Editorial (August 4, 2018) – It’s been some six months since Carlos Cordeiro was selected to succeed Sunil Gulati as the top dog at the U.S. Soccer Federation, and it seems fair to say that the ball has been slow to get rolling. With Ernie Stewart finally installed as General Manager of the U.S. Men’s National Team, the US Soccer brain trust would be wise to focus next on pushing for a longer MLS season and better professional engagement with Latin America.
Pushing for a longer MLS season and better engagement with Latin America
Among USSF’s primary strategic goals over the last decade or so have been to grow the fan base and professionalize the institution from top to bottom. The first of those, growing the fan base, has clearly happened (though that’s probably more a function of globalization than anything USSF has done), and significant progress has been made toward professionalization. Even if you want to argue that those goals haven’t been met well enough, it’s not clear how promotion and relegation fixes anything.
If Cordeiro continues to prioritize these goals, he has a couple of options available to him that are slightly less unrealistic than promotion and relegation: 1) increase the length of the MLS season to bring it closer to the international standard, and 2) engage more closely with Latin America. Let’s look at each of these at length.
Longer MLS season
A longer MLS season is by far the most important factor for improving the quality of the U.S. Men’s National Team. As things stand, MLS players just don’t play enough competitive soccer. To give an idea of how MLS compares to other leagues, West Ham (to pick a random Premier League team) played 45 games last year, 38 in league and 7 in cup competitions. By comparison, Atlanta United FC played 37 total games across all competitions. In other words, the players on West Ham did about 20% more work last year than the players on ATL UTD did.
That lack of extra work holds American players back. Imagine if you had spent your entire career doing 20% less work than you have done. You would not be nearly as accomplished or capable as you are now, and the same is true about soccer players. It’s likely that this is the biggest reason that MLS players have a hard time making the adjustment to Europe. They have to step up both the quality of their work and the quantity of it. Doing one or the other is hard enough for a 22-year-old in a foreign place. Having to do both is basically a recipe for failure. A longer MLS season would help smooth the transition.
Better US Soccer engagement with Latin America
It’s not a terribly original observation to note nativist and Eurocentric schools of thought that seem to run through U.S. soccer. One memorable materialization of this mindset came during the 2006 World Cup when a Spanish speaking reporter tried to ask Landon Donovan a question, and the USMNT media guy shut the question down with “English only.” That seems like a pretty accurate metaphor for how Latinos perceive the USSF’s attitude toward them (Donovan, who is fluent in Spanish and known for being extremely nice to media, looked embarrassed and made sure to answer questions in Spanish after the press conference).
A lot has been made of the Jonathon Gonzalez fiasco, but the bigger systemic issue is that there is very little mining of Latin American expertise in US Soccer. Before Atlanta United brought in Tata Martino (to great success), there hasn’t been a lot of effort to bring in people who are significantly accomplished in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, or Brazil. Meanwhile, mediocre guys with European roots like Sigi Schmid and Thomas Rongen can’t take a nap without getting a job offer.
A path forward
So here is a stone that can help with both birds: competitions between MLS teams and Latin American teams during the US winter. There could be multiple tiers where teams that finish in the top eight in the MLS regular season play the better teams from, say, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica. Teams 9-16 would play the middling teams from those leagues, and maybe the rest would play against Caribbean and Venezuelan teams. This would create incentives for MLS teams who are out of the playoffs late in the season, give teams more games to play, and put the top teams in better form for the CONCACAF Champions League. The long-term benefit to U.S. Soccer, besides increasing the games US players play, is the development of relationships with soccer professionals throughout Latin America.
None of this is revolutionary thinking. Similar things have been said elsewhere, but these two points didn’t get talked about very much with respect to the change of leadership at the USSF. This seems like a sign that we are nowhere close to making progress in these areas—more MLS games and better Latin American engagement. That is extremely disappointing and of much greater consequence for US soccer than promotion and relegation.