let’s be honest… i’m amped for next summer. why? the world cup will finally return… oh yeah, i’m also getting married and yes i’m extremely excited about that too. though i do need to remember that i can’t imply that i’m equally excited about the world cup and the wedding, or else my fiancee may or may not kill me and/or will walk out on the wedding.
but don’t let that convince you that i’m not excited about south africa. as happens every four years, most of the world will grind to a halt as everyone (even MLS for a change… kinda) will pause for next summer’s grand extravaganza. every where except for our great country that is. this is despite the USMNT qualifying for its sixth straight finals appearance, despite MLS having made huge strides in developing a strong fan base, being currently ranked #11 by FIFA, and the national team having (arguably) the deepest and most talented pool of players we’ve ever had. USSF president sunil gulati even thinks we have the ability to win this world cup!
but i’m trying to not let all of that fool me.
do you remember “project 2010”? no? ok, i’ll refresh your memory. established by former USSF president alan rothenberg, and written by current portuguese national team coach carlos quieroz, project 2010 was a $50 million plan to make the US team a legitimate contender to win the 2010 world cup. seeing as how this plan was put into action before the 1998 world cup, it seemed that we had a good shot at reaching the goal in twelve years’ time. hell, after our quarter finals run in korea/japan in 2002, we seemed more than on our way.
except i don’t think we are on pace; not even close to be honest. i think sunil is smoking crack thinking we can win this upcoming tournament. and i think the problem is two fold:
problem #1: youth development
one of the biggest components of the project 2010 report, and one that quieroz felt was central to the plan, was the creation of a full-time, young professionals league for aspiring players. this system would mirror the efforts of the youth academies and reserve divisions of europe, helping to develop emerging talents under the age of 19.
twelve years down the road and we still don’t have this part of the step complete. hell, we barely have started it, and in some cases taken steps backwards.
right now, the best youth development program that we have in this country is the IMG academy in bradenton, florida. IMG is home of the residential US youth national teams, u-14 through u-19. the cream of the crop of these players go on to have “great” careers, landing at big name colleges and eventually finding their way to MLS sides and possibly generation adidas. except that’s not really youth development, but more like a farm system for colleges. if we had 20 of these academies across the country competing against one another, then this would be a brilliant step in the right direction. alas, we don’t.
instead, these talents go on to play in college, where the NCAA limits the amount of time student athletes spend on the field training (i speak from experience here, as i know that the NCAA only allows for x-amount of weeks of training and playing in the spring). these student athletes spend more of their time worrying about exams and social matters than they do about their on field development. that’s extremely valuable time for developing a talented player’s potential. and by the time our best players come out of the college system, they’re 3-4 years of development behind the european-based players who were playing continuously and competitively.
sure, there is also PDL. the bottom tier of the (semi-)professional system in our country is the summer home for most of the elite college players in the country. but again, these are just college players.
our best players need to be playing in ultra-competitive games, and getting paid for it, from the earliest age possible. why do they need to be paid you ask? because that’s motivation to take the risk of skipping college. right now, a free education for soccer talent outweighs the potential reward of a better paying professional contract down the road. the attitude basically becomes, “well, if i don’t make it to the pro ranks at least i have my college education to fall back on.” which really is the safe bet, and i don’t blame players and their parents for making it.
but here’s the thing: you can always go back to college. sure it may not be free then, but we have to take risks in life and soccer… and this particular non-risky system is playing a HUGE part in our lack of development in youth players and eventual national team members. give those players a big enough incentive to not go to college, and you’ll see more of them taking that advantage.
