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U.S youth soccer system fails us

in Sports by

I spent my fall break in Chile and Argentina with my family, visiting my older sister, a fellow Swattie studying abroad. During our time in Buenos Aires, my dad and I, soccer fanatics, made sure to find a place to play against local Argentinians. As we wandered the streets of Palermo (the barrio we were staying in) with our TripAdvisor application in hand, we stumbled upon a set of turf fields, in between a street of ritzy restaurants, and a working-class apartment complex.

As organized games were being played, there was a simultaneous grill (reminiscent of an American football tailgate) to the left of the fields, complete with lots of parilla, alcohol, Argentinian pop music, and sweaty soccer players who had just finished their respective games. We received some funny looks as I attempted to navigate my way to the front of the administrative desk, and ask in my broken Spanish when the next game was being played. The American-ness oozed off of me as I accidentally referred to the campos, as soccer fields, much to the amusement of the stern-faced man behind the desk, whose day to day job did not entail dealing with strange-looking tourists like me and my dad.

We eventually partnered up with the Buenos Aires Football Amigos field (BAFA), who charged a small fee for anyone to come play 6v6 on the pristine soccer fields. We joined up with four British college students, and went up against a team of six Argentinians. The soccer we played over the next hour was sublime; the small fields and fast-paced nature of the opposing team’s possession play shocked me. The Argentinians would methodically pass the ball around in a way that I had simply never seen before, and eventually put goal after goal past us to win the match.

As we left, it astounded me how at 9 P.M. on a Friday night, it seemed like everyone in the community was at this field. There were kids as young as five or six decked out in Boca Juniors gear, all the way up to the older Argentinian men who sat near the grill, whose nights now consisted of cards, cigars, and beer, instead of the beautiful game. I thought to myself, this is precisely the reason why Argentina is one of the best footballing nations in the world.

I grew up in a quintessential American suburb, where practically everyone had the resources to play youth soccer. Soccer slowly became my sport, and I eventually joined the New England Football Club team, a club soccer team that consists of players from all over the New England region. Club soccer in the United States is expensive, as the yearly fees for my team ranged around $2000, not including the extra money spent on team gear, travel to tournaments, and other costs. To be candid, I didn’t really have any awareness of the investment that my parents made for me, nor the privilege that I had to be showcased at tournaments in front of top college coaches. My fellow players on my team came from very similar backgrounds as me; largely white, and fairly well off suburbs. While we were an enormously talented team, I can’t help but look back and think; there must have been twenty kids for every one of us that had the talent to be on that team, but not the financial resources. The question never really dawned on me: did I deserve all of this?

Since the United States Men’s Soccer team crashed out of World Cup qualifying for the first time since 1986, everyone who has been a part of our youth soccer system has had to do some serious soul searching. How is it possible that a country with over 300 million people (that invests billions of dollars in resources for youth sports) cannot produce 11 soccer players that can beat a country like Trinidad and Tobago, population of 1.365 million people? The truth is we have both a culture and a diversity problem in the American youth soccer system. A couple years ago, Roger Bennett and Greg Kaplan published a study analyzing the “pay-to-play” system of American youth soccer. They found that the U.S Men’s Soccer team came from socio-economic backgrounds that were significantly higher than professional football and basketball players.

As my anecdotal experience as well the empirical data suggests, our youth soccer system is simply not designed to filter in the best talent, particularly players from the inner cities. Unique to the United States is the idea of soccer as a white, suburban sport. In comparison with a country like Argentina, our pay-to-play system seems a little ridiculous. For example, the best club in Argentina, Boca Juniors, sends affiliates into neighborhood-barrios like Palermo, and Boca, to try and find talent. When they do, they bring these players into their academy system, where for the most part, all the expenses to live and play at the training ground are completely covered. All of the Boca Juniors “scouts” are normal people; they range from butchers, to teachers, and are in nearly every barrio in Argentina. As a result, Boca Juniors has brought through and sold more than 350 academy players into all of the top leagues in Europe, and South America. That type of program of seeking out the best talent regardless of socioeconomic class simply does not exist in the United States, or when it does, it does not nearly come close to meeting everyone’s needs. Julio Borge, a director of coaching at the primarily Latino Heritage Soccer Club in the Bay Area, talks about this exact problem of cost that he sees play out every day.

