By Winston Shi
The United States men’s national soccer team is treading water, for the most part, and if I were a talk show host I would be freaking out.
I can hear Skip Bayless now: “How does the United States, the greatest and richest country in the world, lose to Belgium? Belgium? The universal footnote of Europe?”
(No—I’m probably being a little generous to Skip.)
After getting thrashed by a strong Belgium squad, the Americans beat Germany’s B team. Admittedly, Germany’s B team is not a poor lineup by any means and would probably be ranked around No. 20 to No. 25 in the world, but the important match was the Belgium one, and there the US showed that it still has a very long way to go before it can be considered elite on the international stage.
Paradoxically, soccer has been the most popular youth sport in America for over a generation now, but nevertheless, once those youths become adults, soccer takes a back seat to NASCAR. Should that be surprising? Probably not.
The athletic culture of the United States is not centered on soccer, and the national squad gets results commensurate to that national interest.
As such, the incoming director of player development for the US Soccer Federation ought to be less concerned with producing players that can immediately contribute to the squad and more focused on building a soccer culture in the United States.
But that task presents issues of its own. The short-term and long-term incentives of American soccer are somewhat skewed. The national team coach obviously needs to have a say in player development, since he needs players who can achieve his athletic vision, but at the same time international soccer is a coaching carousel; national coaches rarely keep their jobs for longer than four years.
If changing national coaches, each with their own different styles and philosophies, keep on trying to put their imprint on the program, then it’s hard to imagine how American soccer will improve in any conceivable way. Other nations have managed to deal with this issue by having a broadly national style of play, such as Brazil’s dribbling attack to the intricate passing of Spain. But America has no such unifying attitude.
Given the scope of the problem, even if an elite coach comes in and puts his mark on the program, it will be difficult to see the full magnitude of his accomplishment until he has long since left the team. Jurgen Klinsmann was brought in from Germany to introduce European technical mastery to the American game, and I wish him the best, but realistically he has little chance of coaching the USMNT to a World Cup trophy. If he is introducing innovations to the American game that will resonate throughout the entire youth system, we probably won’t be able to tell the difference for at least a decade, probably more.
What Klinsmann needs to do is create something that will survive him—but that sort of long-term view is very difficult to stomach.
For example, I find Gary Bettman’s plan to expand hockey to warm-weather cities absurd. Does it make sense that the Los Angeles metro area has two professional hockey teams? That Florida has two? Hilariously, Bettman remains insistent on keeping the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona, which will probably cost the NHL millions of dollars a year for the foreseeable future. Put simply, while southern hockey teams have good attendance for the most part, they don’t command major followings. Hockey isn’t a standard youth sport in California or Texas like it is in, say, Quebec or Minnesota. Indeed, the recent NHL lockouts have been aimed primarily at making these less lucrative franchises more financially viable.
But when I want to mock Bettman, I have to acknowledge that his mentor, the NBA’s David Stern, successfully did the exact same thing.
Stern has been working for the NBA in some capacity since 1966; during this time, the NBA has expanded from 10 teams to 30. He has also personally overseen the addition of seven new franchises to the league. Despite four lockouts, under Stern’s watch the NBA has risen from American afterthought to the second most popular league in the country (by TV ratings).
The NBA achieved this popularity first and foremost by tapping into a treasure trove of marketable stars, but it also embedded the sport throughout the country through expansion. The NBA has never been shy to place teams in small markets and cities such as Sacramento have rewarded its loyalty appropriately. Other Western franchises such as the Lakers and the Sonics (once upon a time) actually predate their cities’ evolution into full-fledged basketball strongholds.
Though Stanford’s football team has had recent success, three years does not a dynasty make, the basketball team is a case in point. A national power for the better part of a decade, it hasn’t even been mentioned in the March Madness conversation for the last few years. As Stanford Athletics ends one year and prepares for another, then, its fans should keep in mind that despite its success in so many sports, it will take time to build something that will truly last.
The good news, folks, is that Winston Shi still has three more years of undergrad ahead of him, three more years to subject you to his weekly musings. Look forward to next year and help him build his Daily dynasty at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.