year.

“In my opinion, it’s crucial. Let’s not undercoat it,” DeMerit said. “I’m not going to panic yet, but if we don’t make the next World Cup, now we have to panic. Because we have to be in that conversation. We want to build a domestic league. Canada wants to build a domestic league. We’re not up there in the national rankings with other countries and that conversation changes, I think.”

The USMNT is being led by interim coach Dave Sarachan, who took over when former coach Bruce Arena stepped down just days after the team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

The 2018 USMNT roster is youthful and many of its players have played in top leagues overseas in an attempt to get experience and exposure.

Christian Pulisic, perhaps the team’s most talented player and only 19, is a sensational scorer who has the potential to be on the level of many of the top players in the world.

But getting more and more U.S. players to play overseas in top leagues is crucial to long-term development, according to Knight.

“I think the future of U.S. soccer at the World Cup level is bright,” he said. “We have more players based in foreign leagues now than ever before. Ten years ago even, if you said. ‘Hey, do we have one player in the Premier League?’ (Brian) McBride was there. Then (Clint) Dempsey came right after. And Landon Donovan tried a little bit, then he came back home.

“The best players in the world need to play with the best competition in order to get that experience. That’s what I feel and I think we’re doing that now and getting there. We’re also seeing a lot of good players come into (Major League Soccer) as well. I think a combination — the best combination for us — would be when we put that young national team together for Qatar, will be a blend of players that were based in the European leagues and a blend of players that were based here in the home MLS.”

Gardner added that more needs to be done to find those hidden soccer gems in cities and towns across the nation.

“We have no plan. No idea of seeking out the best player,” he said. “The best player could be in the backyard someplace here in Appleton, but there’s no way for us to find that out because maybe financially and organizationally-wise they’re not exposed.”

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