The problem with the U.S. men’s soccer team, authors Steven G. Mandis and Sarah Parsons Wolter strongly imply without saying directly, is not necessarily a lack of technical skill and tactical savvy. Instead, the team fails when it lacks the grit, determination and cohesion of a team like, say, the U.S. women.
It’s not an unsupported point. The failed 1998 World Cup effort is posited as a masterpiece of dysfunction, from the late addition of David Regis and departure of John Harkes to the decision to leave tall, intimidating defenders Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa on the bench while opponents merrily lofted the ball into the air.
And this is no polemic against the conventional wisdom of U.S. youth soccer in this century. It’s simply a balanced look at the state of soccer that sees value in hip development trends such as futsal but otherwise offers would-be reformists little reinforcement.
Promotion/relegation? Nope. The top European clubs have consolidated power and talent in pursuit of championships, not worried about the threat of relegation. Clubs that fear relegation favor short-term revenue streams over long-term investment.
“Pay for play” youth soccer? They don’t support it, per se, but they point out that, absent other benefactors, it has helped U.S. soccer develop. How else do you pay for everything? And how else would the women’s national team, to date the exclusive domain of players who moved from elite travel soccer to college soccer, have maintained any sort of talent pool? Besides, even in a country like Brazil, players at the earliest ages may pay to be in a club’s soccer “school” before the club brings the best of them into its academy.
Back to women’s soccer -- the authors note the existence of women’s soccer elsewhere in the world before the USA announced its presence with authority in the inaugural World Cup in 1991, but they demonstrate global support for the sport has been erratic, to say the least. In 2006, they point out, the USA had roughly half of the three million registered girls in youth soccer worldwide. (Even in 2014, the USA and Canada accounted for 47% of the world’s registered female players, according to a FIFA survey.) And even with those advantages, the USA’s losses in youth international play hint at the possibility that the rest of the world may overtake us.
How? It’s not said directly, but the answer may be found in their analysis finding that Spain became a strong basketball nation by doing things its own way, not by building a system of college and AAU feeders. Could there be any doubt that European nations are catching up in women’s soccer by doing things their way, not by imitating the U.S. system?
So why should the U.S. soccer community try to mimic Europe?
Instead, the USA’s recent failures can be chalked up not just to what we lack but also what we’ve lost. What we’ve lost is alternately called “grit” or “the Spirit of ‘76,” terms that sometimes pop up multiple times on the same page.
A lot of the great moments in U.S. men’s soccer history exemplify that spirit. Oguchi Onyewu staring down Mexico’s Jared Borgetti in one of the dos a cero World Cup qualifying wins in Columbus. Brian McBride shrugging off the plentiful blood on his face in the 2006 World Cup. Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan refusing to give up against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, combining on a late winner encapsulated forever in YouTube videos of fans losing their minds in sports bars across the country.
On the other hand, the U.S. men fail when that spirit breaks down. See 1998. Subsequent teams had large talent pools by necessity -- they note that Bruce Arena used 46 players in 2006 World Cup qualifying -- but the final 23 players were all familiar with each other from sharing plenty of playing fields at youth and senior level. When the U.S. men have failed, it’s because they lack what the U.S. women typically have -- a willingness to run through walls for each other.
The authors still perpetuate a few myths. Steve Sampson’s much-scorned 3-6-1 formation in the 1998 World Cup failed, we’re told once again, because it left Eric Wynalda battling three German defenders by himself. That would be true if we were playing by League One America rules that prevented players from leaving their assigned positions. In the real world, if three German defenders smothered Wynalda, someone else -- maybe Claudio Reyna, maybe Cobi Jones -- would be wide open.
And there’s a danger in drawing too many conclusions from a handful of games. Suppose any of the multitude of shots the USA clanged off the woodwork against Iran in 1998 had gone in and forced their opponents out of counterattacking mode? Suppose the referee had spotted John O’Brien’s handball in the 2002 World Cup and handed Mexico a penalty-kick lifeline? (Granted, Brad Friedel may well have saved it, given his form in that tournament.) Conversely, how different would women’s soccer be if the ref had penalized Briana Scurry for stepping several yards off her line before saving a penalty against China in 1999, or if England hadn’t been so unlucky (and poor at taking penalties) against the U.S. women in 2019?
But their arguments are difficult to dismiss out of hand. Mandis and Wolter are economists, and they dig into the numbers without fear of bogging down in the details. One example: In the 2002 World Cup, crosses, set pieces, counterattacking and goalkeeping were the difference-makers, not just for the USA.
They also have some reform ideas of their own. Perhaps the federation can reimburse coaching licensing costs for those who go to work in underserved areas or with the youngest players, sort of a Teach for America-style program. College soccer is worth supporting not so much because it will develop national team players, though it’s a valuable if shrinking pathway, but because it will develop future coaches and parents. See Christian Pulisic. Josh Sargent. Even Michael Bradley -- without college soccer, would Bob Bradley have ever been a coach and father of a prodigy?
And when it comes to “grit,” Mandis and Wolter can speak with some authority. Mandis has twice completed the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. Wolter made the U.S. women’s ice hockey team for the 2006 Olympics while still in high school, though a serious injury cut her career short.
The book is ultimately optimistic. The authors speak in glowing terms of the player development systems in France and Germany, where federation programs supplement the clubs’ academies. But if we can’t duplicate that, the U.S. men can still rebound with a fiery underdog spirit with which most Americans are born.
• What Happened to the USMNT: The Ugly Truth About the Beautiful Game by Steven G. Mandis & Sarah Parsons Wolter, 384 pages, Triumph Books. Hardcover $20.99. Kindle, $11.99.