June 13th, 2018 will go down in history as a great day for soccer and for the United States. That is the day that the United States won a joint bid with Canada and Mexico to host the 2026 World Cup. From now on, soccer’s development in this country is not just a soccer problem, but a problem for the whole country. A World Cup impacts a country economically with revenue from tourists, with increased pride in a nation’s team and, politically, with allocating money for new stadiums. Soccer’s popularity has been on the rise in the United State lately but change to the United States men’s national team is needed for them to be World Cup ready. Also, change to our soccer culture is needed for the U.S. to become a respected soccer nation.
The U.S. men’s national team needs to get better. They famously did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup when they lost at Trinidad and Tobago. Afterwards, older players who had been repeatedly chosen to play were criticized for their lack of passion and professionalism. If the team is to be World Cup ready, there needs to be a youth movement. In addition, qualifying for a World Cup should not be a celebration, and the men’s national team needs to qualify for the Olympics.
Luckily, the youth movement has already begun. All four rosters interim head coach Dave Sarachan has selected in 2018 have averaged 24 years of age or younger. The thought is that younger players, despite inexperience, have more to prove and will be hungrier to compete, which would bring a spark to the team. This spark might have helped the U.S. earn a 1-1 draw with eventual 2018 World Cup winners France on June 9. It took the French 78 minutes to score against the U.S. no small feat for a young team. It is important that the youth movement continues under the next head coach. Hopefully these young guns can help the U.S. qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Speaking of qualifying, there needs to be a change in standards for the U.S. men’s national team. Satisfaction for U.S. victories that will help them qualify is needed but, success during the qualifying process should not be a cause for celebration given the talent pool the U.S. has. U.S. players have been and will be given everything they need to become superstars, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches, top-class facilities, the best gear and so on. By 2022 these kids will be grown men. By 2026 they should make you scared at how good they are. The expectation needs to be reaching a World Cup quarterfinal or semifinal after dominating opponents in the group stage.
The reality is that after the U.S. lost to Trinidad and Tobago expectations and pride were low. If the U.S. can qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo attitudes can change. The problem is that the U.S. has missed the last two Olympic games. If the national team plays more games on television more eyes are on them. Americans who tune into the Olympics to watch other American athletes will also see the U.S. playing soccer. Then, Americans who never watched professional soccer might become interested in watching U.S. player Christian Pulisic play for his club, Borussia Dortmund. The national team is a gateway to soccer’s popularity growing. Then Americans will predominately watch professional soccer to see American players. They might even buy a Pulisic jersey. Then, pride might reach new heights.
Improving soccer at a nationwide scale is another important task. From youth travel teams to MLS, the U.S. lags behind Europe. We cannot do soccer our way. We need to change our culture. Youth soccer needs to be cheaper and college soccer poses a problem with developing professionals. Also, professional leagues need to adopt promotion and relegation.
My parents have paid thousands of dollars for me to play soccer. Expenses from uniform packages that include unnecessary gear to overpriced tournaments have piled up. No one needs that much. Youth soccer cannot afford to be selective based on who has money. The urban, blue-collar families have been left out. Soccer only accommodates the middle-class, suburban families. In Brazil and France, soccer is a blue-collar sport. Kids do not grow up on travel teams. They grow up in the tough cage courts of Paris and streets of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. In cities, street soccer has given rise to the players who are the best in the world. It is no coincidence that Brazil made the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup and that France won the tournament Bottom line? Stop babying American soccer players. Stop giving them so much at a young age, even if there are enough resources for customized warm-up jackets. Make pay-to-play cheaper so we include everyone.
For athletes who play other sports college athletics are beneficial. However, the best young soccer players in the world do not play at American universities. They play professionally at the ages American players attend college. For players who want to make it big why take a step down? Becoming a professional is the best option for American players to elevate the U.S.’s soccer status. If the U.S. wants to play better, then American players need to play with the best and become professionals as soon as possible.
Another malady of American soccer culture is the structure of professional leagues. The MLS and lower leagues such as the United Soccer League and North American Soccer League do not have promotion and relegation, a system practiced in Europe. The top finishing teams of the lower leagues get promoted to the league above them at the end of the season while the bottom finishing teams are relegated to the league below.
Promotion and relegation holds players accountable. Consequences for promotion include the chance to win more prestigious trophies, better players joining a team and a boost to the local economy. Relegation’s consequences are the opposite. In MLS the team that finishes last starts over fresh. There are no consequences for being poor. Just mediocrity. Promotion and relegation would increase the level of play, television ratings and attendance. This would put more spotlight and pressure on players. Who would be forced to perform better therefore making American soccer more attractive.
Every change that I am proposing is a facet of soccer systems and cultures that win. Before the U.S. hosts the best tournament on the planet we should make these changes to become the next great soccer nation.