clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Will the General Manager position for the US Men’s National Team fix anything?

New, comments

What will fix the United States Men’s National Team? Nothing? Or everything?

MLS: MLS Commissioner Don Garber Press Conference Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The rumors are spreading that Earnie Stewart, General Manager of the surging Philadelphia Union, is in line for the new USMNT GM position.

In recent days, soccer fans have been treated to devastating or milquetoast exposes (depending on your point of view and reading comprehension) of “what went wrong” as the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying campaign came to an embarrassing end against Trinidad & Tobago.

It’s definitely dark times for US Soccer as a whole. Or is it?

In an effort to fix things, Sunil Gulati, President of the United States Soccer Federation, was (essentially) ousted, making room for Carlos Cordeiro and the winds of change. In order to address longstanding systemic issues with the United States soccer system, a new General Manager position was proposed with the power to... well... suggest some head coach names for the higher ups to interview and fulfill other tasks to be decided later. Anyway, there’s a lot of uncertainty, but someone is reportedly going to take the job, Earnie Stewart, a decent enough guy who has overseen an up and down project in Philadelphia but has plenty of love and experience for the USMNT.

But is it going to work?

I’m an occasional soccer blogger. I coach youth soccer. I watch soccer and probably have bad opinions. I have won a bunch of games in Football Manager 2016. All of this makes my take on the USMNT somewhere greater than the expertise of Matt Doyle and below BigD analyst Jason Poon, but nonetheless, I lay out my lingering concerns for the future of the entire United States Soccer Federation.

Issue One: The US is too big for a top down massive overhaul. What’s plan B?

I’ve coached soccer on the youth level for my son and his ruthless band of U10s for three years. Coaching is hard and fun. I am grateful to be a mentor and watch some youngsters grow and learn to love the beautiful game.

In the three years I’ve been coaching, I’m amazed in my sprawling stomping ground of the DC suburbs how immense and complicated the various options are for youth. There are recreational programs, like the Greenbelt Soccer Alliance in which I participate, with a philosophy to encourage kids to come to love the game and have fun above all else. More competitive programs offer other youngsters a focus on tactics and skill development with league tables and artificial surfaces and VAR (just kidding). Binding them all together are local and regional youth competitions with different divisions and schedules. It’s all pretty confusing... and awesome.

I hear a common refrain that the entire United States soccer system needs to be reformed from the top down, but even in my neck of the woods, with so many volunteer run organizations who are connected and disconnected at various levels, some of whom don’t have a lot of care or concern about the US Soccer Federation, that seems an impossible task. How exactly do you reform organizations that are maintained by bands of diligent parents and soccer-loving volunteers? How do you shape and transform them into some kind of cohesive whole?

Part of the problem in the US is that we are a vast and huge country with lots of different kinds of environments. There are so many associations and egos to deal with. How do you bring all of that into alignment without losing a bunch of people or going backwards?

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a strategy that would move us forward. Continue to simplify and make soccer education and licensing reasonable and accessible. Support the development of partnerships with city, county, and state organizations. Get MLS academies and USL rosters to expand and provide more opportunities for youngsters. Fine. But check your expectations - change is going to continue to be slow-going even with a GM in place over the whole system.

I (and no doubt lots of others) are curious how Earnie Stewart will approach this immense problem.

Issue Two: The US needs to rid itself of the One Magical Thing syndrome.

United States fans are enculturated, through drafts and sports lore, to believe in the Great One. We love to hype the next big phenom. I’m old enough to remember Freddy Adu. I’m also old enough to remember Christian Pulisic.

Yes, some of these youngsters are legit possibilities and stars right now. Christian is a fun player to watch, but he’s also young and has a lot of soccer and growth ahead of him. We have every right to be stoked for Weston McKinnie, Kellyn Acosta and Reggie Cannon. There are youngsters coming up that hold serious promise, domestically and abroad.

Likewise, I’m also old enough to remember those days of old when some American fans bandied about the name of Jurgen Klinsmann as the singular coach with the experience and German ingenuity to lead the program to the top. How did that all work out? Jurgen had a pretty solid run as USMNT head coach, deepening the player pool, challenging the trajectories of some players who went abroad, and getting some big results that have eluded the US, but he also revealed the complexities and challenges the system faces.

