Monday, April 04, 2016
Last week was not a good one for U.S. men’s soccer. The U.S. U-23 Men’s National Team lost on Tuesday to Colombia, which gave the last Olympic slot to the winner — leaving the U.S. out in the cold and unable to qualify a men’s team in back-to-back Olympics for the first time in 50 years. The USMNT likewise stumbled in Guatemala the previous Friday in a dismal 2-0 loss, setting back their bid for a 2018 World Cup slot. Luckily, they rallied when the two teams met again in Columbus, Ohio, to beat Guatemala, 4-0, righting a ship that was in danger of capsizing. Once again, the tenuous abilities of U.S. men’s teams to compete on the world stage signals the weaknesses in our development and support.
The U-23 MNT that played Columbia is made up of young players most of whom haven’t yet reached the USMNT’s main roster. However, the 2016 Olympic qualifying rules state that men’s team players must be born on or after January 1, 1993, although teams can field three older players during the Olympics. The women’s side has no age restrictions. The age limits do restrict the team the U.S. can field, but all countries operate under the same guidelines. On the USMNT, only three players would fit the Olympic age restrictions, so the U.S. must depend on up-and-coming younger players closer in age to many of our own youth players than to the seasoned players on the USMNT. Even though other countries operate under the same rules, they seem to be able to develop stronger players at the younger ages than we in the U.S. do.
Most development programs around the world have a very intensive training regimen. Here in America, development of youth players is often done by volunteer and school coaches. This volunteer environment proves to be uneven in how our players are developed. In England, for example, the country shifted from volunteer and school coaching to professional team development teams. The Football Association approved allowing pro teams to have a financial interest in players U-9 and above, signing the player to an actual one year contract. The player can leave the club at any time at the end of each year, but if he joins another club, the new club must pay a transfer fee to the original club. At U-13, clubs can sign players for two- or four-year contracts, and at U-17, the club must sign the player to a two-year contract or release the player. Clubs invest around $3-to-5 million per year in their development program. They only need to “sell” a good player every few years (at usually $10 million plus) or an exceptional player (at $50 million) to not only recoup these costs but add to their bottom line. Development season runs September to August and players must adhere to strict rules on personal care, diet, exercise and training.
Such a program would be difficult in the United States. Our MLS teams are scattered around the country, and we don’t even have one in every state, much less one in every city of 150,000 or more like England does. Therefore, players would have to travel great distances or be boarded in order to participate in the development programs. Right now American players might train six to 10 hours a week, whereas the players in England train every day with school arranged around the training, logging at least twice the training time each week as our youth players. The question is would we willingly allow teams to sign players to contracts at the age of 8, train them, either release them or sell them, sacrificing major portions of their education and the educational experiences of youth (such as playing for their high school or doing 3v3 tournaments) in return for stronger youth development? It’s a tangled symbiotic relationship between professionalism and youth soccer that we may not be ready to accept. However, it may be the only way we can ensure enough talent to compete at the younger ages around the world.
We have to figure out if our national pride is worth such extremes. Countries such as Mexico, Argentina, and Germany follow much the same development program as England, and they started decades ago. The soccer fever is strong enough in those countries that parents want their sons trained at the highest levels with the possibility of becoming an elite player. England also implemented a development program for girls with similar guidelines as their boys’ program, and the USSF announced the formation of a Girls’ Development Academy to begin next year. So the world recognizes the benefits of including women in the process. If we want as intensive a plan in the United States we have to be willing to give into a completely different model of training that can take into account the vast distances and remote areas of the U.S., while also changing our attitude about education vs. sports.
Turning our attention to the U.S. Women’s National Team, something extraordinary is happening there. This week, five members of the team filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging severe pay inequality between the WNT members and the MNT members. In support of their claim, the women’s attorney points out some really enlightening facts. Women players earn 24 percent to 60 percent less than their male counterparts, those payments coming from the USSF. When the women approached their governing body year after year they were dismissed with the patronizing phrase that they should “consider it an honor to represent your country.” The truth is that the WNT has been far more lucrative than the MNT. Last year, they generated $16 million for the USSF while the MNT accrued a $2 million deficit. The women are paid almost four times less than the men. For example both teams are required to play 20 friendlies per year. The top women receive $72,000 for the total of those games plus a bonus of $1,350 if they win. Men are guaranteed $5,000 and up to $17,625 per game depending on the opponent’s FIFA rank. Even if the top women won all their games, then men earning only the base salary of $5,000 and losing all their games would still make $1000 more than their female counterparts. The women have won three straight Olympic gold medals, while the men failed to qualify for a second consecutive time. The women have three World Cup victories, including last year’s title, while the men finished 11th in the 2014 World Cup and have never made it past the quarterfinals. Last year’s Women’s World Cup final was the highest watched soccer game ever in the United States, equaling the 23 million viewers of Game 7 of the World Series. Abby Wambach, who recently retired, has more international goals than any other soccer player, female OR male. If we remove gender from the equation, it’s difficult to argue that the players on the successful team don’t deserve at least the same if not more pay than the players on the other team. As of my writing, the USSF has not responded to the complaint other than to say they “are disappointed by the filing,” arguing that they have helped establish a women’s professional league where women can pursue more income — a bit of an apples and oranges scenario. This will be a landmark case, not just for women’s sports, but for all women employees who will have a clear precedent to argue for equal pay. No disappointment there.