It has been nearly twenty years since the United States hosted the 1994 World Cup. It was an amazing tournament which marked the emergence of the United States Soccer Federation. The USSF used the ‘94 World Cup to start Major League Soccer. It also showed the rest of the world that the United States was now making the push to become a legitimate soccer nation. For the average person, twenty years is nearly a quarter of their life. While it may seem like a long time for you or I, in terms of building a sports league and a federation, twenty years is in effect the early childhood portion. The USSF and MLS has begun to lay the groundwork for future success as we have seen a recent expansion to the top flight of American soccer. The US National Team has been on a steady rise. Now is the time for the USSF to up the push of soccer in this country. Let’s take a look at three ways that this can be done.
First we must turn our attention to the overall product on the field. The squad qualifying for the 2014 World Cup is looking to break the trend of failing to build momentum from previous World Cup results. The team has found themselves at the top of qualifying in CONCACAF and are poised to earn their place in the competition. This is a team which defeated Italy away as well as secured their first victory at Mexico’s Estadio Azteca last year. In years past, the USMNT was reliant primarily on talent which played overseas during the season. The MLS would build a player or two and they would be shipped off instantly. Now we see the MLS being viewed by the top flight of US soccer as a major resource rather than just another level on the way up. The MLS now accounts for vital players not just for the USMNT but also for many Central American national teams. The level of play in the MLS is reaching new heights and it is no surprise that the National Team benefits. The MLS needs to continue to push forward with the goal of creating soccer academies plentiful in every region of the country. Stars like David Beckham increased the visibility of the game in America and helped bring money to teams such as the LA Galaxy. The continued influx of talented international players who still contribute to their national teams like Robbie Keane and Tim Cahill will only bring more attention to the league. That attention allows the academies to attract a larger pool of players and coaches. That will only increase the talent level. Twenty years only builds the foundation, the coming decade will begin to fill out the frame.
As the talent level rises, the need for proper organization becomes more and more crucial. This starts at the top with the federation leaders and on through the top coaches and along down to those in the academies. We must also consider those volunteer and paid coaches for youth leagues. There is no denying that soccer is one of the most popular youth sports. Every spring we see thousands of kids locally playing the beautiful game. The aspect of organization really ties into overall talent level within the USSF. There is a phrase in sports: “One team, one goal.” It is the belief that we need an overarching goal which we, as a team can move towards. That means that everyone who is part of this team will do what needs to be done to achieve the overall goal. Sunil Gulati once stated that the US would win the 2010 World Cup. It was obvious that he understood what he said was statistically low, but it showed his conviction, and that is what is needed. After all, it was Gulati who sacked Bob Bradley after it seemed the senior team had begun to plateau. He hired German Jurgen Klinsmann who has overhauled how the national team is set up in terms of training and preparation. Gulati finds a problem and applies his fix, he then allows the people in place to do their jobs. That ranges from Klinsmann to the folks at MLS. Klinsmann has grown his pool of players by being quick to pull the trigger on capping his younger players who may have the ability to play with another national team. That creates a larger pool which aids in versatility. That is having a plan in mind. The leadership at the top is also strong. Sunil Gulati has been a strong force internationally for US Soccer and has recently earned a spot on the FIFA Executive Committee. He has turned heads due to his reformer type interests and has pushed US Soccer to be more globally assertive, his recent election to the Exec. Committee should serve as an example of this. Klinsmann believes in a grow from within philosophy and Gulati believes in building on the foundations and pushing forward. It is an idea which is prevalent from the senior team all the way down through player and coach development. The US has a goal and it is working towards that goal.
We have our increase in talent and a goal moving forward. What is the final component to ensure that US Soccer and the MLS continues to grow? Well the final thing is a bit of a combination. You see American Soccer as a whole needs more support from those not involved with the game. US Soccer needs the casual sports fan to consider soccer to be a viable sport and care about the game long after they stopped playing as a child. US Soccer needs the media to cover the MLS during the season and not focus on Tim Tebow during the summer. FOX, ESPN, NBC and the other networks need to push American soccer as much as they push the Premier League and Champions League. Imagine if you saw MLS action on all three of those networks during a weekend. That type of coverage makes the sports fan more inclined to sit and watch for a longer duration than a couple minutes. That increased exposure only helps to legitimize the game in this country. Imagine if a majority of our top athletes growing up decided they wanted to pursue soccer rather than basketball or football? Why don’t we see that currently? Perhaps we aren’t viewing the sport as a viable option professionally in this country. That has a lot to do with money. If the media made a concerted effort to promote the MLS and US Soccer as a whole in this country, advertisers would begin pitching in more with added revenue deals and likely would bring more fans to the stands. The increase in money brings a higher level of organization which attracts a higher level of talent. The cycle continues to repeat until you see results similar to that of European leagues where millions are thrown around for young players and the game rivals the NFL, NBA, or MLB. In the end the three factors build upon each other and continue to push the other higher. The MLS and by extension, US Soccer can become a force to be reckoned with, but it will require an effort from us to really get it there. The players, coaches, and leaders are already moving the ball down the field, it’s now left to us to make the final move towards the goal and bury it in the back of the net.