“In my area, we are missing a ton of kids. A lot of coaches don’t have time to see everybody. It’s expensive to try out for the big programs, so many don’t even go after the opportunity.”

Additionally, both the cultural, and structural problem that we face with American soccer today has to be taken into account. Nick Lusson, the director of the NorCal Premier Soccer Foundation, talks about the ways in which American youth soccer has stripped the creativity of many players, a very skill that is so crucial in a country like Argentina.

“This is a system that has been built with blinders to equality. We are delivering a lot of people who do soccer but not play soccer. We are making little robots. No one seems sure what to do. How do you tell players to be imaginative while at the same time fitting into the more rigid needs laid out by American coaches? No one knows.”

The experience that I had playing with BAFA in Argentina ties right into Lusson’s point. That 6v6 game was the most freedom I had enjoyed on a soccer field in my fourteen years of playing the sport. It was also the smallest field I had ever played on for a 6v6 game. It encouraged creativity in small spaces; no wonder Argentina has been able to consistently produce some of the world’s best players. In a now viral rant following the U.S’s shocking loss to Trinidad, former MLS soccer player and ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman emphasized that, “we cannot do soccer the American way.” He’s right. The “American way” entails being the biggest, fastest, and strongest to be the most successful. Sure, we might have the best basketball players, or football players as a result of this methodology of training in their respective youth systems. However, this has not been a way to achieve any success on the world soccer stage. We have never won the World Cup. The MLS, our professional soccer league, does not come anywhere close to the Premier League in England, or the Bundesliga in Germany. Aside from rising star Christian Pulisic, there is not one world-class American soccer player in any of the major European leagues today.

What about the Argentinian way? The Brazilian way? The German way? These countries have proven to the world that their youth system works, and have consistently impressed on the world stage. We must seriously take a look in the mirror, and realize that something needs to change in order for us to reap the benefits of the millions of dollars that we have put into our youth system. It’s stubborn of us to believe that our youth soccer system is the best in the world. It’s not. As Twellman said in his rant, insanity is repeating the same mistakes you’ve made after they’ve failed. For all of us who have played, coached, or have been involved in the American youth soccer system, it is time for change.

U.S. men’s national soccer teams fails to qualify for World Cup

in Sports by

For the first time in 31 years, the United States Men’s National Soccer Team failed to qualify for the World Cup after its poor performance in the Confederation of North, Central, American and Caribbean Association of Football (CONCACAF) qualifying hexagonal. To the disappointment of many U.S. fans, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Omar Gonzalez,  and Christian Pulisic, all big names in the world of soccer, will not be making an appearance in Russia next summer.

The team’s failure was solidified on the night of Oct. 10,  in a near-empty Caribbean arena just slightly larger than Swarthmore’s attempt at a stadium. After conceding two goals in the first half, one of which was an accidental own goal, the U.S. simply made too many other mistakes to fully recover. The game concluded with a soulless 2-1 defeat to the already-eliminated Trinidad & Tobago, loser of eight of its previous nine games.

U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez, who scored the own goal, responded to the loss with frustration and sadness.

“We let down an entire nation today,” he said. Coach Bruce Arena also commented on the outcome of the match.

“We foolishly brought Trinidad into the game with the own goal. That was a big goal for Trinidad psychologically. That got them motivated.”

Not all shared the disappointment of the U.S., though. Former CONCACAF president and Trinidad-born Jack Warner called his country’s defeat of the U.S. the happiest day of [his] life, adding that nobody in CONCACAF likes the U.S. Warner, a former FIFA vice-president, already has some poor history with the U.S., due to his alleged involvement in corruption in the sport and consequently being a main target of the U.S. Department of Justice.

However, surprisingly enough, the loss to Trinidad did not by itself guarantee the United States’ failure to qualify. Instead, it was a combination of unfavorable events that resulted in the unfortunate outcome.

The CONCACAF hexagonal is the fifth and final round of the World Cup qualifying process that began back in January 2015. It is a six-team round robin tournament from which the top three teams qualify for the World Cup, while the fourth place team plays an intercontinental playoff for a spot. Going into the final matches, the U.S. was in third place, and all they needed to guarantee qualification was a draw against Trinidad. Panama and Honduras were the other teams in the mix.

