I warned you last week about my first thoughts on the state of the U.S. Men's National Soccer team. Last week the discussion points were player development and financial issues that have caused us to get to the point where we sit today, as spectators of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
I've been listening to friends and soccer experts far smarter than I am about where our home-grown players should play their professional club games. I even wrote a column many years ago about the dilemma facing U.S. soccer to make a decision between building the interest in our own league — Major League Soccer (MLS) — or to develop our players in the foreign leagues where their player development and on-field success are already well established.
To develop our players to compete with the world's best, the best option is to send them abroad where their individual play will no doubt improve. But without the home-grown talent of American players playing in the MLS, the MLS is left with signing foreign players well beyond their primes in search of a revival in America's second-rate league.
To captivate the American audience, they need to have American idols to look up to that have come through the "farm" systems of NCAA soccer, USL and/or NASL, and ultimately in the MLS. The top players would be identified at the club level and regional play, brought in to the professional club-based academies or NCAA Division I programs, put the finishing touches on in the USL or NASL much like the minor league system of Major League Baseball, and then promote them to the MLS.
Although our players individually would benefit through more established player development and without question better financially in the short run, if our players continue to play in different foreign leagues, learning different styles of play, and then try to come together to merge those styles, the results will be the same.
All of the successful international soccer programs have developed their own style of play and are well known for those styles. Germany, the reigning world champions, has always played a very precision-like, almost robotic style of play where every player was encouraged to do only their role in the system.
The Spaniards are known for their incredible ability to possess the ball for a majority of the game with their deft, one-touch passing and off the ball movement creating a continual numerical advantage around the defenders.
Although England or China (that's for another debate) may have invented the game of soccer, it was the Brazilians who invented Jogo Bonito, what we now know as the "beautiful game." Their individual creativity and shut down defense defined their soccer personality for years until their commitment to a more disciplined style of play dropped them from the world's elite.
We've never had an American style of play because our teams have been made up of a few home-grown products and many foreign nationals with limited connection to the U.S. until it provided them the opportunity to play on the world's largest stage.
I was hopeful for Bruce Arena as he had been involved in the U.S. player development and identification process through his previous roles in the MLS and U.S. Soccer. I believed he would commit to the players that were coming off the pitches of the top youth clubs in the nation like Penn Fusion, F.C. Dallas or even Baltimore Celtic and Pipeline, each of which currently have four or more teams ranked in the top 25 in the nation.
It starts with the identification of those players at the younger ages, playing for the top-level clubs and state teams, but in order to create and maintain our own style of play, the players need to continue to play together throughout their development and promotion in to the highest level of play we have to offer.
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Our focus in the NCAA, USL or NASL needs to be to encourage a similar style of play, for example the flamboyant offensive style of the Brazilians, the ball control of the Spaniards, or the precision play of the Germans that fits the personality of our soccer community.
We need to encourage a style that matches the diversity of our people with players coming from all walks of life with a plethora of individual success stories and where we've overcome adversity, coming together on the pitch for a single purpose — to be the world's best.
Just like the rest of us in this country, our players need to play together, as a team, pursuing that single purpose and not those of our own selfish ways.
French philosopher Jacques Maritain once wrote about our citizens this way, "The great and admirable strength of America consists in this, that America is truly the American people."
If only our men's national team could be the same.