Commentary

Fiasco in Brazil: U.S. Soccer must take most of the blame for the U-17 failure

The sorry story of the USA’s drubbing at the Under-17 World Cup currently being played in Brazil defies any sensible explanation. The nonsense starts with the appointment of the Swiss Raphael Wicky as the coach. Apart from the fact that he was willing -- eager, maybe -- to move to Chicago, what other talent did he have for this particular job? Absolutely none that I can discern.

Which shifts a lot of the blame from Wicky over to the people who appointed him. U.S. Soccer’s brain trust in Chicago. What on earth were they thinking? One is forced to the opinion that they didn’t do any thinking at all, or at least any soccer thinking. Bringing in a foreign coach with minimal experience of the American game, a coach who could not possibly know much, if anything, about the players who already made up the pool? A coach who was supposed to bed in quickly (he had seven months) and ... well, and what?

What did these non-thinking super-experts in Chicago expect Wicky to do? Win the U-17 World Cup? I fear they may have been thinking something like that. The recent history of the U.S. U-17, U-20, Olympic and senior teams has been heavily embroidered with fanciful claims of victory -- claims that persist even though the reality of the results repeatedly tells a much less ambitious tale.

The irony is that this time, with this group of boys, there indeed was more solid ground for optimism. That was based on the fact that there was, for the first time, a core of players (seven of them) who had first-team experience with MLS clubs.

The optimists need a reminder: the USA is not, is never, the only country whose youth teams improve. For World Cup assessment, any U.S. improvement must be measured not against previous U.S. teams, but against likely current opponents. How much better than they used to be are, say, Japan or Korea, Nigeria or Senegal?

Yes, Senegal, who tromped all over the USA in the opening game.

It was obvious, painfully obvious, that the USA was not ready for the Senegalese. Going ahead 1-0 after just three minutes evidently kindled notions of U.S. superiority. Notions that were soon shattered as Senegal turned up the intensity. The USA seemed never to get out of first gear, as the lively Senegalese were zooming past them all over the field. The USA failed to respond, continued to play as though it was preordained that they would win comfortably.

Instead, looking increasingly bewildered and inept, it lost 4-1. What on earth was the problem? I’ve seen quite a few U.S. teams, at various age levels, lose games. But not like this, not looking like a team apparently unable to rise to a challenge.

Next up was Japan. Whose level of play has increased considerably over the past decade -- they are now Asian champions. The problem for the USA -- playing with an already large adverse goal difference -- was to make sure they didn’t lose. A loss would almost certainly spell elimination.

Two ways then: take it to the Japanese (the USA, surely, had the talent to do that, didn’t it?), or play a defensive game and be satisfied with a 0-0 tie (but hoping all the while for a breakaway goal and a 1-0 win). Wicky chose caution, with the USA pulling everyone back whenever Japan had the ball. An unappetizing approach that worked in that it got the 0-0 tie and the USA at least played cohesively. Yet ... they didn’t look too comfortable doing it. Rightly so. Youth soccer, if it has a character of its own, is an attack-minded sport, a lively sport full of flamboyance and risk-taking. Open, unpredictable, exciting soccer ... before the seriousness and the responsibilities of the pro game and pro coaching have taken over. That is not what we got from the USA whose play now took on a rather mechanical, robotic look, in which avoiding errors took precedence.

So, a win against the Netherlands in the final group game would be necessary. That looked within reach, given that the Dutch had lost its first two games, giving up six goals and looking close to apathetic.

Both teams needed the win, but it was the Dutch who took off and played an inspired game. Once again, as in the first game, the USA never seemed able to raise its game. Defeat was inevitable, ignominious. The 4-0 scoreline could have been worse.

Who to blame? The coach, for a start, of course. It was Wicky’s job first to instill confidence, then to raise spirits when things weren’t going well. Yet the USA looked ludicrously overconfident against Senegal in its first game, competent but unimaginative against Japan, and finally -- and woefully -- thoroughly dispirited against the Netherlands.

But not all the blame lands on Wicky. There were players on the U.S. team who played poorly -- certainly below the level to be expected from national team players. Wicky can be blamed for some of these failures -- after all, the players were his choices, and he persisted with one or two who should surely have been dropped.

I do not, for one moment, believe that this poor performance in Brazil reflects the truth about American youth soccer. The players are better than they looked.

