Commentary

Hank Steinbrecher on legacy of the '90s, moving national team forward, youth development and training compensation

Hank Steinbrecher is the former secretary general of U.S. Soccer (1990-2000). As a secretary general, he is my colleague and we became friends in due time. He remains a very important actor on the U.S. soccer scene.

Steinbrecher has been involved with soccer since his youth days in New York. He was a standout player at Davis & Elkins College, a small school in West Virginia. He later coached at the NCAA level at Appalachian State and Boston University. In 1985, he became director of sports marketing at the Quaker Oats Company. In 1990, he was hired as CEO and Secretary General at the United States Soccer Federation. He stepped down from the position in 2000. In 2012 he received Werner Fricker award -- the United States Soccer Federation's top honor.

He is still very much involved in soccer and shares his ideas and thoughts on some of the most thought-provoking issues in our soccer world.

Photo: World Collegiate Soccer Championship

You were the secretary general of United States Soccer Federation from 1990 until the year 2000. In those years when you were the secretary general, what was the most important achievement of U.S. Soccer other than hosting the ‘94 and ‘99 World Cups in the USA?

Before interview really begins, I want to give great credit to the federation and to our league. They performed far beyond my wildest expectations. I congratulate Dan Flynn and his staff for the excellent work they do.

Well, hosting the 1994 and 1999 World Cups and I think the real lasting legacy is what FIFA wanted from us, was a viable professional league. When you put all those three together in one decade and have that combined with a phenomenal growth in player ability and competitive nature of the American soccer player, I think those are lasting legacies that occurred during that tenure.

During my tenure I cannot take any credit for any of that that went on but what I can say is that I was in the middle of all of that. So, while I was not necessarily a bystander, much more credit needs to go to everyone else than to me.

How do you see the future of MLS in 10, 20 years?

I see it's very bright. A number of years ago, I was in Zurich and I mentioned to a friend that I thought that the MLS was in the top seven leagues in the world. And he looked at me as though I lost my mind. I said we'll do the math, look at the attendance. Top to bottom let's look at the leagues around the world, who's better in attendance? Germany, for sure, Italy, for sure, England, for sure ... Spain, probably pretty good, but they have only a couple of really good teams. Brazil, no, they have two or three good teams. Mexico is also good. But we're certainly in 7 through 10. And I think that's only going to grow, I think Don Garber has done a miraculous job.

If you'd asked me when we had our initial conversations about the league, 20 years later would you have 70.425 people in a new stadium in Atlanta to see a league game, I would have wondered what you were drinking.

Using soccer terminology, you've been on the touchlines since then, but you're watching the game. From your perspective on the touchlines how do you see our youth development process?

I have to say that I thought we'd be further advanced in our youth development process than we are right now. I think there are many contributing factors; I think pay-to-play is an issue that we've been talking about for a very very long time. Perhaps, the federation is not organically structured to look for excellence in players rather quantity in players. So, I think that in some regards we've missed the mark.

I think you are correct. Actually, let me give you some numbers, I think we have about 4 million registered players in the United States. And our woman's national team is No. 1 in the world with about 1 million female players. Japan is in top three. I just learned from our friend Tom Byer that Japan has only 35,000 registered female players. So sometimes, numbers do not add up to quality. That is supporting your view.

I've often said that the federation and the youth division of the federation ought to be concerned about recreational players and bringing children in and giving them opportunities to enjoy and love the game and to play. The better that player, the higher up they go on the rank but, that the federation shouldn't be overly concerned with the 4 million, they should be concerned with the 400.000. You know, USA Swimming doesn't register every kid that jumps in a pool. USA Basketball doesn't register every kid that goes on a basketball court near the city of New York. Their organizations and federations look towards excellence and I think the federation has cast, because we had to, a very wide net in terms of the quantity of the people involved in the game, but now I think it's time to focus on the quality of how we're doing.

Listen, the quality of referees is critically important in the development of soccer in America. I think we have to focus on the excellent referees, the higher-level referees, and developing them as best as possible, same goes for coaches.

