Christian Pulisic (left) and Josh Sargent are among the players who are the future of American men’s soccer. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
By Frank Dell’Apa and Michael Lewis
When the 21st World Cup kicks off Thursday, the U.S. will be absent for the first time since 1986. The shock of failing to qualify for soccer’s premier tournament will be felt for some time in a country with millions of registered players, a successful professional league, and significant sponsorship invested in the game.
By many measures, soccer seems healthy in the U.S. But the national team’s shortcomings and the alarming lack of player development indicate deep problems. Some observers blame the soccer system itself, structured very differently from the rest of the world – from a pay to play youth setup stifling potential to the lack of open leagues and promotion/relegation discouraging competition at the professional level.
In any case, soccer officials are being forced to take a hard look at how the game is administered. Many admit there are flaws and problems, as in any organization. Others believe the system is ill-conceived, fatally flawed to the point that only a paradigm shift can lead to progress.
The U.S. entered the final day of CONCACAF qualifying with an estimated 96 percent chance of advancing to the Russia 2018 World Cup. Then, both Honduras and Panama won games, and the U.S. was eliminated after losing, 2-1, to Trinidad and Tobago in Couva on Oct. 10, 2017. The U.S. team’s failure to advance shocked Americans and raised questions about how we approach the game.
We talked with several administrators, coaches, former national players about the state of soccer in the U.S.
Among those interviewed included:
Marcelo Balboa – Former U.S. national team defender, Univision soccer commentator
Jerome de Bontin – soccer executive who was New York Red Bulls general manager, a former U.S. Soccer Foundation board member and one-time director at AS Monaco FC (French Ligue 1), among other endeavors
Steve Gans – Partner at Prince Lobel in Boston, Professional Soccer Advisors principal, candidate for U.S. Soccer president
Janusz Michallik – Former U.S. national team defender, ESPN soccer analyst
Hugo Perez — Former U.S. national team midfielder and ex-coach of the U.S. Under-14 and U-15 national teams who is development director at the Silicon Valley Soccer Academy
Tab Ramos — Former U.S. national team midfielder and current U.S. Under-20 men’s national coach
Charlie Stillitano – Relevent Sports executive chairman
Eric Wynalda – Former U.S. national team striker, Fox Soccer commentator
WC 2018 Qualifying
Were there problems previous to Oct. 10, 2017? Had the U.S. qualified, would it have masked those problems?
MARCELO BALBOA: “There were flaws before, there’s not one company that doesn’t have flaws. We knew there were flaws. Unfortunately, when you don’t qualify for the World Cup, they’re enhanced. And people thought it was time to speak out. Are there flaws? Yeah. Are there a lot of young players in Europe people didn’t know about? Yeah. Is there a huge gap between the [Michael] Bradley generation and Weston McKinney generation? This generation of kids are showing what they can do, maybe not getting the results, but it’s about giving the kids experience and mixing them with the veterans that are there. And I think there are flaws, they’ve been enhanced, and we can’t hide them anymore.”
JEROME DE BONTIN: “It’s unthinkable that we did not qualify for the World Cup. It’s a disaster. There ought to be a revolution. Every board member of the federation should be let go. They should all be forced into retirement and we should start brand new with people with better, fresher, smarter ideas than what we’ve seen in the past 25 years. I know it sounds I’m critical, but I think it’s a fairer assessment than to point the finger at Dan Flynn [USSF secretary general], Sunil [Gulati, former USSF president] or at Bruce [Arena, ex-national team coach]. They all have their share of responsibility, but the board gave Sunil and Dan the right to do, the flexibility or the freedom, what they did. Instead of being fired, what do we do? We elected the vice president who never kicked a soccer ball, who knew nothing about the game 10 years ago, as the new leader. It’s beyond stupidity. And why do we have five guys at the helm of MLS who have never kicked a soccer ball? … If you asked me a year ago or six months ago, I would have told you it may take a failure to qualify for the World Cup to get real changes, to see a real revolution. And what has changed? Nothing. We’re still dealing with the same individuals. We’re still focused more on the people getting the World Cup in 2026 [than know what is needed in broadening the scope of the game, bringing more players in the game].
