[INTERVIEW] Hall of Famer Fernando Clavijo played on the USA’s 1994 World Cup team, but that’s only a small slice of his long, unique career in American soccer. After emigrating from Uruguay at age 23 in 1979, he played in the old ASL, the NASL and starred in indoor ball. An MLS coach for seven seasons – including four with the Colorado Rapids – Clavijo is now the Director of Soccer for Traffic Sports USA/Miami FC. We asked him for his insights on the state of American soccer at all levels ...
SOCCER AMERICA: If you think back to 1994, when you played for the U.S. team that reached the second round of the World Cup, did you imagine the U.S. national team would be farther along than it is now?
FERNANDO CLAVIJO: I expected it to be much farther along. In 1994, we achieved what we did in 2010 without a professional outdoor league. Bora Milutinovic did an outstanding job with the players he had. … I was playing indoor soccer!
I’m not criticizing Bob Bradley whatsoever. But back then, we imagined that by 2010 we would be winning, not just competing. We shouldn’t be waiting until the 91st minute to beat Algeria.
SA: What troubles you about the state of the national team?
CLAVIJO: We only have one Landon Donovan in a country of 300 million people. That’s not enough. We have a lot of role players, who are incredibly athletic, but missing a little bit here, a little bit there. There’s maybe one other with the special qualities, Clint Dempsey.
I think Bob Bradley did a very good job, but we need look really deep at what we’re not doing properly because we have not advanced that much more.
SA: What do we need to look at?
CLAVIJO: Youth soccer is a business in the United States and we make a living out of it. When that’s the case, results are everything and not necessarily development.
SA: Why does that impact the success of American soccer?
CLAVIJO: Because you choose players who are going to help you win and instead of focusing on developing players.
In the United States, there’s no shortage of players ages 12, 13, 14 who are huge, big and strong, and they might win. But when you go to 21, 22, 23, physically you’re level with everyone else and it’s the technical part of the game that’s going to make the difference.
SA: But MLS clubs are now involved in youth development and U.S. Soccer has created the Academy league …
CLAVIJO: Youth soccer has changed in a better way, no question about it. But soccer in America still suffers because it’s mainly a sport for rich kids.
U.S. Soccer’s academy league is a step in the right direction and so are MLS’s youth academies. But not all of the academies are fully funded, so it costs the players money, and these difficult economic times make it even worse.
Also, the academy league is U-16 and U-18. We need to concentrate on the crucial U-12 and U-14 ages.
The best coaches, former players, are coaching U-16s and U-18s at the academies, so when you talk about U-12s or U-14s, unfortunately they’re often not coached by the most qualified coaches to develop or teach them properly at this most crucial time.
SA: In your current position with Traffic Sports, you scout young American players to send abroad. What’s the demand abroad for American players?
CLAVIJO: There’s much more interest in American players than there ever has been.
Everybody realizes that the mentality of the American player is outstanding. The physical part is outstanding. Still, the technical part is just not there just yet.
SA: Traffic sends players, such as former U-20 stars Tony Taylor and Gale Agbossoumonde, to Portugal, and to South America. But the trend for talented young American players with ambitions to play abroad is to go to England …
CLAVIJO: This is a problem and this is the culture, and I don’t blame them. Everybody’s looking at the EPL. The EPL I do believe is the best league in the world but English soccer is not the best soccer in the world.
I think the English league in general, the way they market, is unbelievable, but when you look at how they try to develop young players, it doesn’t compare to the success of South America -- Brazil, Argentina – and Uruguay for that matter. Uruguay, a country with 3 million people, is per capita the most successful at developing players who succeed all over the world.
But every single American kid wants to go to Europe. Convincing them other routes are better is not an easy task.
SA: What it’s like watching the Colorado Rapids reach the MLS semifinals two years after you were their head coach?
CLAVIJO: Outstanding. I’m extremely happy, especially for some of the players I brought in, like Conor Casey and Omar Cummings, who have scored almost 80 percent goals of their goals. And Kosuke Kimura.
I was criticized for giving a senior international spot to Omar [a Jamaican], but I knew he was an incredible talent. And he benefited by being able to play in the MLS reserve league, which MLS ended because of economics after 2008.
SA: MLS plans to bring back the reserve league. How important is that for American soccer?
CLAVIJO: It’s crucial. When I was coach of the Colorado Rapids, we were reserve league champions twice.
Besides Omar Cummings and Kosuke Kimura, we had Bouna Coundol (now with Red Bulls), Colin Clark (Houston), Nick LaBrocca (Toronto), Jordan Harvey (Philadelphia) and Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake) playing in the reserve league.
All those players -- if there was not a reserve league at the time, most likely they would end up somewhere else and not playing soccer in MLS as they are today. And there must be many other cases around the league.