When the U.S. lost the match, the team was even more devastated to find out that both Panama and Honduras had won their matches, pushing the U.S. to fifth place and elimination.

“Everything that could have possibly gone wrong did, in this stadium and in two other stadiums across the region,” commented team captain Michael Bradley.

Gonzalez also spoke after the elimination about the loss and his own goal.

“It’s one that will haunt me forever. It’s the worst day of my career … What was supposed to be a celebration is now … I don’t even know what to say. It’s terrible,” said Gonzalez.  

“If you don’t look at yourself after this individually,” he said, “I think you’re f—ed up in the head,” said disconsolate forward Jozy Altidore.

Rightfully so, Coach Arena took responsibility for the outcome of the hexagonal.

“We should not be staying home for this World Cup,” he said. “And I take responsibility for it. We didn’t qualify for the World Cup that was my job to get the team there,” said Arena

Missing the World Cup will likely put the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) on a tighter budget in years to come. The revenue lost from not going to Russia next year will affect salaries for staff members who might already be on the fence about the decision of leaving after this year’s mishap. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the USSF collected a total of $10.5 million — $1.5 million for participating and $9 million for advancing to the round of 16.

Playing in a World Cup also attracts sponsors, and although the U.S. team has already locked down many of them, its absence at next year’s World Cup will definitely make it harder to forge new sponsorship relationships in the future.

David Carter, executive director of the Marshall Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, commented on the topic of sponsorships.

“[Sponsorship] contracts typically have some contingencies where the amount of money is scaled back. There might be some sort of calibration that will take place so these partners are paying something commensurate with what they are truly getting.”

The current status of the U.S. soccer team has larger consequences than just missing this one World Cup, however. The U.S. team’s next World Cup game will take place during Thanksgiving week more than five years from now. And that’s the best case scenario. Teenage wunderkind Christian Pulisic will be 24, several years into his career. Tim Howard, whose last World Cup was without a doubt a legendary performance, will likely leave U.S. soccer with the lasting image of one of his worst performances. And never again will Clint Dempsey and captain Michael Bradley step on soccer’s biggest stage.

Furthermore, the subpar performance of the U.S. soccer team has highlighted and brought to attention several other issues with the U.S. soccer landscape, especially for youth players. Under criticism now is the subtle pay-to-play culture that’s made soccer a sport played primarily by upper-middle class white kids.

Doug Anderson, the chairman of U.S. Soccer’s diversity task force saw a broken system in America. He saw well-to-do families spending thousands of dollars each year on club soccer for their children, while thousands of gifted players in mostly African American and Latino neighborhoods get left behind.

“People don’t want to talk about it., The system is not working for the underserved community. It’s working for white kids,” said Anderson.

Some believe that the struggles of the U.S. team can be attributed to the lack in the ability of certain demographics to afford the high prices of the elite soccer clubs that send kids to the national team. One former U.S. soccer official shares this opinion about the future of the country’s soccer team.

“How good would we be if we could just get the kids in the cities?” he questions.

The failure of the U.S. men’s national team to qualify for the World Cup this year was already a disappointing outcome for American sports. Now, with further issues concerning race and socioeconomic backgrounds, we are sure to hear more negative news about United States soccer, both professional and youth, in the near future.

Encouraging signs for the development of American soccer

in Columns/Sports by

American soccer is one of the more obscure topics in the world of sports. When one does hear about American soccer, it is often in the context of how bad it is relative to other mainstream sports in the U.S. and to soccer internationally. However, Major League Soccer, the highest level of professional soccer in the U.S., has developed the brand of American soccer substantially over the last few years. After all its hard work, the MLS is finally having some notable success and has exciting prospects in its future. The arduous process that led to this point is certainly worth remembering and recognizing.

The MLS’s founding was part of a compromise between U.S. Soccer, the representative body of American soccer, and FIFA, the governing body of international soccer. In exchange for hosting the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. agreed to start a top division soccer league.  The first MLS season was in 1996, in a time when the status of American soccer seemed promising; the 1994 World Cup had been staged rather impressively by the United States, with both average game attendance and total attendance records established that still have not been broken today. This indicated that plenty of Americans were very much interested in soccer and that the MLS had a solid fan base. The success of its predecessor, the North American Soccer League, in the ’70s before its financial collapse in the late ’80s was also encouraging.