“We failed. Why aren’t seeing a revolution? Why aren’t we seeing the leadership of MLS question its own policy. Blaming Jurgen Klinsmann is hypocrisy. He said the right thing along the way: we aren’t developing players. He didn’t want his players to speak German more than French or Spanish; he tried to get the best players he could. Certainly, his criticism of Landon Donovan or Michael Bradley or supposed superstars, I think at the time [was warranted]. They were top players, but they weren’t competitive.”
JANUSZ MICHALLIK: “In 1990, there wasn’t a professional league and Bob Gansler brought the team to California to train, then 1994 was good, 2002 was good, a couple others. But for a country to go from zero to making the World Cup, countries like ours, you almost need a re-set. I’m not saying it’s good we’re not going there but we shouldn’t be shocked or surprised. I called the game between Italy and Holland, massive countries, and you see a real drop-off in talent. Here, people say we don’t have the talent, or we don’t identify it, or don’t coach it properly, and I think to a degree that’s true. Me, personally, I want to be able to go to the World Cup and be able to play with teams. I don’t want to go and grind. They say it’s about results, they say how happy [they were] after Belgium [1-0 loss]. Most teams, against the best in CONCACAF, their entire preparation is, okay, how do we beat a low-lying defense, and be careful about the counter attack – in the World Cup, not one team is thinking the U.S. is going to come at us. I don’t think that’s right.”
STEVE GANS: “There certainly wouldn’t have been this awakening and call for change and realization this leadership wasn’t unimpeachable and subject to challenge. The aim of the national team is to make it to the World Cup and progress. The region we are in is far easier to make it [to the World Cup] than others, difficult road game environments notwithstanding. There wouldn’t have been the awareness that fundamental changes were needed. Obviously, there were problems in the program and with players, problems with leadership. My opinion is that[Jurgen] Klinsmann wasn’t the right choice to begin with. I don’t know Bruce [Arena] well, but I don’t blame him – it was a tough situation and he took over a group of fragile guys and did his best with what he had. Obviously, in Trinidad and Tobago, here is a game all we needed was a tie against a team with nothing to play for, and it all goes wrong. But of course, the problems are larger than one game and are systemic throughout youth soccer and the development system. Obviously, there are major problems, and we need new thinking and restructuring of the national team program.”
HUGO PEREZ: “When you make changes during World Cup cycles, whether it is at the start or in the middle of it, or almost at the last round, it’s always going to create issues because somebody else comes in and has a different way of doing things. Sometimes it can be a positive thing. In this case, they already had issues, I guess. That’s why they made the changes. It didn’t help changing the whole thing. At the end, the USA did not qualify for the World Cup.”
CHARLIE STILLITANO: “What happens is, success covers up a lot of problems in any organization, right? U.S. Soccer is not exempt from that. We want to make a big deal of the Gold Cup but the reality is where we are measured is the World Cup. It’s fair to say it’s a pretty low bar to qualify from CONCACAF. We’re not talking Italy in a group with Spain, finishing second. Or, you see African countries – Bob Bradley was coaching Egypt and lost one game in qualifying, and didn’t get in. CONCACAF is, by far, the easiest qualifying to get in – that’s one of the legacies of Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner we ended up with. It’s pretty easy for the U.S. and Mexico to always qualify. Were there problems before this? I don’t know, but a way to cover up any problem is qualify for the World Cup. It’s failure for the U.S. and Mexico if they are not in the finals any time. They are not really being challenged. It’s hard to say if we are being successful. You can only judge it every four years. Others are judged in the Euros and [Copa America], a lot of players are being judged day in and day out in leagues and Champions League and Copa Libertadores, so we have very few barometers to look at. Unfortunately for us, the only real measure is how we do in the World Cup. I’m not sure we had major problems, but I would say it exposed that we’re not there yet, certainly not there yet. The dream after the ’94 World Cup and things everyone talked about culminated with Sunil [Gulati] saying 2010, we’re going to win the World Cup, and me saying let’s just be competitive – neither of us were right. We’re not in the top 10 and we have a ways to go and it’s fascinating to me to see how well our competitors are doing – because of MLS. They were in modest leagues, if they were lucky they got to play in a great league like the Mexican League. Now, all the best players in our region are playing in the MLS. MLS helped raise the level in our region but we haven’t [raised our level].”