MLS’s decision this season to kill off their reserve divisions and limiting “developmental player” spots on their rosters is not helping the issue either. yes, the league is promoting the idea of youth “academies,” but those are little more than the current club set-up prevalent in this country carrying an MLS team’s name. so that still leaves us with no true ultra-competitive, full-time outlet for these young players to hone their skills.
if we’re ever going to compete on the international level, we need to have the full-time professional system for the talented 15-19 year olds. otherwise we’re just throwing all of that talent down the drain when they go off to college.
probelm #2: we’re not that good
yes, we won the CONCACAF region’s qualifying tournament. but we won it just by a hair, on the very last day of qualifying, and thanks to some help from other teams. there is no way that next summer’s tournament favorites (brazil, spain, england, etc.) wouldn’t just waltz through our region and have the top spot wrapped up with games to spare.
we also need to be able to be able to win big games in inhospitable environments. this is something that, minus the 2002 run in korea/japan and the 2009 confederations cup, the USMNT has been completely unable to do. i mean we’re like 0-1,354-1 when playing in mexico, our biggest rival and biggest competition for the title of “best team in the region.” if we can’t win the big games in mexico, what makes us think we’re capable of winning a world cup final?
and while i agree that this is the deepest national team pool we’ve ever had, i’m concerned about our lack of truly phenomenal talent. yes, we have a strong pool of players that are capable of playing at the highest levels. but how many truly world class players do we have? i think one (tim howard), maybe three (landon donovan and oguchi onyewu), at most. the next 20-30 are the best of the best in MLS and some run of the mill guys for smaller european teams (bocanegra, dempsey, davies, etc.), which all of the other major nations have at least 200 of back home playing in their leagues.
spain, arguably the best team in the world right now, has it’s world class players starting for barcelona (xavi, iniesta), liverpool (torres) rearl madrid (alonso) and arsenal (fabregas). brazil could also be the best team in the world, and they’re best are starting for equally impressive teams: real madrid (kaka), sevilla (luís fabiano), and pato (a.c. milan). and where are our world class players playing their club ball? everton, los angeles galaxy and a.c. milan (we can’t count onyweu for two reasons: 1. he’s out until just before next summer’s finals, and 2. he wasn’t getting a sniff of the pitch when he was healthy.) do you see the point i’m trying to make?
then comes the trouble with our current squad:
- two of our guaranteed starters are either out of contention or will be short on form due to injury: charlie davies is a given to miss next summer due to his car crash injuries, while onyewu will struggle to make it back in time from his torn patellar tendon and so will likely be in poor shape by next august. so there goes a starting forward and starting center back. with no really good alternative for either (especially davies), i don’t know how we will replace them effectively.
- our other for-sure starting forward will be jozy altidore, and he can’t seem to find competitive minutes for one of the worst teams in the EPL. jozy’s lack of playing time at hull will also likely result in a lack of form and a serious lack in confidence.
- jay demerit, our other most likely starting center back, is also recovering from a serious eye injury. demerit scratched his eye badly while removing a contact lens, and this scratch developed into a horrid infection. currently, watford are unsure when he will be able to return to action. so there could be a problem with form for jay, assuming he’s even able to play.
- all of our MLS players will be on at least a three-month lay off from playing competitive matches due to MLS not being on the international calendar. tell me how this won’t cause a dip in form for at least some of them. my advice to these guys: take a page out of beckham’s book and secure a loan move to europe in january. if this isn’t reason enough to move to the FIFA calendar, i don’t know what a good reason is.
those are just some of the problems i could think of off the top of my head, and there are definitely more (notice i didn’t even bring up my deep-rooted concerns about bob bradley!). and don’t get me started on them being ranked #11 in the FIFA rankings. remember what we were ranked going into germany 2008? that US team was ranked #6 ahead of teams like england, the czech republic, and other talented squads. remember what we finished in germany? our record of 0-2-1 was good enough for being ranked number 32 out of 32 in the field. so i’m not falling for that rankings baloney again either.
now don’t get me wrong, i’m not a USMNT hater. i root for them above all teams, and want nothing more than for them to do well. personally, i think this team is primed to match their run at the 2002 world cup. i think they’re good enough to upset some powerhouse teams. a lot depends on their draw in the tournament and the form of the players included in the squad.
but to say that project 2010 will be a success; well, that might be pushing it. there are too many cracks in the foundation, and i just can’t ignore them and say we’re going to win the whole shebang. but maybe they’ll surprise me… and that i would love more than anything.