While there was some initial excitement when the league began, attendance and interest from sports fans began to decline rapidly after the first season. Most realized that the quality of the players was rather low, as evidenced by the 1998 World Cup in which the American team, consisting of mostly MLS players, came in last place. Furthermore, the MLS also had trouble establishing legitimacy during its early years. Most of its teams played in football stadiums, creating the mentality that soccer was secondary to other mainstream American sports. MLS tried to resolve this in a way that ultimately proved counterproductive; it tried to change the rules in order to make soccer more like other mainstream sports, notably with shootouts for every tied game and countdown clocks. These adjustments alienated fans of traditional soccer, who are the majority of soccer fans. There were no big names to fuel the league like the the great Pele did for the NASL. The list of woes goes on, but the end result was that the league lost hundreds of millions of dollars and seemed to be on the verge of collapse.

How was the MLS salvaged? For one thing, it stopped trying to change the rules of soccer (a rather silly idea in hindsight, considering how popular the 1994 World Cup, a display of traditional soccer, had been in the U.S.). It started making soccer-specific stadiums to convince potential fans that it was willing to do what it took to legitimize American professional soccer. Smart financial maneuvers along with these actions allowed the MLS kept itself afloat.

The key change for the MLS was the rise in the quality of its players in the latter half of the 2000s. At first, it seemed like the opposite was happening as American-grown players like Tim Howard left for European leagues. With some more of that financial maneuvering, however, the MLS was able to bring in David Beckham in 2007, a move which most consider to be the turning point for the MLS and U.S domestic soccer. More big-name European stars past their prime were brought in, enhancing the quality of the game with their experience and putting the spotlight on the MLS with their reputations. This allowed the MLS to fully stabilize financially and even generate profit. Now, the MLS has been expanding out to new markets at a prolific rate, with 21 teams playing in the 2015 season.

Is this success? Some see this as a slightly enhanced version of mediocrity. This argument has plenty of merit if one compares the MLS to professional soccer leagues worldwide. Even now, English Premier League matches have almost twice as many viewers per broadcast in the U.S. than MLS matches, 414,000 compared to 220,000. The influx of aged international stars like Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Tim Cahill, has been the subject of many jokes; the trend is often depicted as the MLS recycling players who have been discarded by European leagues. Truthfully speaking, many of these players have extended their careers by coming to the U.S. and playing in the MLS. The few stars that have been homegrown have often gone abroad to play at a higher level of competition, such as Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. The quality of MLS soccer is far from that of most European leagues; as long as that is true, many American-born talents will continue to go abroad to make the U.S. competitive in the World Cup.

This all indicates that the MLS still has plenty of work to do. At minimum, it has had some financial success, an accomplishment not to be taken for granted, as it allows the expansion of the American soccer brand and other projects. The U.S. had modest results in the most recent World Cup with contributions from plenty of MLS players. Indeed, some of the most talented players abroad have been returning in light of the MLS’s resurgence, including Dempsey and Altidore. While it is still not a major American sports league quite yet, the MLS has notably been gaining popularity among teenagers, even surpassing baseball in some studies. Future generations will thus be key in how prominent the MLS and American soccer as a whole can become.

The MLS has finally established a fan base and following that it can build on. I will be the first to admit that I can count the number of MLS games I watch per year on one hand. But I’ve been interested enough to find the recent history of the MLS noteworthy, as have many fans of soccer here in the U.S. I’ve also been convinced enough of its progress to be dismayed by news of a potential strike by MLS players; once upon a time, something like that wouldn’t have been newsworthy, and might even have been encouraged by some. Although I will never be a rabid fan of the MLS, my hope is that it will sustain its success in the long-term for the sake of strengthening the foundations of soccer in the United States.