ERIC WYNALDA: “Our problem has been in existence for 10 years, maybe 20. I guess the collective goal in all of our minds – anybody that has been in the game as long as I have, and been paying attention the last couple decades – there had been this perception there’s been massive progress made. And the unfortunate truth is 80 percent of our success has been accidental. Everyone else is running around patting themselves on the back and creating their personal definition of what success is. It’s frustrating to people that might know better. Everything has a particular moment and we’ve been in this moment for a long time, recirculating coaches and ideas and restricting ourselves, our own growth, creating situations where the competitive nature of our league is reduced substantially. Would you push someone into a boxing ring and put Vaseline over their eyes and tell them to fight and they’ve never been in a fistfight? That was what this was, and there was no white towel to throw in, no hook to get you off the stage. That one game happens to be the one perfect demonstration of our [problems].”
Is restructuring necessary? Is naming Earnie Stewart general manager a good start?
GANS: “There’s a pedigree that international people bring but that by itself is only the beginning of the test of whether that will translate to America – understanding what makes us different (vastness of the country, travel, artificial turf, college aims, etc.). One would hope Earnie Stewart gets it. On paper, he has the profile of a guy who’s done technical stuff in Europe and spent a lot of time here. It seems to make sense but that doesn’t mean he’ll have success. You have to acclimate yourself to the culture here.”
DE BONTIN: “I am not supportive of the ‘general manager’ position. The very fact that we elected a president who needs in turn to hire someone to perform parts of the job he was elected for is an obvious demonstration that we elected the wrong person. What will Carlos Cordeiro do then? What will the CEO of the federation do then? The ‘general manager’ position just weakens the role of the CEO of the federation and will end up being a source of conflict when things don’t go well. I don’t know Earnie Stewart and I wish him well, but I doubt that this new position will meet his expectations. He is an appointed person and will be quickly dismissed if the team does not perform and/or he is offered a higher paying job elsewhere. Imagine this scenario: Earnie Stewart convinces Carlos to hire USMNT coach A. The team does not do well. Coach A is fired. Should Earnie Stewart be fired as well? I believe that the federation has many more important areas to spend its money on than an unnecessary new GM position.”
MICHALLIK: “If we do things correctly, truly identify problems and Earnie truly has the power to change things – I hope he does – even if that means results don’t go our way … We don’t want to miss the World Cup in Qatar, but I want to see young players week in and out, who aren’t afraid to go forward and try things and take risks. I want them playing out there.”
PEREZ: “Well, I don’t know what power they’re going to give the GM. That has to be seen. Earnie has experience, obviously, outside this country in Holland. So, depending on what the job is going to be and what’s he’s going to be allowed to do, it’s still a question mark.
“We need to have a better direction and a better plan going forward. What type of national team do we want to be? Obviously, youth soccer in this country is important because that’s where the players are coming from; whether they go to pro, they go college. Youth soccer will always be the thing that is important here in this country. Until that gets resolved, to do better we’re still going to struggle with identity, with styles of play, with different things. We had qualified for the World Cup since 1990. As far as results, that’s a positive thing. But as far as structure and planning correctly and having a vision from where we need to get from the 1990 World Cup to the 2022, I don’t think we’ve ever had that. Now that we didn’t qualify, it’s time for those people in charge to do an evaluation of the whole program because results cover a lot of things that are wrong, positive results. But at the end, soon or later, it catches up to you. It’s been a difficult [situation] not qualifying for the World Cup, not only has it been difficult for the U.S., losing millions of dollars, sponsorships and all that, it’s also been a negative thing. To see the structure of football that we have, the way we play, the style that we play, how we look at things, I think that has been effective. But sooner or later it was going to come out. Now you have an issue. Those players who have played in three World Cups are gone, they’re history, not with the national team. Now you have to start building up a new foundation of new players that are going to try to help the U.S. qualify for the next World Cup. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, to be honest with you. I think it’s going to be difficult.”
STILLITANO: “If you want to improve you always need to be critical of yourself, I’m certainly a big believer in that. I understand and think it’s correct to say we would’ve qualified if the ball had gone 3 inches the other way [Clint Dempsey’s shot against Trinidad & Tobago] – that would’ve covered up a lot of problems. A lot of that statement is true, we would’ve qualified and we’d be in the World Cup … but it didn’t go in, so we have to assess. It takes a lot of courage to do what the Germans did – I was there when they lost, 5-1, to England in Munich, and they said we are behind everyone, we need to tear it down and start again. You see Tiger Woods, he’s winning but he’s got to change his swing before there’s problems, in the long run I’ll be even better if I change this aspect of my game. I have no doubt if the shot off the post in Trinidad & Tobago went in, every single comment we’re making, every question, would not have been asked. We’d be going along – I’m not saying we’re doing everything wrong, but we’re not doing everything right. In Italy, it’s not that they’re bad – normally, they would beat Sweden and that would’ve covered up a lot of issues. But the real issue is they’re not producing the Baggios, Del Pieros, Maldinis, Pirlos. But they are now looking at it. Every other person, besides [former coach Gianpiero] Ventura in Italy, coaches, players, GMs, former players, is saying we have to do something, we’re not producing players like Baggio, Zola.”