The lion’s share of the blame belongs back in Chicago where the big decisions are made. But before anything sensible can be done by the Federation, it has first to recognize its errors and failings. There is no sign that is happening. We can take the recent disgrace of the Youth Task Force: Sixty people named to the task force, and not one of them a Latino male. Quite aside from this being a soccer outrage, it is also a resounding slur on the very large Hispanic soccer community. It calls for a public apology. The man who should make that apology, Federation President Carlos Cordeiro, has not been heard from. I think it fair to infer that he simply doesn’t care.

With that sort of leadership, the Federation will remain a sick body, out of touch with the soccer realities of the youth game, unresponsive to the changes that need to be made, unaware of its own considerable imperfections, and far too interested in hiring foreigners when the USA -- for the first time in its history -- is alive with a variety of young soccer talent that deserves to be encouraged, not ignored. The sport needs a Federation that gives it dynamic, intelligent leadership. It has got a Federation that is falling asleep on the sideline.

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A final word or two on the matter of spirited play. We have seen a magnificent example in the U-17 World Cup. Give a thought to the guys from the Solomon Islands. First game: a 5-0 loss to Italy. Second game: a 7-0 loss to Paraguay. In their third and, obviously, last game, they ran into Mexico, who needed a big win. But the Islanders never gave up, running and challenging and trying to play soccer. Quite good soccer, at times. The very last kick of the game saw the Islanders on the attack, with a free kick 25 yards out from the Mexican goal. The ball went straight to the Mexican keeper. And that was that. The Islanders had given everything in a cause that they knew was futile even before the game began.

There’s probably no award for that sort of unquenchable spirit. Maybe there should be. It was exciting and uplifting to behold.

23 comments about "Fiasco in Brazil: U.S. Soccer must take most of the blame for the U-17 failure".
  1. Ginger Peeler, November 6, 2019 at 10:02 a.m.

    Sounds as if the Solomon Islands guys played with the same spirit our United States guys did for years and years. Do you remember watching Donovan and Beasley in their first World Cup? They were kids and they played with heart! They did their best!  They didn't know any better. I should think this latest team, under Wicky, was uncomfortable being held back from playing a win/lose game; instead being instructed to play for a draw and hope to sneak in a lucky goal. They're under 17s, they've been playing the best they know how to for years looking toward this opportunity to play for the national team. And then, instead of putting it all out on the field, they have to play conservatively? No wonder it was a disaster. 

  2. Ginger Peeler, November 6, 2019 at 10:09 a.m.

    Our soccer federation appears, from results so far, to be adept at choosing coaches who are not truly qualified for their specific teams. 

  3. Tom Mara replied, November 7, 2019 at 1:10 p.m.

    The problem is not the Federation's inability to select qualified youth coaches, but their utter failure to run the Federation. In my view, Jay and Greg need to be replaced. Both are simply not qualified. I recently read that Bruce Arena stated the USMNT needs to be run like a national team not a MLS team. My interpretation, is this was Bruce saying (nicely) that Greg is not up to the task. The Federation has systematically destoyed everything that Tab Ramos developed and successfully achieved during his 7-year with US Soccer. It is disgraceful that Tab was not interviewed for the senior team coaching position. The recent U-17 performance clearly pointed to a general lack of coaching leadership. I found it difficult to watch the games. 

  4. frank schoon, November 6, 2019 at 10:27 a.m.

    Good article by Paul, on somethings I agree and some I disagree. First of all the quote 
    <"  Youth soccer, if it has a character of its own, is an attack-minded sport, a lively sport of flamboyance and risk-taking. Open, unpredictable,exciting soccer...before the seriousness and responsibilities of the pro-game and pro-coaching  have taken over">

    Let that sink in for that is what YOUTH soccer SHOULD be all about. This quote represent what street/pickup soccer is all about. The pickup soccer stage is where the youth acquires the "ATTACK- MINDEDNESS, FLAMBOYANCE, RISK-TAKING,the JOY, LEADERSHIP QUALITIES elements of the game. The problem is that our youth miss the Pickup stage and face the consequences , which is they are immediately introduced to the worse element of a youth's natural development COACHES!!! Coaches are a controlling element and therefore interrupt the beautiful, natural flow of a youth's development. The pickup stage is where coaches should be a factor but unfortunately they are TOO MUCH SO. This all fits in with Paul's statement of our players look ROBOTIC AND MECHANICAL or rather to me THE PLAYERS LACK INDIVIDUALITY.
    Cruyff when he became coach of Ajax had great talented youth players like Van Basten, Frank Rykaard (future Barcelona coach), Ronald Koeman( future Barcelona player/asst coach), Vanenburg,etc. He stated, "You all have great skills, but now I'm going to teach how to play soccer". (Of course, all were already good soccer players).The first step is to make their skills functional as related to situation and flow of the game , and next how to look at the game. In other words, Cruyff brought a "CONTROLLING" element to their game, but that is much further down the road. Our youth are faced with the Controlling aspect the moment they join a club.  NEXT POST...

