What Must Change in U.S. Soccer

Feb 9 2018
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Mark Thorstenson/ISI Photos
Feb 9 2018

I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’ve been vocal. I’ve said my piece. But I’m not at peace. Not yet. By now, many reading this may know my feelings and opinions on why the U.S. won’t be in Russia this summer. Arrogance and complacency bred mediocrity. I’m not here to harp on that.

It’s hard for me to talk about what happened without feeling anger. It has been almost four months since we crashed out in Trinidad, and I can’t stop thinking about what needs to be changed at the heart of U.S. Soccer.

There are things that still stick with me from that night. The feeling of sitting helplessly on the bench, watching the final minutes tick down. The feeling of one of our communications guys telling us that Honduras and Panama had both won. The feeling of sitting in the dressing room after the match, and seeing Christian Pulisic, a kid who had given absolutely everything he had for his country, a kid who wanted so badly to go to his first World Cup, crying at his locker.

But what will stick with me for the rest of my life is how I felt sitting on the plane back home. I turned on my phone and all the texts from friends and teammates came through. That’s when it truly sank in that — holy s*** — we’re really not going to Russia this summer. We’re not going to be a part of it.

It was almost incomprehensible, you know? It was pure embarrassment and shame. It was the most depressing moment I’ve had in my entire career.

Everyone wanted to know how. How could we lose to Trinidad & Tobago with the World Cup on the line? But to me, the problems run deeper than just one game. Over the past year, U.S. Soccer has gone back in time. For too long, we have seen a revolving-door system. We saw the return of an old-school regime, one that may have worked a decade ago, but not now. Not anymore. One that did not adapt to a changing soccer culture. One that couldn’t lead a team – that despite what some may feel – had plenty of talent and depth. And this was a regime that certainly wasn’t equipped to lead us to the next level and the next phase in U.S. Soccer. After Jürgen Klinsmann was fired, and Bruce Arena took over, we got too comfortable. We lost our ambition and sense of progress. But more than anything, we lost any sense of competitiveness.

I had my differences with Jürgen over the years, but the one thing you cannot deny is that Jürgen and his staff brought a sense of true professional competitiveness and ambition to the national team. Under Jürgen, your spot was never guaranteed. Forget the nutrition programs, strict parameters on how the team engaged with media and social media and training sessions and all that stuff. He definitely cracked down and made progress in those areas, but the real difference was that Jürgen challenged guys to push themselves to the absolute limits. He encouraged them to go play abroad in the top leagues, even if they didn’t speak the language, or were going to have to scratch and claw to get minutes. That was the whole point, actually. He created a mindset of never letting yourself get too comfortable. He held us to a higher standard.

If you were 18 to 24 years old, and you were one of the best and brightest players in the United States of America, and you were still playing in MLS, Jürgen saw that as a wasted opportunity. Not just for yourself and your career, but also for your country.

And listen, I am one of the proudest Americans you will ever meet. I came up through the ranks of football in the most “American” way possible.

Youth soccer in Massachusetts.

Club soccer in Massachusetts.

Club soccer in Rhode Island.

The U.S. Olympic Development Program.

West Virginia University.

University of Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Stingrays of the USL

The Houston Dynamo of MLS.

Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

I wasn’t an academy kid. I worked construction with my dad in the summers to make money. I didn’t turn pro until I was 22, and I didn’t go overseas to play in the Premier League until I was 25. So maybe I’m not the guy you’d expect to be saying this, but it needs to be shouted from the mountaintops: The powers that be in U.S. Soccer have created a poisonous divide between the MLS players and the so-called “European” players, and until that culture is torn down, the USMNT will continue to slide backwards. With U.S. Soccer’s presidential election coming up this weekend, and the coaching vacancy yet to be filled, this issue needs to be addressed right now. It’s time to learn from our mistakes — as players, coaches and as an organization. It’s time to look forward and get to the heart of the matter.

