U.S. soccer misfires on developing players


Steve Sampson, the coach of the U.S. soccer team, is almost certain to lose his job in the wake of his team's poor World Cup performance.

This is only appropriate. Sampson was a creditable coach for most of his three years on the job, but he had a bad Cup. A terrible Cup. His instincts were faulty. His waffling on basic tactics was part of the problem. He lost to Iran. Bye.

But Sampson's bosses at the U.S. Soccer Federation are kidding themselves if they think a new coach is going to make much of a difference.

Coaching isn't the problem. A shortage of Cup-caliber players is the problem.

The federation's inability to develop world-class stars is the problem.

It's not surprising that the United States failed to advance to the Cup's second round. The Yanks are bottom-feeders in the world soccer order. They have won only one Cup game since 1950.

Incredibly, despite that record, they have somehow managed to overrate themselves.

Before the Cup, they spoke of being on equal ground with the European powers at long last. They also set a long-term goal of winning the Cup in 2010.

Please. Equal footing with the Europeans? In their dreams. And winning the Cup just a dozen years from now? How about just advancing to the second round for a change?

It's easy to see what happened. With a Cup to stage in 1994 and a new professional league to sell after that, the federation needed a legitimate national team to showcase. Enough players were found in the suburbs for a capable squad. Exhibition success against Brazil and others indicated that things were getting better. And they are.

But you can't confuse that improvement with a place among soccer's elite. The United States is still a long way from that.

It won't ever get there unless a more complete and effective system of developing players is instituted.

Where are the minorities, the sons of Hispanic and African-American parents? Not nearly enough are in the pipeline.

For that matter, where are any top players between the ages of 22 and 28? An entire generation has come and gone with few world-class players emerging. This year's Cup team depended on too many veterans from the 1990 and 1994 teams. Where was the wave of new blood?

Granted, Sampson contributed to the problem with his questionable decision-making. He changed his basic tactical scheme late in the qualifying round, then cut captain John Harkes, who didn't fit the scheme. Then he junked the scheme after losing to Germany in the Cup opener -- a game in which he started seven Cup rookies -- and started five new players against Iran.

It's like an NFL team changing from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 just before the playoffs, cutting several top players to fit the new defense, then going back to the 4-3 and losing. Ugly stuff. A coach has to do better.

Yes, there were numerous scoring chances against Iran. Shots that hit the crossbar and goal posts. Shots on which the goalkeeper made miraculous saves. The Yanks actually played well.

But who wants to hear that? As overrated as they are, they shouldn't lose to Iran.

No, the defeat won't slow the American soccer boom. Millions of youngsters will continue to play. They don't care about the national team. They have their own games.

But keep in mind that many elite soccer nations start nurturing top talent at that very point, before high school. Kids give up their childhoods to play on national teams, undergo intense coaching and move toward high-profile careers.

Until the best young U.S. players start doing that, the World Cup playing field won't be level. The Yanks won't have a chance.

Young American tennis players, gymnasts and figure skaters such as Tara Lipinski routinely leave home in middle school to train to become Olympic or world-class athletes. It's not the healthiest situation, but the public doesn't seem to mind.

Somehow, some way, the U.S. federation has to borrow on that concept.

It has taken a step in that direction with a new program designed to target the nation's 40 best young players and have them skip college soccer, not the best training ground.

But the new U.S. pro league that they're in, Major League Soccer, probably isn't the best training ground, either.

The reality is the United States might never approach Brazil, England or any country in which soccer comes first. There's just too much interest in those countries and not enough here.

On the other hand, the U.S. developmental engine has spit out several world-class goalkeepers such as Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel, so something is going right. If a few midfielders and strikers popped up in the same way, the Yanks would have a real team.

But those young players haven't popped up, of course. And until they do, if they ever do, the United States is doomed to suffer pretty much the same fate in the World Cup that it did this year. No matter who is coaching.

Pub Date: 6/25/98


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