Since you said that, actually, although we're embracing 4 million kids we're also not embracing a good number of kids who cannot pay in our pay-to-play system. We are talking about Latino kids mainly, excellent talents that are playing in unaffiliated leagues. Unfortunately while reading an article last night, I realized that U.S Soccer Diversity Task Force is in a dormant stage. What should U.S Soccer do to embrace these talented Latino kids?  What could U.S Soccer do?

That's a very difficult problem, made more difficult by the political arena that we're living in. Where you are looking at young Hispanic people that may get deported for no reason of their own, where there is a great reluctance to join now in the Hispanic community to organized sport, organized anything. So the identification of that talent and the recruitment of that talent are only going to get more difficult. But I think that the answer is we have to get people that we trust to scout to look at these people, look at young players, cover the country, identify the 400.000 really good players and develop them, regardless of where they're playing or what their economic status is. Those 400.000 players should be paid for, their tickets should be stamped. You know, the youth pay registration fee, I think it's a dollar a head. That's 4 million dollars for general budget. I would rather do away with that 4 million dollars and invest only in the 400.000 via sponsorships, licensing, marketing etc. which I think the federation has made incredible strides in.


Photo: Concacaf

What are the obstacles of our national team to be one of the best in the world? What can we do to remove those obstacles?

Maybe, it's the fact that I have a lot of grey hair, I am over 70 years old and I can look back in retrospect and see that developing consistent quality soccer teams, national teams is generational in nature. I know when I was at U.S. Soccer  I wanted to be No. 1, be  No. 2, be No. 3, right away and the American spirit is, there's no second place, you know, we win. But the more I'm involved in the game, the older I get, the more I see that it's really generational. I hear so many people today complaining that our players aren't good enough and the systems are all wrong. They ignore the fact that sport is cyclical. You have to take the bad times as well as the good times but there is no team that stays on top forever. New York Yankees win and they win often, then they lose and they lose often and they're back winning again. Sport is cyclical. So I'm not overly worried about our position right now, I think we'll qualify, but I'm not overly worried. Even if we don't, we're in good company. France, Holland may not qualify this year. The sport and especially soccer is very fickle.

I agree with you about the cyclical nature of soccer.  But I think what I could say it's not just the World Cup. The U.S. men's national team, since they established the FIFA rankings, is I think ranked on the average as 20th. Being 20th on the average does not make you one of the first-tier men's national teams. But Germany is always on the top. Brazil is always on the top. France, Italy, Argentina also. When could the USMNT be there with those countries? None of those teams will always be No. 1. It's not like basketball, where USA is always No. 1. This is soccer and it is a global game. When do you think we can be in the top 10 teams on the average? Do you have a time frame for that? Or is that cyclical also?

I've been involved with a lot of time frames at U.S. Soccer and we developed the plan, this is where we're going be at this year and here are the benchmarks that we have to look at every year and if we haven't satisfied those benchmarks let's go back to the plan and see how we have to make a revision. I don't think that sport is necessarily linear. I think that there are ups and downs. Here's what I want: I want us to play attractive, attacking, aggressive football and if you lose doing that, I mean, it's not the worst thing in the world but I want to see a solid effort, wearing that crest, where you say that we represent 'The land of the free and the home of the brave.'  And you really go out and fight for it. I'm more concerned with the quality of the play than any rankings, than any score lines.

Unfortunately a lot of people are also interested in the scorelines and the rankings. But I agree with you.

They'll come if you concentrate internally. They'll come if you take care of playing the game the way it should be played and winning is a byproduct of that.

U.S. Soccer seems to be squeezed between FIFA statutes/rules and the law of the land. There are many cases which are unique to our country due to various litigations; like banning the players under the age of 11 from deliberately heading the ball. Personally, I feel that was the right thing to do but the reason why that came up is because of litigation. Also non-payment of training compensation fees and solidarity payments is due to litigation and very recently NASL filed a federal antitrust suit against the federation. In all the countries that I know of, if the law of the land conflicts with the FIFA statutes those countries find a way so that the statutes prevail. Why is it different in the United States?

