For decades now, a very special and specific conundrum has been making its presence felt in American soccer. What to do about the growing presence of American-born Latino players? They can be seen as a welcome addition to the American talent pool. Or they can be seen as a damn nuisance because their style of play is rather different from the northern Europe style that has been traditionally favored in the USA.
Sadly, the second option is far too prevalent. An ignorant option that is holding back the development of the American game, and creating a damaging divide within the sport.
Without a resolution of the contradictions that this situation involves, American soccer is never going to achieve its full strength. It is a specifically soccer matter. I had thought that Klinsmann -- a Spanish-speaker, I was told -- could, and would tackle it.
That has not happened. It has never even looked likely to happen. Here we are at the end of a five-year reign -- which included three years with the added title of Technical Director -- and Klinsmann, to my knowledge, has never discussed the situation. His record of bringing Latino players into the national team is lamentable -- as you would expect, I suppose, from someone who is fixated on fussball.
Looking at the development side of the sport, we find a truly inexcusable situation. U.S. Soccer has nine men’s national teams, from under-14 up to the national team -- all of them, presumably, under Klinsmann’s authority. Nine coaches, then ... and only one of them, Tab Ramos with the U-20s, is Hispanic. That may have been OK with Klinsmann, but it ought not to be acceptable to Sunil Gulati and U.S. Soccer.
Because it fails to mirror the situation on the ground, fails completely to acknowledge that, particularly among the teams -- the better teams -- in the younger age groups, Hispanic names occur more and more frequently.
This is not just a question of numbers. The quality and, in particular, the style of the players is a crucial factor. If the USA is to start producing creative midfielders -- it has never been able to do this reliably within my memory span -- it is more than likely that the creative skills will be found within the Latino ranks.
Are they there? I have not the slightest doubt that they are there. But until we actively encourage their development -- and I now feel quite sure that means employing sympathetic Latino coaches -- we are not going to bring them to full growth.
A soccer development system that worships physical ability, that enshrines the word “hustle,” that salivates at the thought of “work rate” is, to me, an obscenity. It is, quite deliberately, in peerless ignorance, depriving the sport of its essential characteristics, of its unique skills and qualities, systematically trying to turn soccer into a soul-less athletic activity that can be measured and charted and diagramed and planned.
And of course, coached. Not just coached, but scientifically coached. Soccer as science? That appears to be the aim. So here come the coaching licenses, the coaching courses, the symposia, the workshops, the game plans, the systems, the manuals, the videos, the computer programs and the accompanying experts and all the lesser paraphernalia of what is now the coaching industry.
Don’t be deceived. The coaching industry, like all commercial operations, is out there to make money. The game itself is not the center of its operations, its place is as a means to an end. A financial end.
So we have a simple sport increasingly weighed down with cleverness. Not soccer cleverness, but scientific cleverness. I should say “scientific” -- because so much of this cleverness is, at best, junk science. I have sat through hours and hours and hours of coaching seminars. I don’t even go near them any more. That they are boring is one thing, but that they are very likely to be based on myths and untruths and unprovable assumptions and, quite often, just plain silliness ... that is something else.
In short, their value is questionable, even when measured in the “scientific” scale that they wished to be judged by.
When measured by the scale that I prefer -- a scale that is not concerned with scientific respectability but concentrates instead on aspects of the sport that do not lend themselves to easy measurement -- in a word, creativity -- they seem almost designed to suck the very life-blood out of the sport.
It is soccer’s misfortune to be a constant battleground between those who want a rustic physical game, and those who prefer a game where skills prevail. There is nothing new in this. The divide started the very day the sport was officially born, back in 1863.
The bewhiskered Victorian English sportsmen who were trying to come up with a set of rules for their new sport, soon split into two factions. One of them, of course, wanted a physical game -- they wanted a rule that allowed players to kick each other. Hacking, they called it. They were voted down. So they marched out of the meeting and founded their own sport -- rugby.
For the moment, the proponents of physical play had been routed. But they have never gone away. The fight goes on. It has surfaced in the USA where -- unfortunately -- it has acquired an ethnic angle. And where it is further complicated by the existence of the college game.
Whatever may be the intentions, even the wishes, of the army of college coaches, the fact is that their teams -- with a few notable exceptions -- play a straightforward, unsophisticated style of soccer. The soccer of the suburbs, the white suburbs with their club soccer, whence come so many of the college players. It is still rare to see Hispanic players on college teams.
The damage that college soccer’s minimal interest in Latino players does to player-development programs cannot be overestimated. The college game is still -- despite a mountain of evidence revealing its inadequacies -- regarded by many as the “natural” training ground for young American talent. Yet everyone knows that fewer and fewer top American talents opt for the college route to the pro game. And MLS persists with its ridiculous SuperDraft, which is a college draft that emphasizes mainly non-Latino players.
To have, at the heart of the youth movement, a well-organized nationwide system that virtually ignores homegrown Latino talent is asking for trouble. Not only is it absurdly self-defeating, it smacks of discrimination, and it provides significant backing for the view that Latino soccer counts for little and can be ignored.
How big a step is it from that to these damning stats? I have already drawn attention to the shameful dearth of Latino coaches on U.S. Soccer’s national teams. The situation is no different with the colleges, where Latino coaches are rarely to be seen. And, while I’m on the subject, MLS does no better. Of its 20 teams in 2016, only two have Latino coaches.
But MLS is a pro organization where results matter above all. There has been an acceptance, though not exactly a tumultuous one, of the value of Latino playmakers. The evidence that a creative midfielder -- a Latin American No. 10 -- can have a major effect on a team’s style and effectiveness is undeniable. The list includes Javier Morales at Real Salt Lake, Diego Valeri at Portland, Ignacio Piatti at Montreal, Federico Higuain at Columbus, Mauro Diaz at Dallas, and most recently Nicolas Lodeiro at Seattle.
The first of the Latino playmakers was there at the very birth of the league in 1996: Marco Etcheverry, the Bolivian who was the key player in D.C. United’s early domination of the league, with wins in three of the first four MLS championships. Something that carries high significance, because Etcheverry’s coach at D.C.United in the late 1990s was Bruce Arena.
Can it be inferred from that highly successful combination 20 years ago, that Arena is the man to bring on the paradigm shift that seems to be necessary if American soccer is to enthusiastically --- rather than reluctantly -- embrace its growing Latino talent pool?
Can -- or will -- Arena tackle the great conundrum of American soccer, the conundrum that Klinsmann simply ignored: what to do about the growing Latino presence?
• Next: The Klinsmann Interlude (Part 3): Damage Repair: Bruce Arena returns -- Tab Ramos waits