With the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia less than a year away, the qualification process is nearly at an end. Nearly every team has been decided, with some notable omissions. The Netherlands miss out, as do reigning South American champions Chile. However, a country that is most surprising to be missing out is the USA. It is a cliché to say that USA is not a footballing country, that they’d rather focus their money and resources on their own sports as opposed to football, but they have made some incredible strides over the last couple of decades. Add the fact that they’ve made the last few tournaments, are the world’s largest economy, have a population of 330 million people and are part of perhaps the weakest division in World Cup qualifying, and you have to wonder how it went so wrong.
Lack of youth development
In this period of growth and moderate success for the Americans, they have seen some stars succeed both locally, and overseas in the Europe. The likes of Landon Donovan, Alexi Lalas, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and now Christian Pulisic are some of the big names that America has produced over the years. The problem however, lies within the fact that none of these players are superstars of the game. Sure, they are legends within the realm of USA football, but none have been nominated for a Ballon d’Or, and none have been considered world class in the same way as other players. Pulisic looks a talent, and has all of the potential in the world to be special, but this isn’t down to the Americans. While he spent the bulk of his childhood at home, it was his move to Borussia Dortmund’s youth academy at 16, which unlocked his potential. With a club famous for bleeding young talents, he thrived and upon being promoted to the first team, has set numerous Bundesliga records and established himself as a key member for Dortmund. Compare this with another USA star such as Clint Dempsey, and the difference proves the point. While Pulisic was able to receive tutelage from a famed European club, Dempsey rose through the MLS in America, and didn’t receive the training that Pulisic would’ve received. He did eventually move to Fulham and make a name for himself in the EPL, and even earn a move to Tottenham, lining up with the likes of Gareth Bale. After one season though, instead of pushing himself to cement his place in the EPL he chose to move back to the MLS with the Seattle Sounders, his current club.
Even in the case of Landon Donovan, he started with Bayer Leverkusen in the early 2000s, a time when the club were among the elites in Europe. Yet, he was unsettled and spent more time training with the USA youth team, before deciding to return home to the LA Galaxy and carve out a career there. He is a legend in America, but you can only wonder how much better he would have been had he stuck with Leverkusen, the same way Pulisic is starring for Dortmund. Out of anyone that’s ever come out of America, only Pulisic has ever truly looked world class.
Why is their development so poor?
For a country that has given the world some of its greatest athletes, it’s a wonder why they can’t build a football team that is worthy of qualifying for the World Cup. As many have said, “How can a country with 330 million people not find 11 players good enough to play football?” And it’s true. A rich, highly populated country should be able to excel at sport. The argument that they are focused on other sports is irrelevant. They’re so good at so many sports anyway, such as the Olympics and Basketball that one extra sport wouldn’t use up all of their resources. They are by far the richest country in the world, so it’s no excuse for them to not have a decent football team, especially when poor countries such as Brazil can manage it.
So why, then, can’t the USA get themselves a good team? It is fast becoming one of the top 3 participated sports in the country, behind baseball and football among youth, overtaking American Football. Football is seen as a safer alternative to its American counterpart, which has come under fire in recent years due to controversy surrounding concussions and CTE. In fact, the USA has the highest population of youth participation in football, with over 4 million youths registered football players. This much participation, yet they can’t make the World Cup. There are many factors in this lack of development. From a social perspective, there is still a stigma surrounding the sport in the USA. The old adage that it’s a “girl’s sport” still exists, as false as it may be, but it is still considered a sport that you would sign your daughter up to play, and not your son. It’s also considered a rich man’s sport, possibly the only country in the world that does so. Street sport in America is dominated by basketball, while those that do participate in football are stereotyped as “rich, white kids that their parents want to protect”. This is a stark contrast from the rest of the world, where football is considered the sport of the people and is player all over parks and streets. Brazil’s greatest players honed their abilities on the streets, whereas American players are developing through youth teams and setups.
Why this training hasn’t been effective in creating talents and helping the national team qualify is still a mystery, many have different theories and ideas. Some criticise the seasonal setup of the youth leagues, as they only last a few months and seem to miss the concept that football is a yearly event everywhere else. Another belief is the idea of college football, that it hurts development of youth by forcing them through the NCAA system, as opposed to focusing on their academy training from a young age and educating them there, as clubs do in Europe. One interest point that has been raised is that the USA tend to just follow the current European trend. For example, Spain won the 2010 World Cup playing a 4-3-3 formation and using the Tiki-Taka style of play. The US National Team tried to follow this, but obviously couldn’t replicate Spain’s success. They’d rather copycat and mimic as opposed to doing their own thing. Brazil is known for Samba football. Germany is known for their ruthless efficiency. Italy has a reputation as being defensively solid. The USA needs to establish its own identity, rather than try to copy Europe. The only way they need to copy Europe, is in the sophistication of their youth development, but even then they still need to establish their own identity.
It can be argued and drawn out as to why USA haven’t been as good as you’d expect for the richest nation in the world. The only things that are certain are that their attitudes towards football need to change, and the players need to receive excellent coaching from a young age. How this may be achieved is still a mystery, but they need to figure it out fast, if they hope to truly cement themselves as a footballing powerhouse.