Our best young players need to be playing in the top European leagues. Period. It shouldn’t be looked at as a negative thing. It should be a huge source of pride to send a 20-year-old American kid to play in the Bundesliga or the Premier League. Even better if they came up in MLS for a few years.

Why is it seen as a negative for America to “lose” a player who goes to play abroad? Brazilians don’t think this way when Neymar goes to Barcelona. The Dutch don’t think this way when their Ajax academy kids go to Chelsea or Bayern. Why don’t we go the other way entirely? U.S. Soccer should take out ads with pictures of all the players, past and present, who have made a huge impact on the world stage.

MADE IN AMERICA: Clint Dempsey at Fulham and Spurs

MADE IN AMERICA: Tim Howard at Manchester United and Everton

MADE IN AMERICA: Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund

Does anyone honestly think that Christian would be the player he is today if he had stayed in Hershey, Pennsylvania? He had to go. It’s an incredible thing that he’s in Germany right now. It’s the best thing for him. We need 50 more Pulisics playing in the Bundesliga and Serie A and the Eredivisie — even if some of them really struggle. Especially if they struggle.

Kellyn Acosta is a perfect example. He’s got the talent and the work ethic to make it abroad. In the next year or two, he needs to go. FC Dallas and MLS shouldn’t be salty about it. They should throw him a party and say, “Represent Texas over there, buddy. Give ’em hell.” And they should already be looking for the next Acosta to bring up through their ranks.

This is how it works in the rest of the world. Jürgen understood this. But for whatever reason, when you say stuff like this, certain folks in the U.S. Soccer establishment act like you’re trashing their system. In reality, it’s the exact opposite. It’s a celebration of the system. Nobody is more proud of having played in MLS than me. The Houston Dynamo launched my entire career. They got me to the Premier League.

Thank God I had a manager who was looking out for me, though. It could have easily gone another way. I’ll never forget what Dominic Kinnear did for me when he was coaching the Dynamo.

In 2009, David Moyes saw me play in the MLS All-Star Game against his Everton team, and he liked me. I knew there was a little bit of interest there. But the Dynamo wanted me to re-sign, and so I said to Dom, “Listen, I just want you to know up front that my dream is to play overseas. So if anyone comes in with real interest, please do whatever you can to help me.”

Dom said, “Give me two good years, and if anything comes in, you have my word that I’ll do whatever I can to make it happen.”

Two years later I was on a plane to go join Stoke City. Dom had kept his word and supported my dream. He sent a Mass kid who grew up framing houses with his dad — over to England to go mark Kun Agüero and Didier Drogba and Eden Hazard every weekend. He helped me get there. MLS helped me get there.

But at a certain point, you gotta go.

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Look, there are plenty of excellent players in MLS. It’s not just the level of “quality” that’s elevated overseas. It’s more than that. It’s a whole mentality. In the top leagues in Europe, it’s just … ruthless. And not just in training camp. Not just when you’re trying to impress a new manager.

Every. Single. Day.

It’s a grind, both mentally and physically, to keep earning your spot every weekend. You can’t even explain it until you’ve lived it. At Stoke, sometimes we have a few of the academy kids come and fill in during practice if we need some extra bodies, and we can usually tell within the first five minutes — seriously, within the first five — whether or not the kid is going to make it as a pro. There’s a certain mentality. A certain look in their eyes. A certain demeanor when they take a really hard tackle. You can recognize it almost instantly.

It has nothing to do with athleticism or size —  attributes that the scouts and coaches in U.S. Soccer seem obsessed with sometimes. I remember the first time I trained with Bojan Krkić at Stoke. He’s listed at like 5′ 7″, but he looked more like 4′ 10″. And the guy was just an absolute animal out there. He’d made it through the Barcelona system at that size. I remember thinking to myself, What would’ve happened if he had come up in U.S. Soccer?

