The Growing Pains of American Soccer

USA Men’s National Team fans need not despair or get angry about setbacks like the Olympic qualification failure; it’s just part of the process during a reconstruction period
by Mike Firpo   |   Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Growing Pains of American Soccer - USA Under-23 Men's National Team Olympic Qualifying failure in perspective

It’s Nashville, Monday night and the USA Under-23 Men’s National Team just failed to qualify for the Olympics. The Players - inconsolable. Head coach Caleb Porter distraught at the post-match press conference. An audience so stunned an alien making cookies in the kitchen may be overlooked. The US soccer fanbase as a whole was so utterly shocked and sad Monday night you’d think #verklempt trended on Twitter.

By Tuesday morning, sadness had turned into rancor with some American soccer media coining outlandish terms like “Nightmare in Nashville” or using over-the-top language like "flop" "black mark" "crash" "disaster" "coddled" "humiliation" and "face of failure" to describe the event or pointing mean-spirited fingers towards coach Caleb Porter with words like “loser”, “pathetic” or “unemployed”.

The craziness got even worse by Tuesday afternoon as calls for Porter’s head had shifted to that of US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati. The same man who hired Jürgen Klinsmann - to improve the system.

How can you not be sad or mad about what happened? The Under 23 Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the Olympics and this is the USA after all. We are supposed to win these matches and play in the big tournaments, especially with an easier than most CONCACAF-to-FIFA qualifying route.

Well the soccer world and seemingly predestined results don’t always jive with the script in front of it or fulfill the needs and dreams of even its largest or wealthiest audiences.

But is there a reason to even be so sad?

It’s good to see American soccer fans and media so emotional about the loss, but they really need to calm down and gain perspective. The soccer universe doesn’t revolve around America and this is a just a minor bump in the road.

Yes, it’s the Olympics these young men will be missing out on. Yes, they may have cut their teeth on a bigger stage which would give them good experience for World Cup Qualifying and World Cups down the line. Yes, it would have been another weaved star in the tapestry of American soccer development. Yes, it may be the last shot this particular team has at glory, some never again wearing an American shield.

That’s all OK though.

The most important thing to remember is that we (the US soccer community) have given Jürgen Klinsmann, and by default all of his men who work under him in the National Team setup like Caleb Porter, a mandate to make the USA not only more competitive, but to ensure we do so with a more attacking and entertaining style of play.

This result, though not ideal, was part of that process. That it happened should really surprise few, especially American soccer disciples. We did afterall signup for change, and change is not painless.

If you want to see backheels, thru-balls, great passing, deft touches, dribbling prowess, wingbacks that thrust forward, clinical strikers and basically soccer that is pleasant to the eye – this is the process we will have to endure to get there.

Just as in our game itself, sometimes you need to play the ball backwards to get better opportunities at going forward.

If we want to have an Iniesta tomorrow, we have to let the Adus of today take chances, risk error, dare and surprise.

If we want to eventually play again without two defensive midfielders, we have to let the Diskeruds of today try and sometimes fail.

If we want to have a team good enough to win a World Cup with 11 Donovans, we have to encourage the Porters, the Reynas and Klinsmanns to play the Coronas and the Boyds.

If we want to nurture an American Messi one day, we have to create that environment for him to flourish because it does not yet exist here.

In this modern world of instant gratification, communication and little patience, we need to remind ourselves that we have to sacrifice today to reach our potential tomorrow.

The Spain of today wasn’t always this technical or this appealing to the soccer retina. FC Barcelona didn’t always win while playing some of the most magical soccer this world has ever seen. And let’s be clear, to get to those pinnacles of our sport – it was not an overnite process for either the nation of Spain, or the big club from Barcelona.

This is a process. A sometimes painful process.

The United States Soccer Federation and its entire Men’s National Team program should have a sign on it saying “Under Re-construction”. Certainly the youth sides, from this Olympic/Under 23 level all the way down to the boy’s national teams, should bare these warning signs so fans and media can remember that we need to be cautious in our short-term expectations during this period.

