Commentary

Finding a way to make a meaningful vote

I have been pondering how I shall vote in the U.S. Soccer presidential election. Of course, I do not actually, officially, have a vote. But who knows, maybe some zany chain of events will force U.S. Soccer to acknowledge my expertise in these matters, so I intend to be ready.

Rather a lot of candidates. Eight of them. But my first step in deciding on anything is to discard what I strongly disagree with. To start with, I disapprove of a marketing background so out goes Kathy Carter (seven years as president of SUM soaking in those deplorable marketing attitudes). It's also see-you-later to Carlos Cordeiro (12 years with Goldman Sachs, the guys who needed a government loan of $10 billion to get out of trouble) -- that was in 2008 -- after Cordeiro's time, for sure, but that whole financial brotherhood gives me the jitters.

Then the lawyers must go, simply because they're lawyers and don't think like your average citizen. So Steve Gans and Michael Winograd are out. And, as a group, I find the ex-players -- Hope Solo, Paul Caligiuri, Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino -- all much too young.

Damn, this is rather awkward -- I've just eliminated all eight candidates. Clearly, I need a different approach.

Well, how's about I treat this as a single-issue election? I have just the issue -- a wholly soccer issue, one concerned directly and intimately with how Americans play the sport and how our national teams play -- or, anyway, what I think they could and should look like.

In fact, I believe this issue should be the most important topic on any candidate's agenda. I want to know what they intend to do about integrating the already large -- and growing -- number of Hispanic-American players into the mainstream of American soccer.

Seeking to avoid the toil of reading everything that each candidate has so far said (I tried that and found it never-ending and pretty tedious), I decided instead to rely on ESPN's Jeff Carlisle, who has saved me a great deal of trouble by submitting a set of 14 identical questions to each candidate. Three of those questions contain invitations -- either explicit or implicit -- to comment on my single-issue. I'll call it the Hispanic Issue.

To say that the candidates' answers to Carlisle are disappointing is true enough, but it vastly understates the apathy and the ignorance displayed. Not one of the eight candidates -- nobody -- even mentioned the topic. The word "Hispanic" was entirely absent from all the answers.

Yes, much worse than disappointing -- this is frankly disgusting ... and just plain scandalous. Invited to expound their views on youth soccer two of the candidates -- Kathy Carter and Eric Wynalda -- brought up the case of Jonathan Gonzalez.

This case -- the decision by teenager Gonzalez, who was born in the USA and spent the first 14 years of his life here, to play for Mexico rather than the USA -- has been meticulously reported on this website by Mike Woitalla, backed up by some invigorating straight talk about the problems young Hispanic players face in this country (I'm talking about the hard-hitting comments from Brad Rothenberg). It has rapidly become a cause celebre .

Cause celebre is not French for bandwagon but in this case, it might as well be. Carter and Wynalda both mentioned Gonzalez, but in ways that look like mere opportunism. Neither of them defined the case in the context of the Hispanic Issue. Apparently they see this as simply a case of U.S. Soccer failing to do its job, devoid of any wider, Hispanic, implications. And so Carter and Wynalda are indignantly adamant that "losing" young players in this way must never happen again.

But it will happen again. Because the culture operating throughout U.S. Soccer shows no sign of valuing Hispanic talent and every sign of not being that interested. Positions that appear to be reinforced by bureaucratic pettiness. Many of the most promising Hispanic youngsters play on teams belonging to leagues that are not sanctioned by U.S. Soccer.

One such group is Alianza, run in California by Brad Rothenberg. Alianza is proving fertile ground for coaches from Mexican clubs, who attend their games and recruit players. Coaches from U.S. Soccer do not attend. Tony Lepore, a Federation functionary, has told Rothenberg that the Federation is not interested in participating in Alianza since they haven't found any elite players. Here is Lepore, the U.S. Soccer's Director of Talent Identification (!), deliberately turning his back on a huge reservoir of talent.

I have not seen much of Gonzalez in action on the field, so I am hardly in a position to assess his talent level. But this is a teenage player who has been holding down a starting position for Monterrey, one of the most successful clubs in Mexico. Which must tell us something -- probably quite a lot -- about his caliber as a player.

