How not to grow the game

Something needs to change in US men’s soccer.

Now.

In a particularly biting essay, Caitlin Murray outlines the numerous problems that led to the US men once again (for the third time in a row) failing to qualify for the Olympic games after their dreadful loss to Honduras on Sunday night.  Understanding the argument some will misguidedly make (i.e., “Why were our best young players off playing meaningless friendlies halfway around the world?) Murray points out that in this golden moment of talent for the USMNT, many of the best players—who could qualify for the Olympic team—have “more important duties than qualifying for the Olympics.”

Nonetheless, Murray argues—and I agree (well, I’m assuming everyone does)—that there was still a high enough level of talent to draw upon that it should have been relatively easy to qualify. Murray lays primary responsibility for the loss at the feet of manager Jason Kreis, noting with dismay that players like Jeremy Ebobisse were not called up. After pointing out numerous other problems with player decisions, Murray ultimately argues that Kreis, a manager who struggled mightily at the professional level, was always already the wrong choice. As a result, rather than criticize Kreis, our eyes need to be directed to the US Soccer Federation itself, and its old boy network of decision making. 

Comparing the US decision making process and emphasis to that of Mexico, Murray ultimately argues that US Soccer’s approach is as narrow and insular as it has ever been. Rather than a “We must win at all cost mentality,” US Soccer seems more interested in finding a job for particular individuals than searching high and low (and providing the resources for) a manager who is hungry—indeed, famished—with the idea of winning.

US Soccer’s stated mission is to grow the sport in the United States. Its mission is not “make sure managers get jobs,” “make sure that we have nice kits;” it is, very simply, to grow the game. While one can argue that the mission is also not “go to the Olympics” or even “win games,” we all know that winning, advancing, going to the Olympics and the World Cup are massive ways to grow the game. 

Look at the US women. World Champions many times over. Highly visible precisely because they win. And the more they win, the more chances we have to watch them, to enjoy the game, to become addicted. Literally thousands and thousands of people watch the world cup who pay very little attention to soccer prior to those games. However, in the excitement of watching in parties, in the thrill of hugging and throwing beer, chanting during victories, in the fun of watching a parade, people become “real” soccer fans. That is precisely how you grow the game.

I came to soccer late in life. The first time I ever attended USMNT games as at the Olympic qualify games in Nashville THREE Olympics back. I was devastated when we lost. I’m gutted again this year. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

The US Soccer Federation is screwing this up. And while I know enough to know that I don’t know the solution. What I do know, like Murray, is that we need to see a sense of urgency, a sense of “we must think broadly and dedicate ourselves to one thing—winning” if it is ever going to change. An insular good ole boys network has proven that it just can’t cut it.

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