Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Tuesday night the United States got schooled in the beautiful game - how the world (and specifically Argentina) plays it and how much we have to learn. It was all led by a striker named Lionel Messi who will celebrate his 29th birthday two days before playing in the final of the Copa America Centenario. Messi set the tone in the third minute with a perfect pass to Esquiel Lavezzi. With all the US defenders pulled forward, Lavezzi received the ball and charged forward. In one move he was suddenly one on one with goalkeeper Brad Guzan who seemed stunned to see the player ready to unload and reacted far too late to stop the shot. In the 32nd minute Argentina was awarded a free kick outside the box. Calmly retying his shoe before shooting, Messi sent the ball into the upper right corner striking a miniscule window between the crossbar, Guzan’s hand, and the upright. It was a shot worthy of the century and also secured Argentina’s career scoring record for Messi. In the second half, Guzman couldn’t hold onto a stopped shop, and with second effort Argentina scored. Then Messi assisted in the waning minutes on a fourth humiliating goal. As Jurgen Klinsmann, the US coach said, “Our players could just feel in every position on the field they were better than we are.” He was stating the obvious for anyone watching the match.
Given the US population pool as compared to most of the other confederation nations, we should be far more dominating. However the US obviously still has a long way to go in developing its male players. For example, the US Men’s National Team (MNT) failed to qualify for the Olympics this year. Since Olympic soccer players must be 23 or younger, this disappointment calls into question our youth development. Our young squad just wasn’t ready for the level of competition they faced. There is evidence of improvement. The MNT has had some significant wins since 1991 and has made the knockout rounds in several international tournaments such as World Cup and FIFA Confederation Cup, feats not achieved since 1930. Our biggest glory came in the 2009 Confederations Cup when the US beat Spain 2-0 in the semi-finals. At the time, Spain was ranked 1st in the FIFA World rankings with 35 undefeated games including a run of 15 consecutive wins which ended with the US victory. This was the first and only finals in a full-international competition that the US has achieved since the 1930 World Cup. There we defeated England in the group round and ultimately went on to win third, our highest finish for a World Cup. Our major achievements recently have come in our CONCACAF Gold Cup competitions which include five wins and four runners-up. However in the 2015 Gold Cup the US was defeated by Jamaica in the semi-finals and then lost to Panama in penalty kicks in the 3rd place match.
Now comes the Copa America Centenario, a competition that encompasses CONCACAF and CONBEMOL, FIFA’s South American confederation. The US did well against its CONCACAF competitors of Costa Rica and Ecuador, winning decisively, but did less well with CONBEMOL members, losing to Colombia, and barely hanging on against Paraguay. Then they met the Messi-driven train that is the Argentine National Team, and all our weaknesses were on display. We couldn’t pass, we couldn’t win 50/50 balls, we couldn’t possess, and considering the score, we certainly couldn’t defend. Watching Messi move quickly to an advantageous position when off the ball and making pin point passes or shots when he had the ball presented a stark contrast to America’s best players who looked befuddled and disorganized. A herd of deer on Interstate 95 at night wouldn’t have looked more dazed in the headlights than our team when faced with the brilliance of Messi and his teammates.
The good news, if there is any, comes with the youth who are beginning to fill the ranks of the MNT roster. Despite our inability to qualify with our younger players for the Olympics, we do have several promising members under 25 who are on the full MNT roster including Christian Pulisic who is just 17. Additionally players on the U-23 and U-19 squads are developing into strong forces, all of them playing internationally on professional teams around the world in addition to their MNT commitments. We have a distance to go before we can consistently claim to be among the world’s best soccer nations, but as we chip away at our confederation competitors we are also gaining confidence and experience that will translate down the line to a stronger team. We will face Colombia again in the Copa America third place match which will have been played the Saturday before this blog posts. Perhaps we can redeem our CONBEMOL performances with a brilliant match. In the meantime we will continue to build the MNT on the shoulders of our young players.
This is both the promise and the power of youth soccer. Every player now at the top levels of soccer began as a youth player in a local club. Many have amazing stories of how they grew from youth club players to national team players. Like most youth players, Messi began to play soccer when 4 years old with his brothers and cousins and had his father as his first coach. At age 6 he joined the youth club of his hometown’s professional squad, Rosario’s Newell’s Old Boys. When he turned 11 he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency that threatened to end his developing soccer talent. The disease required an expensive and long-term medical treatment. Ironically it was his disease which, rather than thwarting his dreams, actually led him to a top club. When his parents’ health insurance benefits ran out, the family, recognizing his talent, sought a soccer club which would sign their son for development while also continuing to pay for his treatments. Club River Plata, a top club in Argentina, wanted to sign Messi, but didn’t have the funds for his treatments. Messi’s father had relatives in Spain, near Barcelona, so he reached out to their club. At first reluctant to sign such a young foreign player, they ultimately relented. Messi proved to be an amazing investment. He incredibly led the youth team to a triple win of their league, the Spanish Cup, and the Catalan Cup in his first full year playing. He scored 36 goals in 30 games. Despite an offer to play for Arsenal in the English Premier League, he chose to remain with Barcelona and became a powerhouse player for the club and for the Argentine National Team.
While few players have the natural soccer gifts that Messi possesses, every youth player has the potential to play at the highest levels should he or she have both the passion and the determination. Most players who make either the MNT or the Women’s National Team (WNT) cite as the most important factor their willingness to work through every roadblock and to find ways to play no matter what. Certainly many kids dream of a professional career as they idolize a favorite player. As parents we need to nurture those dreams while making sure our children find joy in the journey. Watching Messi play Tuesday night was a speedy reality check. Few people in the world can master soccer the way he has, meaning that only a few will ultimately reach that level of ability. Nevertheless, having someone like Messi or Ronaldo or Carli Lloyd as a role model can be a significant influence in a child’s life giving him or her something to strive for. Ultimately most kids will play soccer for the fun of it and the benefits of conditioning and learning to be part of a team. Whenever I go to watch a youth game it’s humbling to consider that the future stars of soccer are right now buzzing around a U-8 or U-10 field learning to control their dribbles and emulating as best they can the fancy step-over moves they see the adult players use. The powerful, exhilarating play we have been witnessing this summer with Copa America and UEFA Euro 2016 grew from players born in some cases less than two decades ago.
The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) oversees the various US National Teams. It is charged with forming, growing, and maintaining the youth development programs in America. Over the last decade the USSF has instituted some significant changes in order to hopefully improve the means to identify and train top players around the United States. They established the boys’ Development Academy which is an association of top youth clubs and MLS affiliated youth clubs in order to create a more consistent training program with unified goals and outcomes. Next year they plan to do the same for girls. The Academy supplements the Olympic Development Program (ODP) which began in 1977 and was expanded and refined from 1979 to 1982 (when a girls’ program was added) into a format which exists up to the present. Boys and girls join through their State Youth Soccer Associations and attend a state camp where players are identified and invited to a regional camp where they are further evaluated and possibly recommended for National camp. Players who belong to a Development Academy team don’t go through ODP as they are identified within the Academy. There are five years in which players can try out for the state teams. It isn’t unusual for a player not to make a state team one year but then do so in subsequent years and vice versa. Age groups can vary state to state, but in general kids will be eligible to participate when they are 12 until they are 17.
We have far to go with the Men’s program, but we can also take pride in successes, albeit inconsistent. We no longer have to wax poetic about a 1930 series of matches because we can take pride in our contemporary play. We’re a huge nation which deserves to have a world top ten soccer team. I have no doubt that as our youth players have more and more training opportunities and can emulate our own national soccer heroes, we’ll break through those rankings and join the world’s elite.