I’m not going to talk about the game today, because I didn’t watch it. I was on a bus in the mountains of Colorado, following the game when service was available. I caught 20 minutes of it on the Univision app, but then I lost service and could only get texts and occasionally Twitter. So I won’t talk about game itself, and I don’t want to play the “Well, we gave it a good go!” game. But let’s talk about what this means for United States soccer going forward. So let’s talk about fans, about this team and about the future.
There’s a certain elitism in American soccer fans. I’m guilty of it as well, although I’ve tried really hard to get out of that mold. Without a doubt, there are American soccer fans who look down on the casual fan who show up only for the big events. There’s even a sort of disdain MLS-watchers have for European-watchers.
I’m not sure if you noticed, but the country took notice this year. On the bus, I was wearing my Bradley jersey and was giving my girlfriend updates on the score. An old man behind me tapped me on the shoulder to get an update, and several people near me leaned in to listen. Did any of them care about football at all a month ago? Probably not. Will they care in six months? Probably not. I had friends texting me during the games (not just US games), asking about players and teams and offering analysis. Will they care about qualifying? About friendlies? About youth play? Probably not.
But here’s the thing: I don’t care. I loved it, it was amazing and I’m so happy. You shouldn’t care either. There are some who measure fandom by the players you can name, stats you can list and years of loyal service that you apparently get merit badges for. But if you give a damn about the USMNT for a week then I’m happy. If you follow the games, then I’m happy. Shouldn’t we be proud that this team and this sport captivated the country? Don’t whine about how people aren’t going to care about soccer tomorrow. I follow the USMNT youth teams. Does that make me more of a fan than someone who just follows the senior team? Nope, because I’m not the King of Fans and neither are you.
There’s this catch-22 about many US football fans. They want people to follow, to care about the sport. “It’s the greatest sport on Earth and we’re so good, why don’t people care?” But then when the World Cup rolls around and the country takes notice, it becomes, “Well they became fans last week. They’re just jumping on the bandwagon, and they’ll be gone next week. They aren’t fans.” I saw that with Sporting KC last year, when they were playing so well. It infuriated me.
That is pathetic. I don’t think it’s a leap to say that US soccer, and the sport in general, grabbed new and loyal fans this year. But most won’t care once this World Cup is over. Some will say that the US sucked all along, that we only won one game. I don’t care. I don’t. This sport has gotten to the point where I don’t care about recruiting people to kneel at the altar of the beautiful game. Care or don’t. If you do, even for a week, I’ll support you and clap you on the back, lean in to swap analysis and lineup thoughts. If you stop caring now, I won’t be bitter. Thanks for coming along on the ride with us.
If you don’t care about the sport at all, shut up, because nobody gives a s**t that you don’t care.
I hear this constantly:
“If the best American athletes played soccer, then we’d be better than anyone.”
That is wrong. It is so damn wrong. It’s insulting to the amazing athletes playing for the USMNT, that they’re the bottom of the barrel of US athletics. Certain people are made for certain sports. If LeBron James played high school and then college soccer, that would not make him better than Dempsey, Bradley or Altidore. They’re great athletes, but that’s not why they’re some of the best US players we’ve ever produced.
Spain, arguably the greatest national team in the history of the sport, is not composed of world class athletes. They’re a team of players who’ve grown up playing together on national teams and club teams. Their youth system is world class, winning World Cups and Euros at every level. They’re all so good because they’re on the same page; they play the same style, work together as a team and keep egos in check. If Pau Gasol or Rafa Nadal grew up playing soccer, would Spain be better? 100% not. No. Zero. You’re a fool if you think so, and I’m completely unapologetic in saying so.
So how can the US get better? Stick with Jürgen. He’s trying to rebuild how we play, how our youth system is set up and how our players develop. Is he an elitist for trying to get our players to go overseas? No. The MLS is simply not good enough to develop players into a world power. It’s too slow, too undisciplined, too bipolar. It’s come miles and gets better every day, but it’s silly to think that a player getting solid minutes in Germany won’t develop as much as a player starting in MLS.
