There is an ongoing debate as to why U.S. men’s soccer isn’t competitive with the top football countries in the world. Of all the various reasons and criticisms that have been offered up, most people including experts have it all wrong. I am here to set the record straight once and for all.
First and foremost, it goes without saying that I am a huge fan of the beautiful game. I grew up playing soccer at a young age, still love playing today, and even went through a mid-life career change in order to start two companies based on my passion for the sport. I also want to emphasize that I support American soccer. I believe that if you truly love the game, you will encourage it not only at the grassroots level but also give whatever support you can to your local and national teams and leagues. With that said, this article is specifically in regards to the men’s game. (Women’s soccer is a separate topic that will be discussed at another time.)
I know of many soccer fans in the United States who choose to not watch or support MLS or the U.S. men’s national team as they feel they fall “below their standards.” Yet these same “die-hard fans” religiously follow La Liga, Champions League or some other foreign league. They turn their nose up at MLS, usually while making disparaging comments about the league’s skill set or lack of excitement. First of all, which American soccer fan doesn’t know that there are other more competitive leagues with overall higher skill levels? People use that as some sort of proof or credibility of their superior knowledge of the game.
It doesn’t take a savant to realize there are varying degrees of talent and even excitement levels. Personally, I enjoy watching youth club teams, Hispanic leagues at local parks, regular season MLS games, and critical World Cup matches. I just love the game and competition — whatever the scenario. However, I find it mildly amusing that many of these critics (not all) are oftentimes not very good players themselves who possess an inflated sense of their own proficiency. I venture that any person in the U.S. who claims they love the game but don’t support any of the multiple domestic leagues available are actually virtue signaling snobs. This lack of true fan support is directly linked to the root cause which I will connect the dots on later.
Regardless, there is a spirited and ongoing debate as to why soccer in the U.S. isn’t competitive with the top football countries in the world. This discussion and vitriol probably hit a fever pitch when the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Although we had made it to the round of 16 four years earlier, this was the first time we didn’t qualify for the World Cup since 1986. This debacle was made further painful by the fact that we were eliminated after a stunning 2-1 upset to Trinidad and Tobago. Now, mind you, this is a country with a population less than half of the City of Los Angeles. Are you serious? Unsurprisingly, Bruce Arena accepted responsibility and promptly resigned from his head coach duties before he was pilloried in public.
Pundits, coaches, former players, and fans all came out of the woodwork spewing heated criticism towards the USMNT and American soccer in general, while loudly proclaiming that “U.S. soccer was broken” and listing out what they thought was needed to fix it. The majority of the reasons cited then and even now for why America is lagging behind in the world usually fall under three broad categories. They lay blame squarely in the areas of either our development system, faulty infrastructure, or our supposedly insufficient soccer culture — or some combination of all three.
People blaming our development system make such arguments that coaches and clubs prioritize winning over development, we gravitate early on to players of size over skill, and stifle risk taking and creativity for safe, conservative play.
Those criticizing our soccer infrastructure point their fingers at the high cost of soccer including the pay-to-play model, incongruent college soccer system, or lack of integrated promotion and relegation throughout the country.
The culture argument takes aim at things such as Americans theoretically not having enough passion for the game, and as a result we don’t play fervently enough in parks and streets beyond structured environments.
These are all valid points with varying degrees of culpability that make a case for why America is unable to dominate or even compete at the highest level. But as far as any of those reasons or combination thereof as being the ROOT CAUSE for why American soccer is lagging is completely and utterly false.
The actual, true reason for why we don’t dominate, like most things in life, boils down to something much more simple — money. That’s it.