WYNALDA: “I was incredibly discouraged to hear when Earnie Stewart came out of the gates saying it was the cycle of players and the system is not to blame. He should recant and take that comment back. It’s flat out wrong. Unfortunately, we’ve defined what success is and are no longer challenging our players. We’ve implemented a system that breeds mediocrity, and when we’re mediocre we call ourselves great. And Earnie Stewart, who was a great teammate – Earnie Stewart challenged us all to be better, but the internal mechanism that drives him to be better, the assumption that everyone else has the heart of Earnie Stewart, if he thinks others [have that], that would be a fatal mistake. Because we need to be challenged in a different way and challenged to be better in a different way. Ultimately, we’re complaining about situations we created ourselves, we created this mess.”
WC 2026 Bid
If the bid succeeds, will this help solve the essential problems? Or will it simply perpetuate a failing or flawed system?
BALBOA: “To get the World Cup again in 2026 would be absolutely fantastic. But we’ve got worry about Qatar and qualifying and hiring a coach. I think people are working on it. Let’s not mix 2026 with the issues and problems we have now. We need to solve them, we need a new coach, we need to be finding and integrating a new core of players.”
DE BONTIN: “If the World Cup bid succeeds it will mean that all those people who have failed to produce success over the past 20 years [resulting in a failure to qualify for Russia 2018] will continue to be involved with the sport as if it was business as usual. That reality bothers me because we need change. As I mentioned before, failing to qualify for the World Cup was a collective failure on the part of the U.S. Soccer leadership, from the federation to MLS. Each member of the board of the US Soccer Federation should have resigned as should have the top leaders of MLS. Inheriting the World Cup will be fun for everyone, but I would have preferred it to happen with a different group of leaders for our sport. So, I am afraid that getting the World Cup will simply perpetuate a flawed system.”
GANS: “I don’t think it does anything for the national team other than guarantee we qualify forthe 2026 World Cup. By itself, it will spark a new generation of young people, to actually have the event here. It also causes distraction – there’s focus on doing the work necessary to holding it, also a tremendous focus on the dollars part of it. You could say, when you look at countries that are not major but have the World Cup, they do everything to make sure the country is competent on the field (at least advancing through the first round) – more and more resources are thrown at it to make sure we show well. But if the wrong people are leading it – and, for sure, in many cases, the wrong people have been leading it, we can not reasonably expect improvement. I’ll give Carlos Cordeiro the benefit of the doubt for now as he has been focusing nearly 100% on 2026 World Cup bid, but as to some of the technical people in Chicago, it seems to me they are in the same positions or higher, and that gives cause for concern.”
MICHALLIK: “I’ve been on the board of directors of USSF. We had $50 million after World Cup ’94, and to this day there’s been this tug of war. When the money opens up like this there’s got to be a plan. It is going to be much bigger than ’94, let’s say a $500 million profit. There’s got to be a plan in place. The [U.S. Soccer] Foundation was a good thing, and some of it has to go [there], give it back to kids in the inner city, fields, make the game accessible to everyone. There’s got to be a plan, hiring full-time coaches so they feel like they’re getting paid properly, scouting system, centers of excellence.”
PEREZ: “The ’94 World Cup, it was different. There was no league here. So, it was important that the U.S. had a good show at the World Cup when we had it here. Now, it’s different. MLS is established already. Obviously, soccer is more popular here, so bringing the World Cup here is going to be good for the business. I don’t know if it’s going to be good for our soccer. But for the business, obviously FIFA is thinking about that. They are going to make more money than any place that can take it, but that’s business. Soccer in our country is different. We need other changes, we need different things to really become a powerful country. Bringing the World Cup here, for me, on the soccer side, it doesn’t change anything because the structure of the World Cup doesn’t have anything to do with the structure of U.S. Soccer in this country.”
