Which, for most of those 100 years, was just fine. But it’s anything but fine today. Over the past three decades a massive change has come about in the ethnic composition of the American population. Hispanics are now the largest minority group in the country. A large proportion of the Hispanics are soccer-oriented, and they, of course, play the Latin way.
That short paragraph ought to be followed by one describing how traditional American soccer has welcomed the arrival of tens of thousands of soccer fans and players -- a quite extraordinary windfall for a country still working hard to build up soccer’s popularity in this country.
Well, there is no such paragraph. Because the American “welcome” has been either non-existent or tepid. This has to be one of the all-time great sporting blunders, a really colossal collapse of common sense. So complete has been the silence from soccer’s leaders, that one can legitimately ask what ought to be a fatuous question: have these guys even noticed what is going on?
But the question is not fatuous. For decades now I have been trying to strike up conversations on the topic with scores of these so-called leaders. Frankly, a waste of time. The replies have ranged from frivolous to hostile, taking in genuine puzzlement, but virtually always they have been uninformed and/or evasive.
And it does not get any better. My colleague Mike Woitalla, in a series of interviews on this website, has been asking a bunch of top soccer guys about the development of a U.S. style, and has managed to bring up the matter of the Hispanic players.
Of particular interest was Woitalla’s session with two of U.S. Soccer’s topmost coaching guys -- Nico Romeijn (Chief Sport Development Officer) and Ryan Mooney (Chief Soccer Officer). On the subject of Hispanic players Mooney’s answers were an absolute disgrace. Asked about the number of Hispanics holding A, B, or C licenses, Mooney replied: “At the moment we don’t have demographic information in the DCC (Digital Coaching Center), so we’re not able to tell you.”
Not bad, scoring about a 9 on the slippery-evasion scale, I’d say. Mooney cannot address the matter because his computer can’t help him. Apparently, Mooney has no personal experience of anything Hispanic, so he cannot speak from his own experience. Not quite true -- he has seen enough for him to drop a sledge-hammer hint that the lack of Hispanics is their own fault. Of course -- exactly as has been the case for decades (he doesn’t know this?) -- he has trouble using the word “Hispanic” -- he talks instead of trying to recruit coaching instructors from a “more diverse applicant pool” -- where, it seems, “we have found, many times, very unfortunately, that the interest is not there ...”
I wonder -- has it ever entered Mooney’s mind that what the U.S. coaching schemes offer might genuinely not appeal to those who like Latin American soccer? Doubtful. That would involve Mooney and Romeijn in the many subtleties that distinguish the Latin American game from the European.
If there’s one thing that jumps off the page when both Romeijn (who is Dutch) and Mooney speak, it is self-satisfaction. Romeijn admits, “We acknowledge there are different ways of teaching,” which is big of him, while also proclaiming that, “We are confident that we are doing it the right way.” Self-satisfaction becomes smugness.
No doubt, Mooney and Romeijn would like an almost hilariously diverse army of coaching instructors. They’d all be teaching the same thing, though?
Well, no. Because Romeijn makes it clear that what they’re after is uniformity of teaching technique. Without getting into pedagogic technicalities, I think that translates into this: these Federation-licensed coaches must be above all top-rate teachers. Super experts at getting their message into their pupil’s brain, at making their sessions understandable, etc., etc.
Certainly commendable. Probably we’ve all suffered under teachers who made an hour’s class seem like a year. Anything to avoid that is obviously a good thing. Romeijn’s interest seems to end there. Neither he nor Mooney show much interest in what these coaches are teaching -- interest in the strictly soccer part, that is.
Romeijn repeatedly emphasizes the importance of getting the “development environment” right, “but the style, what they teach, that’s up to them.” Mooney also denies any intention to insist that players always play in “a certain way”. It is, he says, “Far more a process of guided discovery ...”
And what do coaches discover when they’re guided by instructors who know little of Latin soccer?
Enough. It is clear that the entire Federation coaching scheme is in the hands of people who, while not necessarily hostile to Latin soccer, really can’t be bothered with it.
The huge, and growing, reservoir of Hispanic coaches and players is being slighted. They can join in if they agree to Europeanize their thinking. That is probably seen, by the Federation, as the ideal, an Americanization program.
Are things now suddenly to get better under new President Carlos Cordeiro? Oh no, there’s little hope of that. Cordeiro’s “open letter” to the youth soccer community last June, set up a five-man task force to look into five “critical issues.” The task force does not include a Hispanic, and the word Hispanic did not appear in the open letter. This time, from the very top, the U.S. Soccer president himself lets us know that he’s unaware of any Hispanic issue that needs to be addressed.
U.S. Soccer is badly at fault, but the situation is little better elsewhere in American soccer.
Look at the coaches, look at their massive annual convention, with its overwhelming presence of European guest coaches. Has there ever been, among the thousands of talks, lectures, clinics and discussions given there over the past three decades, even one devoted to “the Hispanic question”? Not that I’ve been aware of, and I’ve attended most of those events.
The colleges? How many Hispanic coaches or players do they have? College soccer, high on speed and hustle, is about as far removed from the Latin game as is imaginable.
MLS, with a greater international presence, does a bit better. But it has taken them nearly 20 years to arrive at today’s point, where key players are also key entertainers and are also largely Latin Americans -- think Higuain, Valeri, Lodeiro, Acosta, Piatti, Vela, Almiron, Maxi Moralez et al.