What does changing our youth system mean? For one, discouraging the college system. In the last five years, academies have sprouted up for every MLS team. They play in international tournaments against top European competition. Those kids choose academies over high school ball. Many will go to college, but the best will go straight to the MLS, or straight to Europe. When many of our players are playing in college, Spanish/German players are playing in a top league, or in a strong second division (Barcelona B, or Real Madrid Castilla, although they were relegated to the third division this year).
I don’t mean to discourage kids from going to college. But we can’t expect to make the jump to champion contender by relying on players who only start playing pro when they’re 22. This is certainly getting better, MLS teams signing promising youth players, like Palmer-Brown for Sporting KC. Sure, Yedlin, Besler and Zusi, to name a few, all went through college. But those players won’t win us a World Cup. I’m not expecting us to win in four years or eight. But if we want to, we have to look at how we develop players.
The onus of altering our youth system is also on the coaches. Not making the Olympics in London was a huge embarrassment. We should’ve qualified, with ease. But we didn’t. Our coaches aren’t (or weren’t) on the same page, they aren’t developing players with a uniform, distinct, progressive style. Jurgen is trying to change that. Sure, at times in this World Cup we won ugly. But so did Argentina. Belgium. Brazil. Sometimes you have to. But the change from Bob “The Bunker” Bradley is noticeable and getting better. The youth coaches and players have to follow suit. Germany and Spain consistently play the same way, even as players come and go. We can, too. The pool of players is huge, enough to make up for the “if only everybody wanted to be soccer players” b.s. argument. We just have to hone them into the world class players that they can be.
I’m sad. I was sad, in a very real, physically-manifesting way that I couldn’t watch the game; I watched almost every game in qualifying, and I’ve caught almost every game for the last 18 months. I’m sadder now, writing this. I don’t want to talk about the positives, about how we showed heart. We always show heart. I don’t want to talk about Julian Green or Yedlin looking so good. We knew they had that potential.
Why don’t I want to talk about these things? Do I want to roll around in pessimism? No. I don’t want to talk about it because we’ve advanced past smiling about losses in the World Cup and saying, “Well, look, we sure played great and showed some grit!” Yeah, we did, and this was FAR from a disappointment. But we can’t accept this and count it as a victory, either. This was brutal, this was tough, this sucked in the end. Don’t accept this. Don’t roll the loss into a tight ball and coat it in caveats about the signs we’re showing.
To this team, thank you. I’ve had so much fun watching this progression over the last three years, and the highs have far topped the lows. We won’t see a lot of some of these players again, like Beasley or Wondo. Howard may have another World Cup; I really hope so; the man is a legend and the thought of him not wearing this jersey in four years honestly makes me want to sob. I love this team. I love this sport. I love Geoff Cameron, despite his mistakes against Portugal. I love Michael Bradley, despite a rough tournament offensively. I love this team. But we must get better. We will get better.
Michael Bradley — If you blame or hate on Michael Bradley, I can’t talk to you. He covered more ground during the group stages than any player in the entire tournament. Defensively, he was wonderful. Offensively, forgettable. But he’s typically our best player, our most consistent player. We win games because of him. Like I said in my last post, you probably don’t or can’t appreciate what Mike does for this team, as a player, orchestrator, defender, passer and leader. That’s fine. But don’t let your ignorance turn into blind hatred because you picked a few poor moments and make them Michael Bradley’s identity as a player.
Football sucks — Not really. But for new fans, and I really don’t mean this to be patronizing, this is football. Highest highs, like that second goal against Ghana, and the lowest lows. It makes this sport great.
What’s next — We’re co-hosting and playing in South America’s Copa America next summer. Awesome test to see how we’ve progressed against (probably) Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay. Also, of course, we get to watch the awesome USWNT. Enjoy that. They’re a wonder to watch, so good and cohesive. I love watching Lauren Cheney play, she’s so silky smooth and tactically brilliant on the pitch. After that, World Cup qualifying and the Gold Cup. Then the Olympics, and hopefully then the Confederations Cup. Football never ends. Stick around. We’re going places, you better believe it.