Armchair Analyst: The true cost of US soccer's World Cup failure

ExtraTime Radio Podcast

LISTEN: That pit in your stomach ... it's likely to be around for awhile. The United States will not play in the 2018 World Cup. It's tough to type. The guys mourn the national soccer nightmare with Fox Sports pundit Alexi Lalas (19:04), Paul Tenorio (35:38) of FourFourTwo and Brian Sciaretta (45:27) of American Soccer Now Subscribe now and preview the MLS weekend. "Like" our Facebook page so you never miss a show! Download this episode!

It's been obvious for a long time, to those of us who follow and work in the game, how and why US soccer needs to change at the youth levels. And bear in mind that while this full national team failure is born of systemic, prolonged youth level shortcomings, that still doesn't absolve either Bruce Arena or the players who took the field the other night and lost to Trinidad & Tobago. They failed on their own merits.

So here we go:

Point No. 1: Youth development in the country is desperate for more elite youth soccer coaches. But as I mentioned in a previous column, it doesn't help that an A-level coaching license in the USA costs $4,000 when the equivalent license in Germany costs $600, and in Spain it's $800.

Point No. 2: There are too few youth national team technical advisers (9, as of 2014) and scouts (100-ish, mostly part-time, mostly college coaches, also as of 2014), which means that kids from "other" places – off-the-grid be it because they're too rural, too urban or too ethnic – rarely get seen. And if you refer back to Point No. 1 above, many of those kids aren't getting the type of coaching they need in the first place. So now they're disadvantaged in two ways.

To be clear: This set-up is better to what it replaced, which was basically a Jackson Pollock painting of overlapping youth affiliations, ad hoc scouting networks and next-to-useless pay-to-play NCAA camps. And many of the scouts and advisers do yeoman's work. But if you want an idea for where another dollop of that $100 million USSF is sitting on should go... here you are.

Point No. 3: Pay-to-play prices out talent. Full stop.

That's a big chunk of how we got here and that's a big chunk of what needs to be fixed. And those in positions of power to influence these areas of the game will likely be asked to answer to why those structures have been allowed to calcify. 

But what's being lost in the wash is this: The above, specifically with regard to Points No. 2 & 3, has started to change.

The USSDA has made improvements over the last 10 years in trying to reel in kids from underserved areas (though many, like Seattle's Cristian Roldan, are still missed); many of the top clubs pay the licensing fees for their coaches (though that arguably impacts the incentive for pay-to-play); and the USSF made a bold move in 2016, hiring away Aloys Wijnker from AZ Alkmaar to become first a US Soccer Coach Educator, and now technical director of the boys' Development Academy. Tony Lepore, meanwhile, has moved from Director of Scouting to Director of Talent Identification.

“The focus of the Talent Identification Department will be on improving the quality and quantity of scouts for US Soccer and Development Academy clubs,” is what Lepore said in the release, which is from March 2017. Whether he's good at it or not remains to be seen, but it's encouraging that he's literally identifying the overarching problem. “Our plan is to implement a scout education program that will help Development Academy clubs to develop their strategy, methods, planning and networks for identifying players.”

I would like for people having the loud and important conversations about "what's next?" to first understand "what's now." Because a bunch of "what's now" is actually working and shouldn't be torn down. It should be built up.

Which brings us to the most important development: There are now about two-dozen free-to-play academies in the US, 20 of them MLS-run. Their products have had more success than literally any other US Under-20 generation, becoming the first US team to make it to the quarterfinals of back-to-back U-20 World Cups, and the first to win the CONCACAF Championship:

The kids coming out of those academies are the kids we've seen at the last two U-20 World Cups as well as the current U-17 crop (which, Thursday's disappointing result notwithstanding, is a pretty damn talented group). A bunch of those guys – Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Matt Miazga, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, maybe even Justen Glad or Erik Palmer-Brown – had a shot at making the World Cup roster had the US qualified. My guess is the first four on that list would have, and the fifth could have.

Having those guys on the field in Russia, playing well (obviously not a given) would have been a "proof of concept" moment for the efficacy of free-to-play academy models. It would have been a proof of concept moment for so many of the things that most everybody agrees need to happen.

That stuff is already happening on a small scale. Russia was a chance to increase that scale exponentially.

Think of it purely from a business standpoint: Miazga's transfer to Chelsea helped pay for the education of Adams. Adams could one day be sold, which would pay for the education of the next group. Both of them could have been out there winning games for the US on the world's greatest sporting stage, just as they did at the U-20 level. Both of them could've been out there proving that free-to-play academies work at a spectacular level.

Businesspeople are copycats. What makes success, what makes fame, what makes money for one will invariably be imitated by others.

Think of it from a best practices standpoint: Soccer in the US – especially academy soccer – is often and not without merit derided as too white, too suburban, too upper-middle class. Or it's derided as a fringe, Latino, or immigrant sport. In a way it is often both and all of those things, and it is an insane aspect of youth soccer here that there are so few bridges to connect those soccer communities, all of which have incubated great players.

In the entire country, no academy does more to bridge those gaps than FC Dallas, whose every roster, from the Under-12s on up, looks like a United Colors of Benetton commercial (an unequivocal good thing). Having two graduates of that system out on the field at the World Cup would have been a bright, shining beacon for other academies and other teams with regard to how to build and integrate a player identification system that is able to toggle from community to community and create one, unified system that serves everyone. Or at least tries damn hard to.

(Part 2 of that video series is HERE, btw)

Sportspeople are copycats. What makes success, what makes fame, what makes trophies for one will invariably be imitated by others.

We need more RBNY and RSL and FCD and Atlanta United academies out there, and more clubs like them willing to integrate their products into the full first team. And not just at the MLS level, but for NASL and USL as well.

So what has me really bummed is that I saw next summer's tournament as a chance to create two really powerful positive data points that would fundamentally shift the way people think about how and who to target as youth talent, how to develop them, and what to do with them once they reach the age of majority. They would have been data points to show people involved in US and Canadian soccer and say "See? The 15 percent changes we made had a profound effect. Let's make it a 30 percent change, and then 45, and then 75! This is how you do it! You win games, make great players, create better leagues. And by the way everybody from the players on down makes more money."

There would have been actual, factual, on-field proof that the granular stuff happening on the ground right now works at the highest level, and in any field "proof" tends to accelerate development. Proof is better than theory.

That proof will have to wait until 2022 for its big test. Now, instead, there will be fighting about the meaning of the big, unmissable negative data point, and less traction for the less-visible-but-still-there positive ones. The next few months, at the very least, will be an internecine battle between the "burn it all down!" hot takers and the "nah, nothing needs to change" ivory tower types. We will be having the dumb conversation instead of the smart one.

The rest of us, looking at stuff that actually works, will be left to say "why not build upon that?"

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