Without question, today is a dark day for American soccer. Depending on which media outlet you read, the US Men’s National Team missing the 2018 World Cup falls somewhere on a scale from “total embarrassment” to “biggest disaster in US sports history.” And no matter how you feel, we can all agree that something drastic needs to change if soccer is ever going to be a serious player in the sports landscape of this country.
Well-intentioned soccer pundits will spend thousands of words online and even more breath on television, radio and streaming video over the next few days detailing the failure of the U.S. Soccer Federation. And they will mostly be right. An overhaul of the entire structure is necessary. More access to elite youth programs for kids without financial resources, especially inner-city communities, is very necessary. And a cleansing of the old guard including manager Bruce Arena, is so necessary that it’ll likely happen by the end of the week.
The truth is, however, that the biggest changes have already started. A country’s sports identity can’t be completely defined simply by the success or failure of its national team. Imagine if we waited every four years to determine how we felt about basketball in the United States. The health of a sport is defined on a smaller level, by the interest on a daily basis around the county, most specifically at the youth level and in local club teams. That’s why losing to Trinidad and Tobago and missing the World Cup is a disaster for the U.S. Men’s National Team specifically, but it’s not a disaster for U.S. soccer in general.
The changes I’m talking about are visible in markets like Seattle and Portland, in Kansas City and Orlando, and without question right here in Atlanta. In fact, Atlanta United is probably the best example of all given the systematic way in which they’ve been built and how quickly they’ve been able to see success.
There are three specific things that Atlanta United have done that the U.S. Soccer Federation could emulate, if they want to fix things quickly, as well as sustain success long term.
- Talent not names. For a long time the MLS model was to spend on a recognizable world soccer star, and try to sprinkle decent talent around him. The idea was that fans would respond to a name on a marquee, when in reality we are smarter than that. Atlanta United realized that the sparkle of a star wears off, but winning doesn’t. So Darren Eales went out and signed a bunch of young players most fans had never heard of, and went about building them into an actual team.For whatever reason, and for a very long time now, the U.S. team has been anchored by players that were anointed stars at a young age and even when they showed time and time again that they weren’t going to live up to that potential, they kept getting starts with the national team. When the USMNT stops trying to manufacture stars, and just pays attention to ability, they’ll be much better off.Talent become names, you can’t force it in the other direction.
- Respect fans’ intelligence. Don’t treat us like we’re stupid; because we’re not. The transparency with which Atlanta United has gone about building this team has been unprecedented. Fans know the decision makers, and they trust them because they’ve communicated the plan from the beginning. It has become so popular, common even, in American sports over the past few decades to treat your team and its moves like the missile launch codes. Keeping in mind that sports are supposed to be fun, and that fans are the lifeblood is a really smart way to build trust. Folks trust Atlanta United.
- Have an identity. This is where the retooling of the entire U.S. Soccer system comes into play. Whoever they hire, whichever direction they go, whatever it is that they decide is the most important way to rebuild this thing, committing to who you are early is vitally important. That has been the biggest issue with U.S. Soccer for years. Who are we? This inconsistency stems from a totally disjointed pipeline, a failing youth system, a strange dependence on NCAA soccer, and dozens of other factors.
What Atlanta United, and most every other successful soccer program in the world, have done is create a feeder system through their academy where future players will be taught the style of play from the moment they join the club. Having a clearly defined identity also makes it much easier to figure out which players are going to fit best with your team. Dan Quinn has had fast success with the Atlanta Falcons in large part because he knows exactly what he wants his team to be from an identity standpoint, and he has gone about getting the players that work. Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra and Tata Martino have begun the same process.
Missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986 is without question embarrassing. But it doesn’t have to be defining. This is a great opportunity for the U.S. Soccer Federation to realize how off track they’ve gotten, and hit the reset button. And if they’re looking for a blueprint, Atlanta United wouldn’t be a bad place to start.