  5. John Bauman replied, November 7, 2019 at 5:26 p.m.

    There was no discriminartion here as alleged. This was a really good article about the failure of the US to field a US team right up to the sentences that follow.
    "Sixty people named to the task force, and not one of them a Latino male. Quite aside from this being a soccer outrage, it is also a resounding slur on the very large Hispanic soccer community."  
    This failure has nothing to do with the presence or non-presence of Americans with a Latino background!  There was no discriminartion here, just incompetence, the basis of the article.  
    Alegeing discrimination does nothing but put the article into the realm of everyday politics and becomes a real turnoff.

  6. Kevin Leahy, November 6, 2019 at 10:36 a.m.

    The evidence continues to pile up that, this federation is so disfunctional on all levels it is sickening.

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, November 6, 2019 at 4:58 p.m.

    USSF is concerned with protecting the vested business interests of professional soccer and of pay to play amateur soccer.

    Where are the amateur athletes that are supposed to be voting members of the USSF board?

  8. Erik Peters, November 6, 2019 at 10:37 a.m.

    I hope this article helps pressure US Soccer to change significantly.  I do disagree with the statement, "far too interested in hiring foreigners", as much of the experience coaching is in countries playing intelligent, possession to score soccer.  Plus, bias against anybody is not good for any reason.

  9. Wallace Wade, November 6, 2019 at 11:03 a.m.

    The Swiss are known Worldwide for producing the finest football Coaches in the World....Oh wait that's watches. Still NOTHING will change 

  10. R2 Dad replied, November 6, 2019 at 12:07 p.m.

    In defense of the Swiss, their tiny country lists the 12th best league in UEFA, their men's team is ranked 13th in the world (USA is 23rd), they are 1 point off the top of the table with a game in hand for the 2020 Euros, and their roster has about half a dozen world class players. For a country with less than 3% of our population, I don't believe we have any standing to criticize Swiss coaches/players/teams. They are punching above their weight. 

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, November 6, 2019 at 5:06 p.m.

    Well, the Swiss have foreign-born head coaches, a Dane for the women and an Eastern European for the men.  

  12. frank schoon, November 6, 2019 at 11:10 a.m.

    I read from time to time  criticism like , Wickey is a foreign coach who lacks the knowledge of our American game/and players. This is such a crock.  Bob Gansler stated the same criticism. Bob Gansler, flunked a personal friend of mine,a  well-known professional player in Greece and in soccer circles here, a great player, for his A-license. Gansler flunked him because he couldn't name certain muscles on the anatomy part of his test. It was a loss to him but also a loss to the youth who could have been taught the game by a great player. This happened similarly to Teofilas Cubillas, a world great,  who only went for his B-license, flunked by no other than Anson Dorrance and his boys...

    One might disagree on Wickey's tactical decision-making, so what, but lacking knowledge of the American game...Really? He no doubt has assistants who know the players and that's why there were  10-14 players with professional experience. In other words, they all knew who to pick from the player pool for the NT. There are no secrets, like maybe they overlooked the son of "BIGFOOT" domicile in the California mountains...

    The problem is not the coaching, but development of the players, like our DA programs or more aptly put the DOA programs for they certainly haven't learned anything...There 5 aspects that need SERIOUS improvement which is evident in all our teams at all levels from the NT on down.
    One, our players are unable to operate well in SMALL SPACES which is due our lack technical dexerity. Two, we don't know how to POSSESS the ball well. Three, lack of good of POSITIONING off the ball allowing for the quick ball movement and Four, we rather RUN with the ball than allowing the ball do the running and Five, the lack of good ONE ON ONE DRIBBLING SKILLS...just for starters. OH, here is another one, we have difficulty stringing 3passes together....

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, November 6, 2019 at 5:12 p.m.

    Frank, when none of the players have proficiency in the fundamentals, coaching is the likely culprit. To be fair Wicky had insignificant time with the players to overcome 6 wasted years of development. 