TAB RAMOS: ”I think it would be huge, it would be huge. If you do look back 30 years ago when that announcement was made, at the time you would say, ‘OK, we’re going to have the World Cup. Maybe if we’re lucky, we start a league, which U.S. Soccer promised, which was part of their deal that they would start a league, and that happened. And think of where we are today, how much its grown following the 20-25 years after that happened. When you look at 2026, the effect of 2026 will have on the 20 years after, I think that getting the 2026 World Cup could legitimately bump soccer in this country to eventually become the preeminent sport. I think that’s what it can do. It won’t happen in 2026. But it may happen 10 to 20 years after that.”
STILLITANO: “We need the World Cup here to keep interest up at a high level. We’re seeing a low point now. We’re not in the World Cup and not making the Olympics, that is a major problem. We’ve put so much stock in getting the World Cup. Like Kyle Martino said, if we don’t get it it’s a disaster. We’ve built from the top down, the right billionaire, a nice stadium, interest of the local community. The World Cup is necessary at the top of the food chain. It’s important to have the World Cup here, but having said that, we need more emphasis on developing players.”
Is the league producing/developing players for the USMNT? Should it be? Are U.S. players being rewarded/fairly compensated? Is the quality of MLS competition satisfactory? Would promotion/relegation help improve the level?
BALBOA: “When the league started they would give American players a place to play and you would sell some guys off – Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey. We went from that – I don’t see it as a league to develop American players. There are a few homegrown players getting a chance to play. I think the league revolutionized itself, to be competitive they are spending millions of dollars.”
[Balboa noted many U.S. players are developing in Europe].
“Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie. Kellyn Acosta is hurt but he’ll eventually be in Europe. Tim Weah on the right side. Up top, Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, Josh Sargent, that’s a pretty good offensive third, right there. I like [Antonee] Robinson on the back line, with [John Anthony] Brooks, Matt Miazga, [Cameron Carter-] Vickers, [Erik Palmer-] Brown. With the younger players, this could be a very interesting team.”
DE BONTIN: “MLS is managed by businessmen who are in it for profit. Never lose sight of the fact that the franchise owners are first and foremost minority shareholders of MLS. They don’t own a club. If you look at the recent hiring of players you will notice that franchise owners spend a lot more on bringing in foreign players than they do on developing U.S. players. Most MLS teams are ill-equipped to develop players. They have gone at it the wrong way and have not come up with creative solutions to integrate the college experience that the majority of the players still aspire to. I can think of over 100 D1, D2 and D3 college programs that have better coaching and better facilities than MLS franchises. As you know we have over 1,000 men’s college programs, which means that we continuously have about 25,000 young men playing soccer very seriously in this country. MLS and the federation pay lip service to the college game and they fail to understand this could be the best training ground for future USMNT players. A better college scene could also become a deterrent for players aspiring to go to Europe. There is no question, in my opinion, that top U.S. players with unique skills and aspirations to lead a professional career should today consider going to Europe first, play in a top college program second and settle for an MLS environment only third.”
GANS: “A lot of national team players do come out of MLS. I think right now the quality of national team is lacking, for whatever reasons – the Development Academy having gone wrong in many ways, or the first generation of highly paid players aren’t as hungry – but whatever it is, we’re going in the wrong direction right now. We’ve seen it before. The 1994 group was the first to become famous, ‘98 then was a recovery. These things happen, and there’s human nature involved. I don’t know if it is MLS’ fault, but the national team is not in great shape.”
MICHALLIK: “There isn’t an incentive right now to give American players a chance. You don’t really get the money for developing these players. It’s not the responsibility of MLS. MLS is a business, a single-entity business. Success is going to bring money and foreign players bring more money. Some teams [develop U.S. talent] more than others – Sporting Kansas City, Red Bulls. It all comes down to talent. Teams should have the best soccer minds and let them do what they want. If you give somebody money, you don’t tell them how to spend it. Give them guidance, but the league shouldn’t be able to turn down [a prospective player] because in their view this player doesn’t get the bang for the buck. But it’s not going to change overnight.”