Gonzalez was born in the United States, he grew up and spent his early years (until age 14) learning soccer at the Atletico Santa Rosa club in California. So how come he ended up playing for Monterrey in Mexico, and not with an MLS club? And why was he not given the attention that would have secured as a future player for the USA?

You do not have to be immersed in all the details to know the answer to those key questions. To anyone who has been paying attention to soccer developments within the USA for the past 20 or 30 years, the reasons must be crystal clear.

Simply that the entire structure of American soccer is biased against the development of young Hispanic talent. I am not concerned here with whether that bias is intentional or not. I am very reluctant to believe that it is. But it exists. Enough.

The bias is so great that at times it seems almost like a sport-wide determination to deny the very existence of Hispanic players, and of the style of soccer that they play.

We got a stunning demonstration of that at the recent United Soccer Coaches Convention in Philadelphia. While the USC prattles on about "uniting coaches of all levels," a look at the Convention's schedule quickly reveals a gaping hole in that idea.

By my count, the convention featured some 110 events directly related to soccer as played on the field. And how many of those sessions were devoted to Hispanic soccer, or its players, or were given by Hispanic coaches? None. Not a single one. (That is bad enough, but it gets a lot worse when you look at the sessions that were given. For many of them, the word "feeble" would be a charitable assessment).

I suppose the United Soccer Coaches can claim that it is not biased. After all, how can it be biased against something that, in its own estimation, doesn't even exist?

No Hispanic sessions then -- while the convention presented plenty of sessions by coaches from Europe. One of those -- to be given by Vincent Del Bosque, the Spanish World Cup winning coach, was promising. Alas, something went wrong. Del Bosque was a no-show. He was contacted during the Convention and reported that no one had been in touch with him about his presence at the Convention.

I do not know what really happened. I don't need to -- it is enough to know that something, somewhere, got screwed up. Very similar to the Jonathan Gonzalez mess -- another important matter (one would have thought) with a key Hispanic at the center of it that somehow went awry.

So great was U.S. Soccer's ineptitude in the Gonzalez case that it became openly absurd. Enter Thomas Rongen, a (possibly the) talent scout for the U.S. national team, to formally avow that he visited the Gonzalez household three times in a vain attempt to secure the loyalty of Gonzalez.

Well that certainly shows zeal for the cause. Alas, the Gonzalez family had no recollection of even one visit, let alone three, from Rongen. I'm tempted to imagine a scenario in which the intrepid Rongen pays three visits to the wrong family, leaving nothing but total bafflement in his wake. Too fanciful, it seems. What he meant, says Rongen, was that he paid three visits to Monterrey. Right.

I have been reporting for decades now the melancholy news that the Coaches Convention regularly imports European coaches (mostly Brits, frequently obscure Brits). I've never heard of any of those engagements coming off the rails. Just as I have been lamenting for decades the lack of interest shown by all the various divisions of American soccer -- youth, college, amateur, pro -- in fostering Latino talent.

The situation is now as bad as it has ever been. Here come all the candidates for the post of U.S. Soccer President. Laying out their ideas and their plans and their dreams. And their ignorance.

The entire U.S. soccer structure shows an inbuilt lack of interest in, and patience with, Hispanic soccer. In the Gonzalez case, it is quite likely that the Federation people involved made all the right moves to snare Gonzalez (I think we can safely ignore the Rongen adventures). But reading about the steps that coach Dave Sarachan made during his failed attempt to call up Gonzalez for the friendly game against Portugal last November gives the game away. Totally lacking in that account is any sense of urgency, of enthusiasm, even of interest. All the procedurally correct moves were made but when they didn't work, the matter was allowed to lapse.

Is it likely that there will ever be enthusiasm for Hispanic players in an organization that has nine men's national teams (from age U-14 up to the senior national team) and only one of the nine coaches is Hispanic? How many of U.S. Soccer's talent scouts are Hispanic? At the youth level we have a Belgian company supervising the operations of the Academies, while three Dutch coaches are in charge of coaching education.