I’ll never forget a club coach telling me, when I was maybe 14 years old, that I would never make it as a pro because I was “too small.”

(I grew to be 6′ 4″.)

But this is the mentality that is so toxic across the board in youth soccer in America. It’s not about proving yourself every day. It’s about what you did last year. It’s about who you know. It’s about your size. It’s about your reputation. It’s about what fancy youth club you play for.

If you want to see what’s wrong with U.S. Soccer in a single image, just go out to one of these fancy suburbs some weekend and spot the coaches of the fancy club teams strutting on the sidelines. Half of them are carrying themselves like they’re Pep Guardiola. I mean, the arrogance. It’s unbelievable.

It’s not about you, man. You coach kids. It’s about the kids.

These are the kind of coaches who will take their teams to Europe for a week to train at Barcelona’s academy and be too proud or too stubborn to ask the Barca coaches any questions. It’s the kind of mentality that Jürgen, for all his faults, was trying to get away from. He was trying to build something from the ground up. He was trying to end the silver-spoon culture and introduce real competitiveness at every level.

When Bruce came in, it was like everyone relaxed.

I’m not trying to bury anyone here, but we need some real honesty if things are going to get better. I’m 32 years old. This was my last shot at the World Cup, and it was taken away because of an outdated philosophy from the very top.

We showed up in Trinidad and expected that it was going to be a cakewalk. The day before the match, the entire pitch was under water. It was pretty clear that the game was going to be complicated. It wasn’t going to be football. It was going to be a grind. But the whole coaching staff was just … honestly, it was like it was all a big joke. They were so loose that, in retrospect, it was actually ridiculous.

TFV Media/AP

It’s this simple: That Trinidad & Tobago team was full of athletes, and we were playing away on an atrocious pitch, and we only needed one point to qualify for the World Cup.

So what formation did we use?


One defensive midfielder.

One defensive midfielder, on a terrible pitch, against a team that wants to capitalize on bad bounces and mistakes. When we only needed one point.

I don’t bring this up to be a jerk. I don’t bring this up to rub salt in any wounds. I bring this up because Bruce Arena, the coach who was responsible for this formation, came out after the game and said, “We played down a man because we couldn’t dribble out of the back.”

He threw his two central defenders under the bus — after the single most depressing day of all of our careers — because they “couldn’t dribble out of the back” on one of the worst pitches I’ve ever trained on.

You throw your own players under the bus? When we played a 4-1-3-2? When we only needed one point? One freaking point. To go to the World Cup.

I can’t speak for all of my teammates, but I can almost promise you that all of us accept responsibility here. Listen, I have a lot of regret myself. It’s not about one game. I didn’t play well at all against Costa Rica. I think about my own responsibility for this disaster all the time. I wish I could go back and change things about my own play. I’m sure we all do. But until the revolving-door culture of U.S. Soccer changes from the very top, things are not going to get better. We’re not going to recapture the magic we all felt during the 2014 World Cup, when Clint scored that goal in the first minute against Ghana. We all remember how we felt when it hit the back of the net, and it breaks my heart that this summer we’re really not going to be a part of it.

Listen, it should be very clear, after what happened in this qualifying cycle, that we are not Spain. We are not Germany. Right now, we are not even Costa Rica. But we are still the United States of America, and one of our very own is tearing it up in Germany for Borussia Dortmund right now. He’s a product of our system. We need to get that kid to Qatar in 2022. And we need to get a dozen other guys on that plane with him who are cut from the same cloth.

Ruthless. Ambitious. Competitive. Fearless. Unafraid to leave their families and sit all alone in a sad apartment somewhere. Unafraid to go up against the best players in the world and sometimes get their asses handed to them.

Right now, those future World Cup stars are 16 and 17 years old, playing in America. We need to groom those players in our system until they hit their ceiling, and then we need to encourage them to get on a plane and on to the next challenge. We need a president and a national team manager who embrace that mentality.

The next four years starts this weekend.