Sunday, July 13, 2014

Evaluating Klinsmann and the US - Part II - Depth

So here is where we need to really roll up the sleeves and get to work. Up until now, it has been getting the most out of the limited talent the US has. It is how the US has been since it was awarded the 1994 World Cup. The US hasn't had soccer relative to its resources or demographics - not by a long shot - and as such has been trying to get blood from a turnip ever since.

Now obviously, some real magicians have done wonderful work over the years. Gansler got a bunch of college kits to survive v. Italy. Bora got the US out of the group. Arena gave us the US' most successful modern day run, but also gave us the disappointment of 2006. Bradley gave us the drama of 2010 and Klinsmann gave us a real statement - that the US can get out of any group, anywhere, anytime, anyhow.

Massive accomplishments considering we are just now starting our first full generation of players who grew up with a true First Division to look up to. And realistically, it was only the last 8 to 10 years where it was successful enough in a large enough part of the country to really make a long term impact.

But I don't care which cycle it was - at least since 2002 - someone will criticize the US, and if you look deep enough at the question, the real answer is we don't have enough depth. And let's say this now - none of this is an indictment of individual players or coaches - these are all illustrations of individual situations. We will discuss the details of what can be done later.

Jozy Altidore would never be the first choice forward for one of the top teams, and probably not even on the team. Italy, Brazil, Holland, Germany, Argentina, Spain, England, France? No way. But not only is he the first line for the US, we don't have a viable backup that is even close - as we clearly saw.

None of the wing play from the US was at that top level, either.

Now at other positions, the US is much more competitive. Dempsey, Bradley (easy there Alice...), Beckerman, Jones all played well. Howard was hurt by goals given up by his defense, otherwise he would be recognized as one of the better keepers of the tournament. Central defense was solid and Johnson and Yedlin were revelations at right fullback.

But even there, there is no depth. If Jones or Berckerman goes down, who replaces them? Someone not a defensive midfielder which forces the team to change tactics. (Again, Bradley bashers, look in depth at the effect of Altidore's injury before you knock the guy who covered more ground in the Group Stage than anyone else.) Or if Dempsey hadn't been able to keep going?

And to cut to the chase, the World Cup is about depth. You can clearly see that as the tournament wore on, the teams with more depth - and later on, depth and quality - advanced at the expense of those with less.

So why is the US - whose population and resources dwarf so many competitors - having a depth problem? Where is England, Holland, Italy on those lists? True, Brazil is high on population and decent on GDP, but they are the exception. Even Germany and France don't compare - they just aren't as far behind.

Yes, let's acknowledge that the US has more major sports to compete with. NFL, NCAA football, NBA, NHL, plus tennis, golf, etc. Yet that doesn't hold back the US success in the Olympics in a lot of places.

But the real problem is in the fact that soccer is still in its infancy in the US, certainly relative to the century that most other countries have in their soccer history. MLS has achieved its goal - sustainable and successful. To those doubting that, you watch tonight's Seattle-Portland match at tell me with a straight face that isn't True Blue First Division football. And the USSF has done an admirable job of working with MLS and Soccer United Marketing (such a fantastic business idea) to tap into the real interest in soccer in the US and use it to boot strap the US national team programs as well as MLS.

And now we look at the gaps and how to close them. This, frankly, is really simple. We all know baseball, especially MLB and the minor leagues - and it works because it is a player development funnel. Younger players get games to develop and let the cream rise to the top. MLS, the NASL, the USL Pro, the USL PDL and NPSL need to develop into that. And frankly, they are working in that direction. I am just saying that if you want to know what is holding the US back, here is where to look to see progress.

This is where the US needs its next phase of development - so that a young Bryan Leyva or Ruben Luna can get the games they need to show have what it takes to make that jump to the first division level. Locally, compare Leyva and Ulloa. One didn't get games, the other was given an opportunity in part because of the coach, but also because of injuries and suspensions forced him into the lineup. Would Leyva have made that jump? We may never know.

And even MLS people will acknowledge that the MLS Reserve League wasn't the full answer to that question. The USL Pro-MLS Reserve Team partial integration is also another step. That again is a work in progress.

But we are still layers and layers away. Even assume that MLS clubs each have one USL Pro side of their own to use for player development - that isn't enough. How many minor league teams do MLB sides have? At least one AAA and AA club, and usually 2-4 A clubs? Yet one club is supposed to suffice in pro soccer? No sir.

So that is the professional layer. But what about getting them there? Here is the biggest issue. And set aside those already in the system - those who are doing their best in an imperfect system. This is anything but their fault. So please remember that as we go forward in this discussion.

I don't think I am using too much hyperbole in saying that if you were able to train all those who (A) had ability to play and (B) the desire to try, the US would easily double its talent base. Think of what that means - double the talent. So when we have weak wing play, you have another option on the bench. When Altidore pulls a hammy, you can stick in another player in his spot. You can start rotating players the way Belgium did - something that obviously made a difference in the latter stages of the match.

So what is the barrier to entry for that to happen? Money. Real money. Scholarshipping a player or two isn't going to make a difference. Not at the scope that is needed. What is really needed is a doubling of the level of players getting high quality training starting before players are 10 years old.

And it isn't an easy solution. Asking the USSF to do it - they aren't built for it. Frankly their efforts at the USSF Development Academy level has had a real - albeit imperfect - impact. Could MLS clubs do it? Maybe but they are still working on shoring up things at their level.

No, something at the youth soccer level has to change if the US is to truly tap into its true potential. What does that look like? That is the challenge now - to figure out those answers. Actually, to figure out those questions first, THEN get the answers.

Are you a part of that conversation?

And before you dismiss the idea out of hand, you see that German squad out there right now? The one that has dominated so much of this tournament? The one that has made the finals or semifinals the last three World Cups? They started out as a project BEFORE Germany made the 2002 final - a systemic effort to radically improve the German player development system. While the details would be different, it CAN be done.

And IF it is done in the US, it will feed an obvious demand for quality football in the US, and from the US.

So let's do this.

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