That's a very complex question with no simple answer. First, it's that Americans are probably the most litigious society in the world. But I will say that by and large the federation has prevailed in most legal instances. I can tell you when I was there we were named in litigation because a young girl kicked the ball, bounced off an opponent's knee, hit her in the eye and she had blurry vision. We, the referee, the league, the municipality, everybody was sued. That's the extent of it and you know, the federation has a very large battery of attorneys and outside law counsel, so I think they'll fight it.

The question is, don't let the fear of litigation stop you from doing what you think is right. I will say that there is one issue right now that I would probably take a different stance unless I knew more about the situation and that's with paying clubs to develop players. In my opinion, the only way to develop players is through economic incentives. You have got to make it attractive for the players to invest all the time and energy etc. and you have to be able to compensate the clubs at the lower levels for developing that talent and that's not going on in the stage right now.  I would like to see the economic incentive for the clubs to develop players at a higher level.

Do you see a way out of this ban on training compensation fees and solidarity payments to youth clubs?

You know, I am not too familiar with the litigations that are involved, I know that the federation’s legal position will prevail and I'm not even sure that that's the correct word. I am more concerned with what I think we ought to do rather than litigation. I think of economic incentive for teams to develop youth players like [DeAndre] Yedlin for instance. They should be compensated so they can put that money back into the club system and maybe help alleviate some of the pay-to-play. I think that that's a wiser task than where we are today.

Yes, actually, these cases are in FIFA, some clubs took it to FIFA. But even if FIFA decides that there should be a payment for training compensation and solidarity payments, I don't know how U.S. Soccer will be able to implement that if there is a court order against it?

Yes, the law of the land prevails.

I know and so we'll see. This is very critical, what you said and I agree with you whole-heartedly. This is something that the U.S. Soccer has to find a way around the law of the land.

You've got very smart guys. You've got a man who's the president [Sunil Gulati], who's an economics professor. I think he may see the wisdom of reinvesting in clubs that develop youth talent and players and there is nothing from stopping the federation from doing that as I know it and as I read it today.

You've been on the touchline since the 2000s. Have you been involved with soccer since then? For example, right now, are you involved with any projects?

Yeah, I am. I, actually, I've had a consulting business for the last 17 years with a wide variety of plans and at my age, I just get a real thrill out of providing opportunities for people to play. One project I'm working on right now is the World Collegiate Soccer Championship to be held in San Antonio in March 2018. What we're looking to do is not to make a soccer festival but make a soccer feast and allow individuals to have higher levels of competition and to play and enjoy a solid week of playing camaraderie. So I've really enjoyed doing that. There are a couple of other projects that I'm working on. I was for a while really heavily involved in the concussion issue. I'm involved with a company that I think is going to look to the future of football analytics. Right now, most people are talking about player analytics but basically its biometrics. What this company has been able to do is to identify skill sets and gather big data on skill sets.  I think training will be based on skill analytics in the future. The game is getting much more scientific and quantifiable.


Photo: World Collegiate Soccer Championship

The World Collegiate Soccer Championship is an interesting project in 2018. How many teams will that involve and from which countries? What makes it a feast rather than a festival?

Oh, there is going to be amateur group, there is going to be a youth group, there is going to be girls groups. So there are a number of different categories that will play against each other in championships. We're in discussion with a lot of leagues running around the country right now, but internationally, we anticipate six foreign teams and two American teams on the collegiate level. We have invited for instance the champions of a number of countries: Mexico, Japan, Turkey, close to your heart, and a number of other collegiate university national champions. Now, their systems are different than ours but they are all university students. NCAA and NAIA are university students also. We are looking to give a rebirth to this tournament. It actually was in existence in the 80's and the early 90's and highly successful. So we're looking to give it some new life.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet@ahmetguvener.com) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of the 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.

11 comments about "Hank Steinbrecher on legacy of the '90s, moving national team forward, youth development and training compensation".
  1. frank schoon, October 5, 2017 at 6:54 p.m.