It’s like putting a new floor in your home. You knew what you wanted when you bought it and you have an idea of how it will likely look. The problem is putting in that floor is not only a financial investment, but a commitment in time and patience as well. If you resist the urge to speed things up while the experts clean out the old flooring, get the right pieces for the new one, devise a system, get them to stick and eventually shine them up  … you will have countless years of utilitarian and aesthetic joy.

A silly analogy maybe, but similar to what is being done with today’s USMNT program. From top to bottom, it is a system that is a work in progress. As you wouldn’t and shouldn’t judge art until it is done, we shouldn’t judge this re-construction period until it is completed.

For anyone to call Jürgen Klinsmann a mere head coach of a national team, is doing him a terrible disservice. He is getting the big bucks not for guiding twenty men to a four year tournament, but rather for being the “Chairman of Change” for American soccer. He is rebuilding one of the largest and most chaotically organized soccer structures in the world, with years of mis-direction and short-sighted leadership.

Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley were very resourceful in the same role and certainly understand better than most the American soccer player of today and the culture that breeds them. There is no doubt about it. Sigi Schmid, Dominic Kinnear and Jason Kreis also must be included in that elite handful of domestic soccer coaches who do wonders with today’s American soccer system. They have adapted to what is here and they know and work the system as well as it can be done.

Klinsmann, and his staff like Caleb Porter, however are working on making the game better for tomorrow. To be frank, that is a much harder task. It risks their careers to the impatient administration above them, invites more scrutiny from the scandal-seeking American media and creates simple scapegoating T-shirt logic for bandwagon casual sports fans and the general public.

But if you are reading this, you are a hardcore North American soccer fan, and you know what, you know better. Most of us wanted Klinsmann to come and change the “system”. We wanted better soccer, we wanted to be entertained, we want MLS and our National Team to be world class.

Well this is what it is going to take, so stop whining and halt the phony fury. This is a squad assembled every four years to play in an artificial Olympics Soccer tournament with three overage players and young adults. No one really cares.

Monday night’s failure to qualify will not be the last. This re-construction period will have more heartbreaking losses, more tear-jerking post-game press conferences, more Yank-less tournaments and maybe even some dusty places in the trophy cabinet where obscure trophies could be sitting if we avoided all this fuss of improvement.

Just like the US Development Academy and the ethos of the best youth coaches worldwide, this is not about results right now. Results will come later. Right now we have to get back to basics, instilling the long-term preference for technical ability over the deceivingly short-term gains of athletic ability today.

If we have patience and perseverance, it will come. We will have entertaining AND winning soccer, simultaneously.

The back heels, thru balls, and elements of emphasizing the splendor of the world’s most beautiful team sport were visible in Nashville on Monday night and throughout the tournament by Porter’s boys. If you were paying attention, and especially if you were looking for it, you’d see the sprouting seeds.

It obviously wasn’t Spain or Barca yet, but it was a start. The wrecking balls have started, the hard hats are on the scene and the foundation is being poured.

As the most knowledgeable American soccer fans its vital that we keep our heads firmly situated on our shoulders and remain patient during this reconstruction period. If we don’t keep our head about us, who is going to explain to the rest of the nation? You know quite well that the general media and sporting public in the USA will defile the result in ignorance. So it becomes even more important that we keep cool and explain to them the situation that is going on and keep adamantly pointing to the re-construction signs surrounding the men’s national sides.

So there really is no need to despair or get so angry, because Monday night was just one of the first battles in a war with Old American Soccer. The same war that Germany won recently, not coincidentally with the man leading the charge, and that Barcelona commenced decades earlier with a seemingly mad Dutchman named Cruyff. Both coaches were called crazy then. Not so crazy now. Funny how genius and change are scoffed at in contemporary times but conversely venerated in the future.

Yes the American soccer collective may temporarily be forgetting this is a long-term re-construction process and require short-term losses to reach a higher potential, but the good news is at least we know it’s a war that we’re in and was needed to be fought; some nations (looking at you England) aren’t even ready to admit it yet.


Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.