For too long, United States soccer fans have looked for one coach or one player to help solve all of the problems. There is no one quick fix. There is no one magical player or strategy that will transform the United States Men’s National Team. It will take a bunch of players who compete, grind, and express themselves with joy. It will take coaches and technical staff who look at the big picture, build relationships, and try new things. It will take lots more MLS players going to Europe to compete and move out of their comfort zone. It will take expenditures on youth coaching and development.

And even then, it may not work.

Are we okay with that? Because we need to be okay with that.

Issue Three: European-based players (for now) are the future.

I love Major League Soccer. I watch it primarily. I don’t have a European team and only occasionally catch an EPL or Championship game on ESPN+. The play across the pond can seem defensive-minded and boring.

In my opinion (and in today’s super hot take), MLS is more entertaining than any European league.

But I have to admit that American players who go play and compete in the congested, highly competitive European leagues are going to do better in the long run. They have the potential of becoming better players. MLS is going to get better too, especially with more young prospects coming in to push domestic players, but Jurgen Klinsmann, for all of the ways he has been made a scapegoat, was right about this point.

The best American players should look for every possible route to test themselves, go into uncomfortable situations, and grow.

This simply reinforces all of the points I have labored dramatically to make - there is no one fix to the problem that US soccer faces. I think we fans, as much as we want our domestic league to produce the lion share of national team regulars, need to accept the fact that Europe is still where it is. Let’s get over it and stop complaining when a second division European-based player gets the call up over a 28 year old MLS-based striker who just figured out how to put the ball in the back of the net.

Issue Four: Solve the xenophobia.

One lingering issue that runs through both articles above is an unhealthy sense of xenophobia for those “foreign outsiders” in the USMNT’s fold. Jurgen Klinsmann did one thing right - he deepened the player pool. He brought in American eligible players that gave the US more options all across the field.

These players were not the “One Magical Thing” that some fans hoped for. They were pro soccer players, good with the right coaching in the right tactics, eager to help out a growing US national team. They may not have been Midwestern born, apple pie Americans (hint: such a person does not exist), but they were American and good soccer players. Why then was there hate? Why was there division? Did they move to the front of the line of other hard-working mediocre Americans? Did they steal someone else’s jobs?

I’ll let you be the judge - but did some of these guys get a fair shake? No.

Were some of these guys outed as part of the problem? Yes.

Could this be the same kind of element that led to the state of our current shameful national politics? My friend and fellow writer, Ben Lyon, has something to say about that.

Reversing the attitude and culture of the USMNT locker room may mean addressing these lingering concerns about who does and does not belong and making clear - if you are called up, you belong, no matter where you were born, the color of your skin, or the language you speak. I know domestic players may feel like Major League Soccer doesn’t get a fair shake against European-based players, but changing this attitude may be the most important task of the next head coach.

Issue Five: The sky isn’t falling.

Finally, this simple point - the USMNT isn’t a complete failure. Despite the systemic disaster, low morale, bad decisions, Bruce Arenas, poor tactics, and massive letdown, there are plenty of players and potential to dominate the region in years to come. There are young and old who are able to step in, and in the right setup, get the US back on track. It’s time to let Earnie pick the right coach for the future, and that right coach is probably named Oscar Pareja.

But in the meanwhile, despite missing out on the World Cup and all the gnashing of teeth and unrestrained weeping, Major League Soccer continues to grow and expand. People, not just journalists, are talking about the sport. The USL is emerging as a legitimate second division. Youngsters are opting to go abroad first. This is an exciting time even if the disappointment and disaster of Bruce Arena’s short tenure lingers in our mouth.

Will we have a USMNT GM who is going to make the necessary changes but also encourage us? Will we have a leader who reminds the US that all is not lost? Will our GM be real to us and at the same time comfort our broken hearts so that, even in this hour of darkness, we discover afresh that “joy comes in the morning”?

  • What did I get wrong? Tell me.
  • What are your lingering questions/issues for US Soccer?