PEREZ: “When you talk about promotion and relegation and having a league like MLS, that is not promotion and relegation, if you really think about when you don’t have anything to lose in the sense of playing young players, I think MLS, they don’t need to worry about relegation. In a lot of the countries, including Mexico, it’s difficult because they’re fighting for promotion and relegation. So, a lot of the teams don’t play a lot of young players because they are under pressure not to go down. We don’t have that because MLS doesn’t have relegation or promotion. You would think MLS would take more chances on young players but at the same time they don’t do it because, obviously, they want to win. And that’s what you’re getting now, players that are young leaving our country because they have been offered opportunities to play overseas. Whether we like it or not, Europe is where all these players are really going to grow, the young ones, and become players. Clubs are better, the leagues are more competitive. You have better players, structure of the leagues, clubs, academies over there are better because they have been doing it longer than we have. If you are a young player, with ambition, you have to think you want to be where the best players in the world are playing and that’s Europe.”
[Perez addressed the lack of creative American midfielders and strikers in MLS].
“The solution to find the players in development is the coach. You have to find those players who have those characteristics and talents and then you have to put them in and help them in games. We’re getting players that run, that fight, that win balls, that cover 10 miles, but we’re not getting players who create, that score goals, that are, I would have to say, an enjoyment. We’re not picking those players and when you’re not picking those players, you can’t play that type of football. There are young players in this country that have that talent, but you need to pick them, develop them, play them and let them show that, and not just pick players who are going to come in and do the dirty work and be physical and fast. We’ve been doing that for the last 30 years.
“Let’s be honest. We compete but we’ve never established something in the sense of saying this national team is the most creative national team I’ve ever seen because they have two, three guys in the middle who can do things with the ball a lot of top players in the world from other teams [can] do. People don’t like to hear that but that’s the reality. You compare it with other countries who had good players, but who’s been that best [No.] 10 in the last 20 years? Taking over games, taking over the responsibly, taking over the tempo of a game. When to do this, when to do that, when to assist for himself, when to assist for others. When to create for him, when to create for others to score goals. We haven’t had that. And it’s not that we don’t have those players in this country, we’re not picking them. We don’t think that’s the way we should go because now we feel we have to compete because other countries are more physical, more athletic. OK, they are, but those physical, athletic players are skillful, they’re technical. Maybe I’m wrong. I could be wrong. I want to play attractive football with players who can handle the ball in every position.”
RAMOS: “We have to recognize that every coach in MLS wants to win their games. So, they’re going to [follow] whatever rules MLS has, they’re going to do all they can to win their games. It’s not going to matter to them whether it is for the American players or players from Mars, for that matter. They’re just going to try to win the games. It’s time, likely, that U.S. Soccer and MLS can work together towards maybe setting some rules that can help the American player come along. By that I’m not saying like the old NASL where you had to have so many Americans on the field, because every player needs to earn a position on the field. I don’t think you’re just given that because you’re born somewhere. But there’s other mechanisms. One of the things about MLS that makes it unique compared to other parts of the world that’s actually a negative for the American player is the fact that a green card player is considered just like an American player. That’s difficult. I’m not sure there’s a way around that. But I know that that’s an issue. When MLS teams have 15 green card players who are not national team eligible here, I think that’s a problem. Again, I don’t have a solution for it, but … as the years go by we have to protect the American player a little bit more.
“The other issue is that it’s happening in the college game, too. If you look at a lot of the college teams now, if you look second division and below, its mostly foreign players. Now, you’re looking in the ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference], which is the best league, known for having the best American players possible in it, there’s a lot of foreign players in it. So, yeah, American players are having less and less opportunity at the highest levels.”
STILLITANO: “The success of the league, it’s great, but where’s our [Lionel] Messi, our Ronaldo? Where are our – I’d think there would be a dozen Michael Bradleys and [Christian] Pulisics, like other countries.”
What is the status of player development? Is the lack of stability in lower leagues a detriment to development of the game? Could pro/rel help solve the problem, by assuring the stability of leagues and providing incentives to investors and players?
BALBOA: “I think the problem is you have promotion/relegation everywhere else in the world but it is not common here. It’s going to take a little time to get there, to be honest. When I played, you knew had to get a result every week, a point on the road. It makes you play differently because every game has a meaning. We’ll get there, eventually. Once lower leagues are stable and owners are going to be there for more than 10 years, then it’s a different ballgame. [Lower leagues] are a great place to start it and I’m seeing it moving in that direction.”
GANS: “I love promotion/relegation in principle, I’ve said that in my campaign. But it is irresponsible to end the discussion there not having considered the honest reality of the economic structure of American sports.”
