What is American Soccer’s National Identity?

Jordan Morris, a 20-year-old junior at Stanford University, has just finished a summer playing with the U.S. Men’s National Team against countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Germany.  Morris has seen a lot of playing time as a rising star forward, scoring the winning goal in the match against Mexico, and setting up Bobby Wood to score a goal against the defending world champions.

Morris is unique.  At 20, he is the only player on the United States U-23 team that is still playing college soccer.  The majority of players his age are playing professionally with the MLS or with clubs in Europe, dedicating every second to soccer.  So why is Morris choosing to play at Stanford, where the competitive soccer season is limited to a few months during the summer and fall, instead of playing soccer continuously and making money for it?

usmnt-e1403024090191American soccer is known for lacking the high quality caliber that is standard in other countries.  Why is our Men’s National Team never able to keep up with other national teams around the world?  Why aren’t we producing any star talent that have the quality to play with major clubs in Europe?  It makes sense that the roots of these issues are found in our youth programs, college soccer, and the way we develop teams instead of players.  The lack of success of U.S. soccer is tied to fundamental differences between American and European attitudes to youth sport.  Youth soccer in America focuses on playing and winning games as a team, instead of emphasizing practice sessions where players work on their individual skill.

Jordan Ritter Conn, a writer for Grantland, recently wrote a profile called “Schoolboy” about Jordan Morris and his choice to play college soccer.  Conn describes why collegiate soccer is unsuccessful compared to the rest of the world’s developmental programs: “…Collegians train too infrequently and play weak competition.  NCAA rules force them into a nonsensical schedule… their future national team opponents — young athletes from Europe, Latin America, and around the world — devote every moment of every day to developing as players.”  Put simply, collegiate soccer players aren’t able to invest as much time into the sport as other soccer players their age around the world.  They haven’t developed the same as their competitors because the U.S. lacks high quality clubs.

Ajax is the Netherlands’ top football club.  The club is able to fill their 50,000 seat stadium easily.  Like a lot of other European clubs, Ajax begins following players at 4 or 5 years old.  The club’s youth academy, called De Toekomst (The Future), finds and cultivates talented players who can then be sold to top clubs for millions of euros.  These top players then return to the Dutch National Team where every World Cup they are serious contenders.

Michael Sokolove, a writer for the New York Times, wrote an article called “How a Soccer Star is Made“, where he discusses how these youth programs develop the most successful soccer players.  Sokolove describes the competitive nature that exists from the very beginning of the developmental process: “Ajax puts y10-42coung players into a competitive caldron, a culture of constant improvement in
which they either survive and advance or are discarded.  It is not what most would regard as a child-friendly environment, but it is one that sorts out the real prodigies.”  This is only the start of the differences between America’s youth programs, and the rest of the world’s developmental programs.  America prides itself on
the idea of the “self-made athlete”; the idea that a player can be successful simply by putting in the hours and hard work for the greatest good of the team.  At Ajax and other clubs, that is of course important, but it must be paired with scientifically planned drills, practice schedules, fitness training, and a creative understanding of the game for a true star to be born.

Not only that, but the style of soccer in the Netherlands has a coherent identity. Ajax is known to breed excellence.  The Dutch style of play is smart and methodical, one that other nations can never truly mimic. David Endt, the first team manager at Ajax describes this identity of Dutch soccer: “You can feel the atmosphere of what is Ajax.  People from clubs around the world come to visit, and they always want to know, ‘What is the secret?’ But it is a matter of earth and air. We are in Amsterdam, so we are a little bit adventurous, a little bit artistic, maybe a little bit arrogant. You can observe what we do, but it is something you cannot copy.” This type of identity based off of a city’s nationality is found in American football and basketball, but why not soccer?

The American style of soccer may begin to grow at the peewee level of soccer, where parents, coaches, and players’ focuses are on playing and winning games. Practice is not as important as games and so individual player’s talents are not the number one priority of coaches.  Parents who set up lawn chairs Saturday mornings to watch their kids play care mostly about the team coming up with a win.  In the Netherlands and other parts of the world, the focus is on practice and developing players.

klinsmann thumb 022813Jürgen Klinsmann, head coach of the USMNT, is well known for trying to emulate the European model of developing youth players.  Less than a year into Klinsmann’s tenure in 2012, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy announced the start of a 10-month season for all youth clubs associated with the program.  This longer, more competitive season was modeled after many of the youth academies like De Toekomst.  

But some youth players and high school coaches are not a fan of this new development model.  Rafael Bustamante is a junior at Martin Luther King Jr public high school (home to the most successful public school soccer team in New York City).  Bustamante played for an academy, but decided to leave: “Sometimes, people don’t realize that playing for a good high school program can offer you more than just soccer training.”  He goes on to discuss how his high school team is a support system and he feels like the team is family.  This quality defines a lot of soccer in America and maybe why Jordan Morris, the junior from Stanford, chose college soccer over going pro.

From peewee soccer in small towns to the collegiate NCAA level, our player development is greatly different from that at De Toekomst and other youth clubs around the world. Our emphasis is on the team and what it means to work together as a unit.  Maybe if we took 5 year olds from around the county and out all our focus into creating superstars, our USMNT would be more successful.  But players like Jordan Morris don’t want give up what it feels like to be on a team for stardom.

Morris stands up for collegiate soccer: “You can say it’s not good for development, but it’s situational.  If you go to MLS and don’t play, are you really getting a better experience?” Jordan Morris chose to be at Stanford University. He chose to go to class, and do homework in exchange for a team that feels like family.  It is the values in that we instill in our youngest players through college that make American soccer unique.  So what will America choose as our soccer program continues to develop: values, or national success?

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