    To my eye the players were stronger in fundamentals than many of the senior players. That, however, is not comparing them to players developed in other countries.

  14. Santiago 1314 replied, November 7, 2019 at 4:16 p.m.

    It was Bill Killen, Not Anson that pulled that NO BRAINER on Cubillas and others at that Liscense

  15. frank schoon replied, November 7, 2019 at 6:31 p.m.

    Santiago, Anson Dorrance ran the show. Paul Gardner wrote a real funny story about this whole thing back in the 80's. I saved it somewhere but it was a classic, one of the most funny articles ever written by him....He didn't spare Anson Dorrance....

  16. cony konstin, November 6, 2019 at 12:02 p.m.

    We need a soccer Revolution in the USA. We need 600,000 futsal courts so kids can play king of the court, 24/7/365, for free and no adult interference. We need a Rucker’s Park soccer environment. We need to create Courts of Dreams. You build them. They will come

    https://youtu.be/M7JBcu0MzvI

  17. Hat Trick, November 6, 2019 at 12:05 p.m.

    The problem with US Soccer has been stated over and over and over.  The problem is US Soccer.

    You can blame Wicky for a lot of things but as Paul said he knew nothing of the team and stepped into a political quagmire of taking the other coaches word for who should be on the team.  The other coaches, nurtured and chosen by US Soccer is also a big part of the problem.  

    It was mentioned Wicky didn't know the American game.  I wish someone would identify what the American Soccer game is.   If it wasn't for the kids being left in the wake of this mess it would almost be humorous. 

  18. R2 Dad, November 6, 2019 at 12:23 p.m.

    If USSF is unable to define what constitutes attractive, attacking soccer (and the philosophy & players required to implement that), we are hosed. The alternative is counterattacking kickball, which is our history and a well-worn path. If we are stuck inbetween, we are neither. We LOOK like neither at the moment. Vacillating between the two opposites is just chaos. In a perfect world the Nats can pull tactics from the two with equal success, depending on the opponent--winning more than just 1 way is the sign of a mature program. Spain FA/Spanish clubs would seem to define best practices--why must USSF reinvent their own square wheel? The USSF is like a closet alcoholic, unable to help themselves but unable to get or receive help.

  19. James Madison, November 6, 2019 at 11:37 p.m.

    Someone should tell SoccerHouse about modern communications. My adult son works for the Cook County Health Department. Three weeks a month he operates out of my house in Menlo Park, CA.  One week a month he's face to face with his team in Chicago.  And it works!!  Computers, baby, and thinks like phones, conference calls, Facetime and Skype.

  20. frank schoon replied, November 7, 2019 at 8:48 a.m.

    James, don't give away the secrets...

  21. Hat Trick replied, November 7, 2019 at 11:06 p.m.

    Any openings there.

  22. Philip Carragher, November 7, 2019 at 10:27 a.m.

    Paul hits the bulls-eye with his assessment of the Federation. Too bad "assessment" as a skill is either extremely elusive and impossible to teach in the microcosm of US Soccer or it isn't questioned enough. Paul questions US Soccer's continual return to a state of misplaced optimism based on faulty assessments as it pertains to the NTs' international competitiveness and adds to that the belief that with better coaching of our present talent we'd do better. He's correct. We do have plenty of work to do at the most fundamental stages of player development, but I've been around enough bad coaching decisions at the DA and college level (who should play where, who to send to the national team, poorly designed practice sessions, college recommendations, wins before health), bad decisions based on faulty assessments, that I believe the most insidious of our problems is an inability to assess well or to at least head in a direction based on good assessments. Or is this just one big in-your-face scam? We've certainly signaled to the international soccer community our willingness to throw money at a mediocre-product at best (travel soccer); they've recognized that and have now provided avenues for soccer parents to throw even more money at their kids's soccer by sending them overseas to try to make a foreign club. Bad assessments everywhere and resources wasted.

  23. Hat Trick, November 7, 2019 at 11:28 p.m.

    Paul noted that we had great optimism with this group because we had a core of players who had a history of first team MLS experience.  I watched all three games that we played.  2 of them twice and not once did I see a player on our team who could move with ball well enough into open space attracting attracting two or more defensive players to create opportunities.  Did not see one player who could accurately pass the ball on the run or receive a high velocity pass while on the run and control it.  

    Direct appears to to be our game and when you can’t do those things you are dead in the water. Just like MLS.

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