Photo: World Collegiate Soccer Championship
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.
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 (email@example.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.