    Great Interview! . Hi Hank, I remember at your house at Warren Wilson College watching Pele's last international game, as he ran around the track  saying his goodbyes  there wasn't a dry eye in the living room . All the best to you Hank, and Jim says ,hello.  
    Hank, likewise, sees that there is a problem with the player development and states that we should have been much further along in our player development... [after 50 years]. I also agree that soccer is cyclical, countries have come up with great teams and go down. Holland is a perfect example for I find their level of play to be embarrassing ,to me , simply lousy. The only reason for me to see the Dutch go is to give the young ones playing experience . But as far as the US goes we have yet to even have had a great team to measure as a standard  the world could even talk about, thereby a cyclical situation does not apply, here.  As far as the Hispanic community goes, my recommendation is for the hispanic kids not to join some organized association. The hispanic community can do a much better job in their structure- (less) which comes closer to the 'street soccer' in developing their players. Organized soccer communities, means structure, licensed programmed coaches training the kids(one of the aspects that has hurt the development of the youth according to Cruyff) does not benefit what kids could learn creatively playing freestyle competition with different ages. This is why, to me, the hispanics players who grow up here in structured organized soccer have are sterile and neutered from their latin roots of play and are only a shadow of what latin players should be like. This is why it is a joy seeing hispanics, who are not even stars coming  from South America to play in the MLS for they actually play hispanic soccer with a flair. What the USSF should do is to hire former Latin pro players ,retired, like a Valderama, a Cubillas types  pay them to scout the Hispanics communities all over the US for Latino talent instead of somebody with a USSF coaching badge to go around looking for latin talent. 

  2. Bob Ashpole, October 5, 2017 at 7:46 p.m.

    Awesome interview. Thank you.

  3. R2 Dad, October 5, 2017 at 9:28 p.m.

    Thanks for the interview, Ahmet.
    "In my opinion, the only way to develop players is through economic incentives." Hank seems to love Garber and Sunil, except for this very large elephant in the room which is a condemnation of the powerful monopoly that precludes such incentives.

  4. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, October 6, 2017 at 10:22 a.m.

    You mean the laws of the US?  

  5. Dick Burns, October 5, 2017 at 11:29 p.m.

    Hank, I want to thank you for everything you have done since I first met you in the USSF offices at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, You layed out your plan and hopes for the Federation and you have seen those goals mostly come true.  Those of us who were there before the Werner Fricker era and then when you came on board have seen the game blossum perhaps beyound our wildest dreams.  We have yet to have a World Cup champion or a referee do the final but I hvae no doubt that that will eventially happen.

  6. Kent James, October 6, 2017 at 11:54 a.m.

    Hank's playing at D&E gives him great credibility (pretty unusual that a tiny school (700 students?) in the remote mountains of WV would have a strong program, but especially back in the day (when Hank was playing), those schools (Aldus-Broadus, WV Wesleyan, Wheeling Jesuit) had some very strong teams (if I recall correctly, the NAIA allowed older players, so these schools recruited a lot of fromer pro players whose careers had not panned out).  I refereed their games for many years, and they were always a challenge... Anyway, I generally agree with Hanks comments with one exception; the idea that we would be better off if we had fewer (but better) youth players. Especially at the early ages, it is too difficult to tell who is going to be good (unless they're Messi), so fewer players is no guarantee that they will be the better ones.  I think the goal should be a coordinated system the is inclusive, and casts as wide a net as is possible (primarily by keeping costs down), and then within that system we recruit the best players (but still casting a wider net when they are young) building a pyramid (broad base, gradtually narrowing as they get older) to the national team. 

  7. John Gordon, October 6, 2017 at 2:21 p.m.

    The one dollar per kid comment shows the lack of knowledge of basic costs at the bottom.  As soon as you attach an organizational name to a kid in sports - you better have insurance.  Now that cost is $30.00 per kid.  (or shoot the lawyers, which may have some backing).  For 400,000 kids each year, that is $12,000,000.  Now you do expect those players to be reasonably dressed according to the laws of the game so you can add $50.00 per player - every year because they do grow.  That is another $20,000,000.

    OK, who maintains the facilities to play the 250,000 games (two ten-game seasons for 25,000 teams - two teams a game).  That is 1,000 five-field complexes of 15 acres at $3,000 per year per acre for water, lighting, field marking, mowing, fertilizer, maintenance, goal & netting replacement, etc which comes to $45,000,000.  OK, using both Saturdays and Sundays for a total of 10 games per field could reduce this to $22,500,000 but at the cost of wearing out fields and having to find additional practice fields of quality which increases the cost. 

