Sunday, October 11, 2009

Soccer Leadership In America

Brent Latham, writing at Yanks Abroad, has a post-mortem of the U.S. Under 20 Team that crashed out of the Youth World Cup that is taking place in Egypt. The Americans got spanked by Germany and South Korea and exited the tournament after the group stage. The young Americans scored four goals in one game against Cameroon, but surrendered three apiece to the Germans and Koreans. By comparison, in past years, the U20 teams had advanced as far as the semi-finals and beaten youth teams with pedigrees such as Brazil and England.

As Latham explained, the problem with the American team was not skill in its players. Pound for pound this Young American team was a good as previous incarnations that included players like Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore and Danny Szetela. It is not as if this team didn't have confidence, in pre-tournament interviews, the players believed that they could advance in the tournament and have a good chance of making the finals, or even winning. Their confidence could border on arrogance, even hubris, but the best athletes are often brimming with the belief that winning the gold medal is their birthright.

Latham's problem was with the team's leadership, i.e. Coach Thomas Rongen. Even before the tournament began, Rongen was saying his team had no shot to win, he just wanted to make the second round. Rongen also complained about his players lack of playing time with clubs. This excuse bothered me most--he picked the team, so why not pick players who were getting playing time?

The fact is that Latham is right. The problem with soccer in America is not talent. In a nation of 350 million people, there is bound to be a deep talent pool to draw from. The problem is not facilities or equipment--the U.S. can afford to pay top dollar for gear. The problem is leadership.

From Sunil Gulati on down, the U.S. Soccer Federation has become not a body focused on excellence no matter what, but a body that is focused on preparing excuses for the youth teams. At the senior national level, coaches Pia Sundehage and Bob Bradley have done well. Bradley has not been spectacular, but he is winning and accomplished a major goal last night. But at the younger levels, I wonder how much the U.S.S.F. is preparing, seeding and cultivating the massively deep talent pool in this country.

But another matter is bothering me as well about the U.S.S.F., i.e. while playing talent is growing, coaching and refereeing talent is not. Latham discusses having winners at the helm of the national teams and that it important. But we also have to have winners at all levels.

Perhaps the problem is that until recently in American soccer history, we haven't had winners in these positions because our winners were still (and are still) playing. As the initial round of successful players like Brian McBride, Kasey Keller, Brad Freidel, Ben Olsen and Frankie Hejduk are approaching retirement, perhaps we will have coaches with tactical knowledge and experience. I don't buy the argument, necessarily, that you have to have played at the highest level to coach at the highest level. But success breeds success and we need leaders who are successful to coach at the highest levels and to manage the Federation at the highest level.

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