Precisely the sort of players that this country, with all its resources, its academies, its elaborate coaching courses and licenses, consistently fails to produce.
Yet, at a younger age, those players already exist here. In the youth ranks there are plenty of young Hispanics who are trying to learn to play that way. Who have Maradona and Messi and Neymar as their heroes and models.
Are they encouraged? They are not. The recent case of youngster Jonathan Gonzalez, now playing for Mexico rather than for the USA, exposed the slip-shod way that the Federation pursues young Latino players.
Yet when there is determination and real belief, the results can be outstanding. Some years back David Armstrong, an Englishman, son of Derek Armstrong of La Jolla Nomads fame, decided to recruit the best Latino kids he could find in the neighborhood. Of course, it wasn’t easy, but Armstrong persisted and formed an under-9 team, pretty much a 50-50 mix of these Latino kids with the traditional La Jolla white kids. The team won a couple of state championships, then -- in 2002 -- it won the U.S. U-14 national championship.
Armstrong insisted his team’s style was a mixture of English and South American soccer. I saw that team, a delight to watch, and I’m in no doubt that it was the Latin influence that made it different -- and successful. More recently, Tab Ramos produced a wonderful U-20 team in 2013. At the time, I lauded the team as “the best U.S. national team” I had ever seen: “All of the US players looked comfortable on the ball -- I have never seen that before. This was soccer con brio, with artistry as well as commitment, with skill and determination.”
Eight of that team’s field players were Latinos. Ramos later told me that he had not concentrated on choosing Latino players, but that “I wanted players who were not afraid of the ball.” So, the players he wanted, who could play the style he wanted, turned out to be predominantly Hispanic.
That team could have marked the arrival of style for US teams. It would have been, obviously, a Latin style. Well, why not? We have those players, if we care to use them, and they are the only ones who bring with them the elements of a style.
Ramos’ team did not do well in the subsequent U-20 World Cup. Hardly surprising in a group made up of France (the champions), Ghana (semifinalists) and Spain (quarterfinalists). That didn’t help. But the bigger misfortune was that Ramos fell under the influence of Jurgen Klinsmann. He never again had eight Hispanics in his starting lineup.
But the point had been made, it was there to see for anyone who wanted to see it. The incredibly obtuse nature of the American soccer establishment triumphed again: even though it could not come up with a style of its own, it was not about to accept the Latin style.
There could be many reasons for that stubbornness. They range from a simple inability to understand the situation, or not wanting to accept change, through a fear of “the Latinos” taking over, and on into much murkier areas.
Those reasons do not concern me. It is enough to know a) that there already exists in this country a growing community of players who have a definable style of playing, and b) that, for whatever reason, their contribution to the development of American soccer is being obstructed.
Would the Latinos “take over”? In one sense, yes. Their style is there, ready to be used. The other half of American soccer, the non-Latino half would have to adapt. But we know that can be done. Two of the most successful American players, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, both spent much of their youth playing on Hispanic teams.
The crucial thing is that American players learn -- are taught -- early that ball control, comfort with the ball, ease of movement on the field, is the quintessential starting point.
The Federation needs to set the example here. To do that it needs to embrace Hispanics. Not by making the occasional paternalistic gesture, but wholeheartedly, by making a serious commitment to ensuring that Hispanic coaches are a vital part of the coaching set up. While their approach to the game is being adopted, they should be the most important people around.
Is it possible to imagine anything like that happening with people like Romeijn and Mooney in charge? People so confident of their own importance that they cannot see that this country is quite literally wasting a huge bloc of its talent. They cannot even see the uniquely promising situation in this country, where both the Latino and the European styles are strongly represented, cannot see the exciting challenge that presents for working out a blend -- an American blend -- of the two.
But the U.S. coaching setup is permeated by European thinking, designed by people who have never faced, never thought about, how to accommodate two varying styles.
Am I saying that they should be creating a new style of play? No -- the style will not be new. Is it likely that, after about 150 years of worldwide soccer, a totally new style of playing will emerge? It is not. The USA has to take sides here -- European or Latin American. The choice should be made for the Latin American game, a choice that would immediately enfranchise the huge -- and growing -- numbers of Latino players and coaches.
Under those conditions, where Latino coaches would know that they could compete for truly influential jobs in the Federation, that their own talents were needed, that they were not being asked to become just another compliant part of a basically European setup, it is quite likely that the lack of interest noted by the Federation’s Ryan Mooney will disappear.
A decision to adopt a Latin style would demand new thinking right down the ladder of player development. New thinking, new personnel, and, finally, a recognizable style for the U.S. national teams.
Be it understood: style is not a merely cosmetic affectation. I refer back to Tab Ramos’s desire to find “players who are not afraid of the ball.” That is the nub of the matter. A whole team of players who want the ball, who can smoothly control it, pass it, dribble it, shoot it, head it.
Players who like nothing better than to have the ball at their feet -- which means that a style is already forming, it means those players will want the ball on the ground. From that come the skills of super-accurate short passing, of intricate close inter-passing ... and all the “airs and graces” that I mentioned at the beginning of Part 1 of this survey.
And since you ask, no, I have absolutely no faith whatever that the current U.S. Soccer coaching setup can perform the agonizing reappraisal that is necessary. It is quite possible that the necessary rethink will have to be forced upon them, something that would call for a more activist approach from the Hispanics themselves. The appearance of leaders from their own community to carry forward their struggle for the recognition of their futbol is long overdue.