MICHALLIK: “When I look at these leagues they are better than when I used to play in. But, ultimately, it’s the same. I don’t see a future there, you’re sacrificed, there are never guarantees. Forget about whatever you think about NASL, put aside whether they’ve done things right or wrong. The reason I like NASL, there were enough teams willing to – not everyone can be MLS – you could actually make a living, with teams like the Cosmos and Miami. Hunter Freeman gets a $750,000 transfer fee. Rich Ryan, same thing, pretty good salary. Now, you’re going to USL and you know this is the end. I see players retiring at 26-27. Regardless of promotion/relegation, D2 should be a level below but still making a good living. I appreciate the way USL is run, it’s much better than when I played – nice stadiums, everything taken care of. But you still have to feel you’re a professional. I continue to say [pro/rel] is far away but let’s fight for ourselves. They say owners don’t want to do it but how do we know? Maybe some do, because it may bring more profits. MLS and their owners should be able to do what they want. The only point I want to make is this should be on the table as a discussion, it shouldn’t be automatically dismissed. Good businesses don’t dismiss any idea just because they don’t like the narrative. It should be talked over at every board meeting. If they say they’re not ready for it, it shouldn’t be off the table with no discussions. Good businesses look for other revenue and try to improve the product, whatever it is. It should be on the table with plans, ideas and maybe a way to do it in a few years.”
PEREZ: “Promotion and relegation has to more with how important games are to clubs. But it doesn’t have to do with developing players. Promotion and relegation, when you hear those words, it just puts more pressure on the coaches that they say, ‘If I have a 30-year-old that is more experienced, it’s going to help me win to stay in the first division than to play a 16-, 17-year-old who is coming up.’ He’s probably going to pick the 30-year-old. But if there is no promotion/relegation then, for me, it’s an easy choice. I play one or two young kids and surround them nine with experience. Why not? Look at Europe. You have kids. Look at [Kylian] Mbappé from France [World Cup team]. How old was he when he started with Monaco, 17? He’s 19 now. If that kid doesn’t get a chance to play, he’ll probably play in the academy or in their reserve team. Christian Pulisic is the same thing. He went to an academy. They saw what he had, put him in. He’s 18, 19, playing in the Champions League. Does he make a difference by himself with Borussia Dortmund? No. But they have surrounded him with class players and because of that he has flourished. It’s because the coach, says, ‘Well this guy is good, I need to get him in. I don’t care if he’s young. I need to protect him with older players.’ And with very good older players, who can teach him and help him, so he doesn’t struggle.”
STILLITANO: “People say America is different than other places but we’re not that different – the English, Germans, French – we’re really not. I think there’s no incentive at all. Riccardo Silva and Rocco Commisso, I consider great people, who love the game, I find it shocking they’re spending time and energy in a league that cannot ever be top flight. The best argument I hear is that players like Jamie Vardy would never be discovered if not for promotion/relegation. Those are the right arguments. How many players languish in lower leagues, get frustrated and end up out of the game? We have a very stable league – there’s two sides to the coin. But if we’re talking player development, there is no question in my mind that promotion/relegation really helps. It incentivizes players, owners. Every kid has a dream, then, they can imagine it. It’s day and night, the type of incentive you create. It’s that next level of sharpness that changes a good player into a professional player, that’s the big difference. Let’s make some tweaks in the system, at the very least things need to be tweaked.”
DE BONTIN: “Promotion and relegation are the way of the future. I don’t buy the argument that we should be held hostage to the investments made by MLS owners. MLS owners came into the sport to make money. They took some risks with the hope of profiting from the sport. The writing was on the wall for the losses they have incurred over the past 25 years. They will continue to lose money if U.S. Soccer does not introduce promotion and relegation. I suspect that most MLS and USL team owners will benefit from the introduction of pro/rel and only the weak owners will disappear. It will pull the sport from the top up rather than letting weak owners and mediocrity hold everyone back. I am absolutely convinced that the introduction of promotion and relegation in the U.S. pro soccer scene will allow for the emergence of the sport [with much greater broadcasting revenues], it will improve the quality of the games [better and more exciting competition] and will generate better players [incentives will exist to develop players – training compensation and solidarity clause payments will be introduced] and in turn will provide for a much more competitive USMNT. Pro/rel and training compensation/solidarity clause payments are win/win proposals. Those who oppose them are misinformed and misguided.
