Fernando Clavijo: Why do we have just one Donovan?

[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?

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?

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?

: 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?

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 …

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?

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 …

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?

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?

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.

11 comments about "Fernando Clavijo: Why do we have just one Donovan?".
  1. Rick Figueiredo, November 12, 2010 at 9:30 a.m.

    Fernando is a good man. I coached against him during the Jamaica Haiti WCQ.

    I agree with the lack of technical. U.S. players do not use the bottom of their feet. That is the first huge step.

    Add the lack of tactical on the high end as coaches just have not yet learned about what Scolari and Mourinho already know. And yes.

    One Donovan in 300 million americans? Amazing. But it is not from coaches that great players come from. It is from other great players so somewhere along this line there needs to be a starting point. Study the top countries out there and track back and that is what you will find.

    But I think that getting results and developing teachnical and tactical at all ages is the same thing. I fail to see the difference. It is part of the process of getting great results.

    The USA has improved since 1994. Back then the world perception was a low one. Today they at least respect the USA a little. Not alot.

    U.S. arrogance abroad is an obstacle to any american doing anything in the world market. The american has a provincial mind. Isolationist. Understandable. Everyone else is miles away. We are like Australia when it comes to football, both in distance and quality. On an island.

  2. Doug Huston, November 12, 2010 at 10:19 a.m.

    Fernando makes a good point about only one Donovan. I've always maintained that US soccer will never go any further in world play with our current youth mentality. Youth soccer in this country is a lily-white rich persons society (I'm a lily-white rich person) that want to keep control for their own purpose, college scholarships. Until we see inner-city kids (meaning African-Americans) playing soccer (look at the makeup of any other sport in the US)and the inclusion of the Hispanic youth in our system, US soccer will never move from where we are now. Has the national team improved since 1994? Yes, by quite a bit but we only have one player who is exceptional on AND OFF the ball. We do not develop quality, just quantity.

  3. cony konstin, November 12, 2010 at 10:24 a.m.

    The US has always had good players but never has had a great player. Why? Because soccer in the US is a hobby and not a way of life. Kids in the US have too many things to chose from and competitive youth soccer is all about the Benjamins. There is only one place where US soccer can create a GOAT/magical player and that is in the HOOD. There is gold in them mountains but US Soccer needs to focus their energy towards the inner cities of America. They need to implement futsal courts throughout the inner cities of America and then sit back and watch. Because developing players is not from coaching but from playing everyday since the day you start walking. This is the formula towards developing players and an environment that takes US soccer from a hobby to a way of life. There is too much coaching in the US. The kids need to play everyday. If US Soccer starts a revolution in the HOOD then eventually the suburban knights will want to jump on the train to greatness. Meanwhile the US will still have good players but no GOATS.

  4. Mark Ellis, November 12, 2010 at 11:02 a.m.

    I agree with Fernando Clavijo's comments as well as the 3 above. U.S. Youth Soccer is strictly business! It is not currently about developing players, it is about making a profit and winning; on each team, right now.... not improving the skills and the sport. As a player who came thru AYSO in the early 80's, it doesn't seem like much has changed in the youth system. U.S. players need more technical skills. They may have heart and physical conditioning, but they are extremely poor in skills development. I believe as Cony said; "developing players is not from coaching but from playing everyday since the day you start walking" & "implement futsal courts throughout the inner cities of America". Let's make it possible for kids to play everyday throughout the US! In the U.S., soccer is as Doug stated "a lily-white rich persons society." I too am one of those, but I believe we need to develop the sport in all neighborhoods. As Rick stated, the U.S. has a few obstacles to overcome; "U.S. arrogance abroad is an obstacle to any american doing anything in the world market." As I travel the world with my career and personally, I know this to be true. Let's open the game here in the U.S. to be enjoyed by all and improve the sport as a whole and change the world view by welcoming & celebrating differences instead of excluding them.

  5. Doug Huston, November 12, 2010 at 12:14 p.m.

    We have the "hard work ethic" down pat. What we don't have is soccer instinct. That comes with, as has been mentioned, by playing, not coaching. Soccer is over-coached in the US and this is from a soccer coach of 25 years. In soccer, in the US, we put way too much emphasis on coaching. Soccer is an instinctive game. You have to feel, to anticipate what is happening around you. Skills can be taught, that's what a coach is for, but the above is learned only through playing and watching. Our kids watch very little soccer. As a kid I watched every baseball game I could and played whenever I could. We didn't need coaches, we played because we loved to play. That's the way soccer is in all parts of the world but here. Here it has to be structured, with leagues, uniforms, coaches, etc. Ever drive by a field a see a pick up soccer game? Not in my city.

  6. Michael Maddox, November 12, 2010 at 12:34 p.m.

    Good comments by all, but we shouldn't write off the "business aspect" of US youth soccer. The problem is the nature of the business: Our coaches are paid to win, in general, while a coach in Europe or South America can bring in tons of money by selling a "developed" player. His W-L record can be secondary at the youth level. My book, The Ten Shirt, addresses this indirectly by pointing out that my fictional national teamers all played "pickup" games as kids.

  7. Daniel Clifton, November 12, 2010 at 5:17 p.m.

    I think youth soccer and many other youth sports in the US are dominated by adults and organization. I grew up in the late 50's and 60's. We would play pick up sports - football, baseball, basketaball. I wish back then soccer had been around. I would have loved it. You don't see kids playing pick up sports, at least not around where I live - Charlotte, NC. You only see kids playing basketball as a pick up sport. I think that has to change. I coached two boys a number of years ago who came from El Salvardor. They would play eachother in their back yard and play against their father, uncles, and cousins. They had excellent foot skills. The problem in youth soccer is the emphasis on winning over technical development. It is a problem that comes from parents and organizations. The truth is if you develop children technically eventually they will start winning. But now many parents have the patience to wait. I experienced this in youth soccer.

  8. cony konstin, November 12, 2010 at 7:10 p.m.

    The time has come for soccer in the US to have another EVOLUTION. We need to create a sandlot experience for both suburia and inner city kids. FUTSAL is the WAY. FUTSAL can be our form of street ball, pick up, sandlot or what ever you desire to call it. Carlos Santana has a great song called Let
    The Children Play. If you get a chance listen to the song. This is the world that we adults need to help the kids return to. It is time to have a SOCCER REVOLUTION.

  9. JAMES SIEDLISKI, November 13, 2010 at 9:24 a.m.


    Providence v. Louisville @ NOON On Sunday, November 14 on CBS College Sports and 15 other regional affiliates

  10. Bret Newman, November 17, 2010 at 2:38 a.m.

    I believe everything Fernando said is accurate. We need to learn more from S. America and not England. England is having their own problems in soccer as we saw in the World Cup. I also want to bring up three players who could have been world class players, but injuries kept that from happening (bad luck). Tab Ramos, Clint Mathis, and John O' Brien.

  11. Brian Herbert, November 17, 2010 at 7:21 p.m.

    The brilliant thing about this interview is that Clavijo simply states common sense and speaks from what he's observed. We don't need PhD.'s in economics to build complex agreements, we just need to execute some simple things: move from pay to play to more of an incentive/transfer fee system, push sponsorships, grants and other money flows to subsidize the cost of youth soccer for lower income families, and build grassroots passion and word-of-mouth for technical development and FREE PLAY for youths over winning-oriented clubs. Based on the comments of my comrades above, we all get it, so let's get the others on our team or we'll push them off the ball!

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