Is FIFA a mass killer?

in Columns/Opinions/The Widening Lens by

Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup has all the makings of a great underdog story.  A small country from a region that has has traditionally been a soccer backwater throws together an ambitious plan to build nine new stadiums.  Despite its inhospitable climate, it proposes a space-age cooling system that will allow players and spectators alike the ability to enjoy the game in comfort.  Its national team languishes in the middle of FIFA’s rankings, but has bigger aspirations.  Through an exhaustive bidding process, little Qatar beats out international powerhouses South Korea, Japan, Australia, and even the United States.

The real story of the the Qatari bid for the World Cup, however, is one of bribery, half-truths, and corruption.  In sum, Qatar used its oil wealth to buy votes and FIFA executives looked past the flaws in the voting process, a non-existent plan to air condition stadiums, and Qatar’s record of human rights violations in favor of a gravy train.  One example demonstrates the particularly ludicrous nature of Qatar’s bid: the city that will host the stadium that will host the World Cup final doesn’t even exist yet.  They plan to build it from scratch (they clearly haven’t read James Scott).

Predictably, the massive infrastructure needed for the World Cup is being built on the back of migrant workers, with lethal consequences.  A report by the International Trade Union Confederation states that at least 1,200 workers have already died, and the number is likely to reach 4,000 by 2022 (the wording is a bit unclear as to whether 4,000 more workers will die or if 4,000 will be the final total).  Even this estimate, though, is conservative because it’s working off deaths reported by the Indian and Nepalese embassies.  Some smaller worker populations hail from other countries and many deaths likely go unreported.  The mix of “subhuman” working conditions, long hours in the heat and a lack of access to medical care has proved disastrous.  As a comparison, the most deadly sporting event in the last decade and a half was the Sochi Olympics, which caused the deaths of sixty workers.

Scholars have a range of definitions for what constitutes a mass killing, with most falling in the 500-1000 intentional deaths per year range.  Is FIFA then a mass killer?  That question in turn prompts two more, the first of which is: from a definitional standpoint, what kinds of deaths count as killing?  This is definitely a difficult question to answer.  In his thesis, Sean Langberg defines killing narrowly.  For him, it’s only deaths caused by physical violence that count toward the threshold of 1,000.  Alternatively, in my own thesis, I see mass killing as including a wider range of death experiences.  Starvation or death through disease may be just as central to perpetrators’ strategies as physical killing itself.  In this case, I think it’s fair to say that the actions of construction directors (hired by Qatar/FIFA) can be included in the tallying of potential mass killing deaths because they are creating conditions in which they can reasonably expect workers (aka civilians) to be killed.

If you follow my initial line of inquiry, I think the second issue you run across is differentiating structural violence (which should be noted can actually be lethal) from the physical violence of mass killing.  Some may see the two as one in the same, but I think this viewpoint stems from an attempt to use mass killing as a moral rather than an analytic categorization.  For example, the ebola outbreak in West Africa may claim more than a thousand lives because of poor sanitary conditions and a dearth of medical facilities.  This surely classifies as structural violence if we follow Galtung’s framework, but it shares few characteristics with the dynamics of mass violence against civilians.  I think including poverty or other instances of structural violence in categorizations of mass killing is unproductive because it obfuscates more than it clarifies.  Poverty kills for a variety of reasons and far more civilians die each year worldwide because of unorganized criminal violence than political violence, but neither qualify as a mass killing because it’s hard to locate a specific perpetrator or intentionality.  Neither is lacking in Qatar.

So is FIFA a mass killer?  I have to say I’m torn.  On the one hand the deaths are a result of a uniquely deliberate strategy led by a powerful institution to accomplish a specific goal, mirroring the dynamics, and particularly the instrumentality, of mass killing.  But on the other, it is inescapable that the dynamics of mass killing, as we imagine them, always involve an armed group.  In my thesis, I write that for a mass killing to qualify as such, not only must the death threshold be met, but that 20% of civilians must experience violent deaths.  It’s an inescapably arbitrary number, but just like the 1,000 death overall threshold, it is needed to distinguish mass killing as a distinct concept from related phenomena.  However, I think it’s possible to make a strong case for the existence of “corporate mass killing”, of which Qatar would be an example.  Parsing out the differences in the dynamics between this hypothetical category and existing ones is a very worthy topic for further investigation.