MLS, always heavily slanted toward European or European-oriented coaches has, after 21 years just discovered the value of young Hispanic players. For that we can thank the efforts of the Argentine coach Gerardo Martino at Atlanta United, who last year gave MLS its first real look at the excitement and entertainment that the Hispanic game can offer. Martino's young Latino players are coming from South America. Nevertheless, there must be hope that this long-delayed recognition of Hispanic talent will spread to American Hispanic players.

Back to my invaluable vote. I have decided to split it, which is probably not permissible. I shall give half a vote to Kyle Martino. I was shown a well-produced booklet put out by Martino which, glory be!, actually manages to use the word Hispanic. He called, in a brief paragraph, for more effort to be made to embrace the USA's Hispanic culture, and for more Spanish-speaking coaches and executives.

It's not much, but at least it identifies the Hispanic issue by name, instead of relying only on generalizations like "minorities" or "lower-income groups" or "under-served communities." It suggests that Martino is aware and has done some thinking on the issue.

On the same theme, how about this: "... in a country this big and this diverse, there can't just be one prescribed way to success. The route needs to be varied and that variance encouraged. I want to encourage our children as they play, to define the soccer culture of the United States from within. Soccer is the world's game and the U.S. is the ultimate melting pot of ideas and identities; we should foster that in our culture and in the paths our talented players create as well."

That is from Hope Solo. I think I can proffer half a vote -- or maybe just a quarter vote -- for that. No mention of Hispanic, but the reasoning is promising. Because the "variance" she is urging opens the way to acceptance of the glaring -- and glistening -- fact that Hispanic soccer has qualities and subtleties and nuances that, if allowed to flourish within the American game, will give it the sparkle and creativity and attractiveness that it just doesn't have at present.

I have reached a stage, in my own thinking on these matters, where I do now believe that any method or scheme or system -- and I've lived through a lot of them -- is bound to do as much harm as it does good. These are the miracle cures, the wonder drugs of soccer. In the 1950s, we had a joke about that:

Patient: "Doctor, why do you call this a wonder drug?"

Doctor: "Because every time I prescribe it, I wonder if it's going to work."

The soccer systems do harm by quickly becoming rigid and ruling out anything different. No variation. No divergence from the obligatory curriculum. It is a short step from that crabbed attitude to the bureaucratic manager who assesses the worth of players on whether or not they are "affiliated."

Perhaps the real crime of young Hispanic players is that they don't fit comfortably in to any of the systems. They've spent too much time playing outside the curriculum. And of course, they've acquired those "bad habits" so much emphasized by modern coaches.

The possibility that those supposed negatives are in fact major positives seems not to have reached the corridors of U.S. Soccer. It needs to be introduced there. It needs to be embraced, welcomed, but on its own terms. It is not there to be pulped into a slightly Hispanic version of college soccer. It is there to enrich the American game.

My vote, or fractions thereof, goes to anyone willing to take on the forces -- whoever and wherever they may be -- that are blocking that enrichment. Half a vote to Kyle Martino, a quarter-vote to Hope Solo ... and I shall withhold for the unlikely last-minute conversion of another candidate.

6 comments about "Finding a way to make a meaningful vote".
  1. Evan Fiffles, February 9, 2018 at 8:57 a.m.

    In regards to the Gonzalez situation, I don't think you can dismiss the fact that both his parents are from Mexico (correct me if I'm wrong). I would think throughout his upbringing they instilled in him a great pride in his ancestral country like many Americans do.

  2. Frank Copple, February 9, 2018 at 9:09 a.m.

    Why not play for Mexico? It is obvious the supposed leader of this country and his party are racists and do not like people South of our border. I personally feel he made the right choice. He will grow and most likely end up in Europe where he will be welcomed with open arms. 