“I am hoping that FIFA will eventually dictate that U.S. Soccer should introduce pro/rel. I can see a scenario whereby FIFA would give our federation five years to conform. Maybe Michel Platini will be able to run in 2019. Whoever is elected or re-elected, I am hopeful that this person will listen to the U.S. soccer fans [not the business leaders] and will do what is right for soccer in this country.”
[Perez and de Bontin said leaders should address and plan carefully below the lower pro leagues at the youth level, the building blocks of U.S. Soccer].
DE BONTIN: “Our leadership decided to create the academy program. They meant well. They were trying to build a better environment on what they thought was needed. They made the mistake of looking at Europe and we’ll take what we like from Europe and we’ll try to do it with our academy system. Illinois is about the size of France. Texas is certainly bigger than France. What works in France is never going to work on a continent like we have in the U.S. Our leadership, which is mostly New York centric, has always failed to appreciate the fact that what works in New Jersey may not work in the Midwest or may not work in California. Some of the things you can do with a large population you can’t do in Arizona or in Nevada, where there are fewer people.
“I don’t know who made that call to tell kids throughout America that they couldn’t combine competitive school with high school soccer [U.S. Soccer Development Academy]. It showed a total lack of understanding of the makeup of this society, allowing an important sport to all members of the society, from the kids to the parents to the grandparents. All this because we thought the ultimate requires a sacrifice of everybody to produce a more competitive team based on European principles, which I argued [against] forever. It’s just never going to work here because we live in a society that is as foreign to Europe as China or Japan is to us in the U.S. So other than embracing all the things we’ve done right, and all the things that we had, we tried to revolutionize everything by putting in those bad habits from Europe. And I’m well positioned to say bad habits because, having been on the board of AS Monaco and being involved with other clubs here, I can tell you, with no reservation, we have a system that’s pretty awful. The way we take kids and throw them back to the inner cities when they don’t make the cut, the way we make promises to 100 kids only to deliver to one or two, at best, and not focus on the other 98, I could never agree to the concept … that we should target don’t play high school, don’t go to college, why get an education? You’re going to be an athlete; therefore, you don’t need to be intelligent, which was sort of a message that we tried to send to all those players.”
PEREZ: People have to understand. You’re developing players. You pick 100 players. Out of those 100 players you look at five of them that are talented and out of those five, you’re thinking about different phases of their development. You know that at 17 this guy can be the one. He needs to be put on the first team. He needs to go to preseason, he needs to go to games, cup games, because you know that he has something. Can you imagine if they paid attention to Pulisic? Two things would have happened. One, he would have signed with somebody here professionally and I don’t know if he would have grown the way he’s grown if he stayed here. But let’s say he did. Now they would have sold him for $25-50 million. He has become the player that he is because he has played in Europe. That’s what he’s worth. Staying here, I don’t know if he would have been. As talented as he is, he probably would have left about 21, after a World Cup. But I don’t know how many of them paid attention when I had him in with the [U-15] national team with me. I didn’t see too many MLS people there in my camps, scouting my players. Going forward, I think they need to pay more attention to that. Because our future really depends not only on U.S. Soccer, not only on MLS, not only at the youth system. It’s all together. You need the people who understand that. You need the people who really can change that. I am a person that thinks, after certain years, you compete in a certain way but you’re in the middle of the pack of the world countries, really the good countries of football. You have to do something, you have to do something different because I know our players can play better. I know they can. There’s no question about that.”
The road ahead
So many ideas and many opinions from people who have experienced the ups and downs of soccer in America.
No doubt that that men’s game in the U.S. has grown exponentially in the past three decades. But the room for improvement to keep up and catch up with the rest of the world is great and appears to be a daunting task.
It is the charge of the leaders – not only at the national end, but at the regional, state and even local levels – to determine the right path to the future. Given the size and scope of this country, it will be not easy or happen overnight.
Even if a plan or project is implemented today, it will take years to see the fruits of the seeds and labors, whether it is at the professional or youth ranks, but making a bold move or two to change the system could accelerate the process.
We have turned into an impatient society, wanting things to be done right away, as quickly as we can text friends and family. But, like it or not, to do something right, it will take a while.
It will be intriguing to see what direction U.S. Soccer takes and when and how new ideas, plans and projects are implemented.