The first American players I encountered in the late 70’s early 80’s were high school, college and amateur players. Other than their physical capabilities, nothing had impressed me then.
Naturally, the level of play of women players was incredible comparing it to other parts of the world where women’s soccer was more of a show than a sport. “Football was just for
men” was the attitude of the old world towards women’s soccer in those years. Catapulted by Title IX into orbit, women’s soccer had a head start compared to the rest of the world and
we harvested this head start for decades with a dominance of women’s soccer in the world. Although in the last decade this dominance is slipping, the reasons for this slip and the cure might be
the subject of another article.
In 1991 when the USMNT visited Turkey for 10 days, I hosted them on behalf of the Turkish FA. The visit ended with a friendly match against Turkey (1-1). I
spent many hours with the team and Bora Milutinovic
-- the head coach of the USMNT. I befriended many players like Tony Meola
, Eric Wynalda
and others. What impressed me then was
the attitude of the players during training. I was flabbergasted by their intensity during the practices. I have rarely witnessed this intensity in training then -- and I can say until now -- with
other teams whether they are professional clubs or a national team. While talking to Bora -- who had at that point played and coached in Europe, Mexico and Costa Rica -- he told me that the mentality
of the American players was different than players anywhere he had ever been. He said they are fighters and they never quit.
I witnessed this throughout the years. The best example is
the game against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. After being 2-0 down in the first overtime, the USMNT scored a goal in the second overtime and came close to a second by Clint Dempsey
beautifully set up free kick. Some people might remember that game with the incredible record setting saves of Tim Howard
or might be outraged by Chris Wondolowski
's miss in the
closing seconds of the regular time, but I remember the fighting spirit of the USMNT in the second overtime, which is a manifestation of the “mentality” that Bora mentioned more than 20
This mentality might cause problems if not distilled and controlled by the coaching staff properly. It might backfire upon you as red cards like the ones in the second leg of
the Olympic qualifier against Colombia and during the recent Copa Centenario. Unfortunately, during a couple of games recently, I could not witness the fighting spirit and the
“mentality,” During the 4-0 losses to Argentina and Costa Rica, the USMNT played as if they did not believe they can win the game, they accepted their destiny, they did not fight and
hence they looked like quitters. I attribute this change of attitude of the players to the sour relation between them and Jurgen Klinsmann
and see it as temporal.
ago, Fatih Terim
- the head coach of the Turkish men's national team -- asked me to do a research on why the American players in the youth categories were by good margin better athletes than
their competitors from other countries. When Sam Snow
-- Coaching Director of USYSA – visited Turkey in 2009 for a coaching convention, I asked him this question. After thinking for a
while, he came with this conclusion: Kids in the USA play a number of sports before focusing on one. The sports they participate develop different skill sets. Tennis develops lateral movement,
football physical endurance, baseball hand-eye coordination, basketball jumping and hand-eye coordination etc. So once they choose soccer they already have the physical infrastructure to be an
all-around athlete. Of course for the USA, if they choose soccer! Because of their involvement in baseball and basketball during their younger ages, USA produces some of the best goalkeepers. This
seemed very logical and true. In all other countries usually kids chose and play one sport only and that is soccer.
Mentality and athleticism are two pillars of American soccer players I
found out over the years. I have two other observations about the American players: professionalism and high education. Most of the players from North America and Northern Europe have a high level of
professionalism. I believe this is inherent in the culture of those countries.
Since education and sports are interwoven in the USA, if not at least some of the professional soccer
players are also college graduates. I understand that this is changing fast and less and less professional soccer players choose not to complete their college degrees. In Europe or Latin America, you
can hardly find a professional player who has a college degree. The only famous soccer player I can remember was the late Socrates
of Brazil, who was a pediatrician. Michel Platini
world famous soccer player and ex-president of UEFA, did not even graduate from high school. His lack of high education did not prevent him from becoming the president of UEFA. Having witnessed both
-- who has a College degree -- and Platini as UEFA president, I can see the difference in their management styles. Having one day a well -educated ex-professional USMNT or
USWNT player as the president of U.S. Soccer or even FIFA will be a welcoming thought. A college degree gives more than a formal education to an athlete. The athlete can design a better road map for
Those four pillars -- mentality, athleticism, professionalism and high education -- along with the best sports scientists, sports psychologists, sports medicine
staff, game analysts in this country give the American professional soccer player an edge over his/her competitors in other parts of the world. All four together are very much intrinsic to the
professional soccer players of the USA. But we also know that the best players come from countries that lack some or all of those 4 pillars. What we miss is the fifth pillar: correct technical
development. If we can get the fifth pillar installed and functioning properly, then we can produce some of the best soccer players even though soccer is under the dominance of football, baseball and
basketball in the USA.
The responsibility of the fifth pillar stands with the national governing body of soccer: U.S. Soccer. Although in the recent years we have witnessed some very
important accomplishments like the Development Academies and player development initiatives
, there is a long
way to go for building the fifth pillar.
Whether it is the small island country of Iceland or Belgium or world champion Germany, the respective federations develop a 10-year development
plan, implement it without compromise and harvest the results. Each plan reflects the idiosyncrasies of that country. You cannot take the German plan and translate it and implement it in the USA. For
example, because of the weather conditions, the Icelandic plan had a number of covered, normal-sized pitches installed in different regions of the country.
In all these countries, the
federation is the BOSS. No if and buts, the plan is executed to the point. It is internalized by all the stakeholders and executed with the support of those stakeholders. U.S. Soccer must follow
suit. I understand the political structure of this country and of the U.S. Soccer. But there is no other and easy way to build the fifth pillar. There is no gain without pain. U.S. Soccer must develop
a 10-year development plan and execute it without any compromise even though this might risk in losing some of its constituents or severe its relations with some of them. This country has four pillars
that no other country has. We must build the fifth pillar however hard and painful it might be. Then we will develop our own Messis, Ibrahimovics, Iniestas and Ronaldos. Ahmet
Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of
Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.