As I’ve already implied, I think calling FIFA a mass killer is probably technically incorrect.  First off, the death toll will probably fall short of the 1,000 a year mark, but more importantly, workers are not being killed in the context of violent conflict.  Morally though, I think there is a case to be made that what’s happening in Qatar is even more egregious than killing of civilians in war on the same scale.  There is no ideology that makes them migrant workers seemingly legitimate targets, no rampant fear that causes combatants to lash out.  The fog of war, and thus plausible deniability, doesn’t exist.  FIFA and the Qatari government have decided that the prestige of holding a World Cup and the potential for cheap labor outweighs the massive human consequences.  Shame on them.

Leave the Qualifying Rounds to Teams That Will Qualify

in Columns/Out of Left Field/Sports by

One thing that I know frustrates not only me but also international managers such as Joachim Low and Roy Hodgson (and yes, I am currently placing myself on the same level as them in this debate), is the continued admittance of quite a few useless teams to the World Cup and European Championships Qualifying groups. This week, Germany had to play Kazakhstan and England were forced to travel to San Marino, two matches that should never happen.

There are a number of problems in the whole system of qualifying for international tournaments, but some make sense, while others do not. The fact that Israel qualifies as a European team makes sense because the other teams in the Middle East refused to play against them, but Kazakhstan qualifying for the European groups makes no sense whatsoever. Firstly, the location of Kazakhstan makes it a little hard to justify it being located within Europe, especially when it is five hours ahead of Germany. It’s located in the middle of Asia. It’s probably the only country that people can say, “Honey, what’s the name of that country right in the middle of Asia? Oh, Kazakhstan? Why are they playing the Faroe Islands then?” Though I honestly doubt that people will ever say that, it is fair to ask why Kazakhstan qualifies for European competitions while Lebanon does not and none of the other Central Asian Stans do. Why can’t the Uzbeks or the Tajiks join in? Apparently they aren’t considered to be quintessentially central Asian steppe people, even though they are next-door neighbours with European Kazakhstan.

There are certainly issues with location in some groups and time differences can affect both international teams and teams competing in European wide competitions like the Europa League.

With England annihilating San Marino 8-0, there was little point to the game other than trying to improve the goal difference. Three points should have been given to the England team before they even went on the field because it was only a matter of how much they would win by. Each team in that group will get six points from San Marino, just as each team in Group C will get three points from the Faroe Islands. There is no point to the games because some of the teams are so bad that they field amateur sides: San Marino’s only goal scorer of the night was Allesandro Della Valle, a full-time bank clerk. Lets just look at some of the stats: San Marino hasn’t scored in an international game since their game against Slovakia (which they lost) in October 2008, they have conceded 121 goals since they last scored, they have lost 59 qualifying games in a row, and they sit bottom of the global rankings at place number 207. Nations that are above them include New Caledonia, Swaziland, Comoros, the newly formed South Sudan and war torn Somalia. What is the point of matches against teams like these? There were 203 places between these two teams. Teams like Andorra, the Faroe Islands, and Liechtenstein shouldn’t be participating in the group stages of major competitions when the international teams are playing as much as they are. At the moment, there is conflict between clubs and FIFA over how many dates players have to go and play for their national teams and an easy way out of this situation would be to reduce the number of teams trying to qualify for each event, or at least to create a lower quality World Cup/European Championships for countries like Malta and Andorra to compete in.

It’s not like a cup competition where Bradford can get to the League Cup final to play at Wembley because even Bradford is not 203 places below the level of Swansea. In most competitions, it is fun to have lesser teams that can provide a challenge to higher ranked teams or could provide an upset but in these qualification matches we have a scenario where they are simply too poor to provide competition. It would be better to just remove these teams from the qualification stages and to form a second tier of international football, something that could provide a chance to win for tiny island nations and principalities. There are a series non-FIFA World Cups that already exist and it would be much more useful to place smaller teams in these competitions (Faroe Islands used to compete in the Island Games and San Marino could qualify for the Europeada). Sometimes it s just better to isolate the better teams and to prevent those who can’t compete from taking part: the top Olympic nations have qualification requirements, for example.  Cricket teams will only play against other teams near to them in the rankings, and it’s time for football to do the same and remove some of the lower teams from qualification groups since they simply aren’t worth keeping around.

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