For those of you who do not know my background, I was in the USA between 1978 and 1987 and in those years I played and refereed under the USSF. When I came back to the USA in early 2016, the national governing body’s name had long since been changed to U.S. Soccer and many things in soccer have changed for the better.
U.S. Soccer moved to Chicago – from Colorado Springs - , there are now a number of professional leagues – in 1987 we had none - MLS is very strong on the business side with a goal of expanding at least to 30 franchises, the number of registered players is around 4 million, the U.S. women's national team is the dominant WNT in the world and the list goes on.
What seemed still problematic is on the men’s and developmental side. The USMNT did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup and is ranked 22nd in FIFA rankings. To mention a few of our problems: Due to pay-to-play system, kids of underserved communities cannot be completely integrated into the system and the fragmented youth landscape have different approaches, ideas and objectives as far as the development of players are concerned. For a complete list of things that can be developed you can read some of my and other writers’ old articles. The unique applications that existed in our soccer system 30 years ago still exist although some have been phased out like the two-person officiating system. I believe these are partially engraved into our soccer system by the “American exceptionalism” approach. In order to understand what “American exceptionalism” is in general, one has not to forget that the USA is one of the three countries in the World that still predominantly uses the Imperial System of Measurement -- the other two countries are Liberia and Myanmar.
After a few months of moving to the USA, I met with an old friend from Germany who had been a prominent coach in the USA. We had coffee and at the end of an hour of chatting he told me: “You think like a European but things do not work here like in the old country.” I did not understand what he meant then. Later, I started writing for Soccer America with the perspective of a European. I recommended lots of changes and especially mandates to US Soccer for a better soccer system. I knew that countries that mandated changes and set standards across their soccer landscape had been successful. If you look at the success stories of Germany, France, Belgium and lately England, you will see well-designed, mandated and executed developmental plans. When the National Governing Body of soccer in any European country mandates a change or applies a standard it goes down to the grassroots without a hitch or opposition. Coming of this background, I thought same could be done here in the USA. After talking to a number prominent people, including some of the incumbents of U.S. Soccer administration as well as some former ones, I came to a realization that mandating anything – forget about soccer - by a centralized authority in our country is very difficult and meets immediate opposition and resentment if you do not do the necessary communication and stakeholder involvement in the process properly. Even that might not be adequate.
Let me a share an anecdote that opened my eyes to this reality. Player Development Initiative (PDI) is a mandate by U.S. Soccer and I believe it is one of the best projects for the development of soccer in our country along with the Developmental Academies (DA). Although I understand that it was not properly communicated and shared with the stakeholders, still the value it contributes to the pre U12 game is immeasurable. It was met with a great deal of opposition by various constituents of U.S. Soccer, including the change to a new global aging system.
About a year ago, I went to instruct/coach new young referees in a small city in Texas. The new referees were going to referee 7v7 games and I was going to coach them. In the 7v7 game, PDI mandates a “built out line” and build out lines should be equidistant between the penalty area line and halfway line. In this city’s 7v7 facilities, all built out lines were drawn a few yards from the penalty area. I told the person who was responsible for the referees in this city that these lines should be equidistant between the penalty area line and the halfway line, and that I was going remark them appropriately with cones. He said that they have decided in the city soccer association that they did not like the idea of having it equidistant and decided to have it a few yards from the penalty area. A small city association with very little soccer culture, experience and know-how has decided to by-pass part of a mandate by U.S. Soccer. I am sure that U.S. Soccer spent months researching to put down the details of the mandate. I did not ask him why they thought it was not a good idea to have the built out line equidistant, instead I told him that I represent U.S. Soccer and I will teach and coach as the PDI mandates and if they want they can use the built out line as it was drawn in their fields in their own city association games. The referee representative did not like my approach or answer as if I have violated his association’s basic rights of freedom.
This little incident taught me a lot and I started to think from a different perspective.
As I said earlier, the concept of the DA is another very valuable project by U.S. Soccer and it was an effort to create a parallel universe of development with proper global standards to the our fragmented youth soccer world. It started a strong competition for the USYSA and U.S. Club Soccer. Although it was not a mandate, it was a radical step taken by U.S. Soccer unilaterally. It met with resistance and is still being challenged. It is not a perfect system – no system is – but can be improved. I wrote a series of articles on the areas of improvement for the DAs and I learned recently that U.S. Soccer has decided to tier the U18-19 Boy’s DAs. That was one of my suggestions and I hope it is coupled with an opportunity to move between tiers through promotion/relegation so it creates a healthier competition platform for the teams. Otherwise, the DA system with two "arbitrary" groups will be rather controversial. Mike Woitalla, in an excellent article recently underlined the dangers of having a tiered system without a well-defined system of identifying the members of each group. Promotion/relegation is an ideal system for this task; since there is also an outcry for promotion/relegation in the soccer community. U.S. Soccer can take the lead in a league it organizes. If U.S. Soccer can mandate for the first tier to be free-to-play then it will be the icing on the cake. I also hope that the same tier approach with promotion/relegation is applied to lower age groups over time. I still think we need a pre-DA group with more relaxed standards.
The USL recently decided to have its own DA system with different standards than the US Soccer’s. This shows the success of the DA system since USL decided to create its own DA system. I am not even mentioning the new and successful players in our USMNT that come through the system. Still, there are many constituents of U.S. Soccer who do not like the DA system since it creates a very serious competition for them.
This is the first part of two part series: “Mandates and Beyond and a Self-Criticism.” In the first part, I tried to criticize myself for being such a strong advocate of mandates and national standards by U.S. Soccer without noticing the obstacles. Also I did not realize that our country was the most litigious country on the planet which makes U.S. Soccer’s implementation of mandates even more difficult. Although I now know that any mandate or national standard in soccer is very difficult to implement in our country, in the second part of the series, I will talk about two soccer-specific reasons for this difficulty. You cannot just blame it on the political infrastructure and biases of the country.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer 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 Georgetown, TX.