    The referee crews (I am a State Referee Emeritus still refereeing adult men) for the games of quality will cost $110 per game which is another $27,500,000.

    The coaches will not come free (I am a National C Licensed coach who did coach for free years ago).  So even at 10 months at $500 per month per team, the coaching cost will be at least $125,000,000 per year.

    Ignoring transportation costs, administrative costs, assignor fees, schedulor fees, registrar fees, etc. the cost above for 400,000 selected players is above $229,000,000 per year. 

    So, keep talking about doing away with pay for play - it will not happen because there is REAL SUBSTANTIAL COSTS in putting a kid on the field in a "professional" style soccer environment.

    What you want is to set up "scholarship funds" in targeted areas across the country  to allow players of exceptional potential to apply for two year grants to fund their play on higher level teams.  If after two years, the player's potential is turned to fact, then they can be moved to a more select level of competition.  If you had $1,000 per year "soccer scholarship" grants of two years length and had 1,000 awardees each year, the program cost would be $2,000,000 per year.  I would suggest the age for application would be 13 year olds for U-14 and U-15 competition.  If an awardee lives up to their billing, then you have got a great prospect for high level training.

  8. Ahmet Guvener replied, October 6, 2017 at 4:17 p.m.

    John,
    Hank meant $1 per player that U.S. Soccer gets from each registration, not the cost of a player to its club.

  9. K Hakim, October 6, 2017 at 2:23 p.m.

    This was a good interview and is the first time I have heard a US Soccer official ever state PAY TO PLAY as a problem for developing players in America. Of course many of us know this already and like he said, it has been an issue for a long time. But why do such people only state these issues after they leave their positions of influence? I have worked at every level of the game in America for the last 28 years and I go into gret depth of such issues with the Black Soccer Association here: http://www.blacksoccerassociation.org/kab-hakim-director-futsal-america-washington-dc.html

    I am disappointed no mention of street soccer, futsal, beach soccer, Black inner city communities and mulit national communities are not mentioned with the same vigor and belief as the Hispanic community. It is this one way thinking that separates America as a nation. All people who live on this land should be included in soccer development, not just the affluent middle class and not just Hispanics. But all. Diversity is key. This is certainly France's key to success in soccer. Not any system or academy or coaching license. The USDA program is another system doomed to fail as teams are geared to win youth matches instead of promote individuals that could be America's Messi or Neymar or Coutinho or Marcelo. Identifying bigger and faster athletes to play together is creating more role players that fit a basic team structure. They do not hone those that can create magic on the ball and impac games at any moment. That is why I was pleased to read Hank mention quality over quantity. But this all happened under his watch. So why is so wise at 70 but not at 50?

    At Futsal America, we hone those world class skills in players, even those who are average athletes. Watch any video and you will see the difference in ball control, composure, footwork all under pressure in matches that the lack of fear allows kids to express themselves and get better without the care of team results. I have never seen a US team keep the ball in international play. But I never hear a US Soccer coach tell a player, to put their foot on the ball either. It's always 1-2 touch. No kid is going to become world class that way.

    Watch what world class footwork looks like by Americans: www.futsalamericafc.com




  10. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, October 6, 2017 at 4:46 p.m.

    Outdated criticisms Kumar although adding self-promotion to your posts is a new touch.

  11. Ric Fonseca, October 6, 2017 at 3:54 p.m.

    HOLA MI GRAN AMIGO!!! Haven's seen you in years, and am glad you're doing well.  We go hack a long time, in fact I still have one of the gatorade jubs you sent my then youth soccer clab when you started with them!  Maybe we can get together in Pliladelphia.  And LADIES AND CABALLEROS I HEREBY NOMINATE COACH HANK S FOR THE US SOCCER PRESIDENCY!!! I am sure alan Rothenberg & Co would agree.  And since I am on sort of a roll, coach Hank known only too well the situation and futbol soccer and the Latino players, male and female, in the country.  Lastly, coach Hank, say hola to our amigo CheChe Vidal!!!

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