  3. Right Winger, February 9, 2018 at 10:16 a.m.

    Racist?  Give me a break. German, Italian, Irish, Polish, Hispanic  whatever.  Our soccer coaching at the DA level cannot identify talent.  There are many kids of all ethnic backgrounds who have had great potential and were shunned by this organization.  In turn many of these players were then identified by foreign clubs as potentially good talent and are playing there and being developed as we speak.  Our coaches couldn't see it because as Sigi Schmid said in one of
    his comments I look at a player as to what can he do for me now.  I can understand that view at the professional level but not at the developmental level and at the National Team Level in the younger age groups.  These coaches are not interested in development they are interested in instant wins.  There are kids named to these teams and travel with these teams who hardly ever or even never get a chance to play in the competition they have been identified as being capable of playing.

    Its unfortunate that the Gonzalez kid was by passed but there are many with great talent who are by passed but they don't stand out because they don't have an Hispanic name.  I don't blame this kid for playing in Mexico.  From a soccer playing standpoint he is better playing in Mexico than with the MLS.  I would bet a dollar to a donut that whatever we would have done to keep this kid he would have ended up in Mexico.

    We need to find a way to identify the top talent regardless of what nationality they are.  Period.  Over all these years with all the kids we have playing soccer in this country we have only been able to identify a few based on the numbers available to us.  US soccer is a political football and has been for years.  Until we get over this we are going to keep on getting what we have been getting.

    Concerning opportunities for Hispanics go to the DA's for LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes and the Houston Dynamo and tell me how many Hispanic coaches and players there are in their DA's.  Everything that goes wrong for minorities can't be attributed to racism.  We have a problem with identifying talent in this country at the youth level and until we get that corrected we will have what we have right now.  The failure to put the best players out there.

  4. Frank Copple, February 9, 2018 at 10:50 a.m.

    Yes, racist. Why build a wall? After the 1984 World Cup I wrote all kinds of businesses, sports groups, etc suggesting a soccer league in our Southern tier of States from CA to FL using mostly Latino players rather than the gas beens from Europe. 
    I received a response from Augie Busch, Budweiser and Ted Turnrr, TBS. Augie told me how much that they as a company were already promoting soccer around St Louis. Ted told me that soccer would never be a major sport until TV could control it as they have other major sports with all the time outs.
    Still today there is very little promotion of soccer in the Southern States. The good change is that MLS is bringing more Latin players into the game.
    yes, we need to recognize talent but we also need to promote soccer in every available space throughout our country. 

  5. Right Winger replied, February 9, 2018 at 11:51 a.m.

    Frank, why build a wall.  Frank do you have doors on your house?  I hope so.  Do you lock them?  You should.  Should we do everything to protect this country?  I believe so.  When you have a forest fire where do you send the fire fighters?

    Concerning promoting soccer in the Southern States.  Tell me what Southern States don't have an activie youth soccer program?  As for promoting to the extent of having a professional soccer.  You can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink.  It will be a long time before soccer gets the interest in this country as it does in the rest of the world.  We can all wish but I don't think so.  Quit the racist crap I and many others are tired of hearing it.

  6. Michael Bothne, February 9, 2018 at 11:48 a.m.

    I choose to comment on the article rather than the politics some have infused into this conversation.  I am not a great coach nor a tremendous judge of talent but I have worked with club (youth) soccer in my part of the country for over 20 years.  In this part of the country (the mid-south) we have tried to come up with ways to fuse both our pay-to-play culture with the hispanic play-for-the-joy-of-playing culture.  Obviously, we have yet to find a working solution to bridge the gap.  I now work with goal keepers in our local high school and also am there to open up our fields for a couple of hours each week for pick-up games for those that just want to play the game.  Our hispanic students are there on those days religiously while the players who grew up paying to play find it hard to see the value of playing for the fun of it.  During these games you can see varying amounts of talent but more than that you can watch these kids trying to learn and grow at every opportunity.  
    My point would be this...there is tremendous untapped talent in the hispanic community and it will continue to stay untapped and unnoticed until we can find that bridge that will fuse the two cultures.  And if we can't find that bridge, if we can't make that bridge, if we can't see that bridge then we will be doomed to continue to play along the River of Mediocrity that we seemed to have stopped by.
    BTW, Paul Gardner, one of the best editorials I have read from you in a long time.  Thank you.

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