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Michael Lewis

June 22, 2016
Why the USA is far away from being one of the world's elite

Matt Miazga is one of two players in the U.S. national team pool is plays for a big-time club in Europe -- Chelsea.
Matt Miazga is one of two players in the U.S. national team pool is plays for a big-time club in Europe -- Chelsea.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
By Michael Lewis Editor

So much has been written about Argentina's 4-0 triumph over the United States Tuesday night that it could have broken the internet two or three times over.

The USA reminded us how far it has to go before it can be an elite soccer country.

At the present time, the USA is a middling soccer country and its No. 31 ranking in the world is deserved. The Americans can turn heads in big competitions, pull off a surprise or two behind it’s work ethic, but when it comes to taking on and winning against the big shots, the Americans are long shots.

Let's state the obvious facts from the Copa America Centenario semifinal in Houston:

The Argentines enjoyed end-to-end dominance, outshot the host side, 10-0, and possessed the ball about two-thirds of the time, even though at times it seemed like it was far greater. Forays into the Argentine defensive third seemed to be as rare as a Full Strawberry moon on the summer solstice.

It wasn't a sobering moment, but a sobering 90-95 minutes.

Quite simply, we are not producing enough top-flight players and that starts at the youth level where players are nurtured.

Like it or not, our culture -- not sports, but our overall culture -- is unlike any other sporting culture. First of all, we have several sports from which our men's athletes can choose -- from American gridiron football to basketball to baseball to hockey and then of course, to futbol.

While the financial opportunities in pursuing a career in professional soccer has grown in this country and overseas has increased considerably over the past three decades, it still consistently has not matched those in the aforementioned sports.

Now, don't misunderstand me. We have made giant steps in international soccer.

I hail from an era when the U.S. national team was considered an afterthought in the region and not taken seriously by many of the then CONCACAF powers, including Mexico.

I have watched the growth over the past generation or two and it has been staggering. The USA has gone from the World Cup desert of not participating in the greatest show on earth for 40 years (from 1950 to 1990) to qualifying for seven consecutive tournaments as one of two of the region's powerhouses.

Now, that is quite a turn around.

But to move up to the planet's elite will take an extraordinary leap or two. With the players I see coming over the horizon (teens to early 20s), there doesn't seem to be enough.

By the time these players are teenagers, they should be among the most accomplished of their peers and generation and ready to make the great jump into Europe, where a starting position must be earned and not handed to anyone on a silver platter.

Playing in Europe is only part of the solution.

Playing for top clubs is another matter.

I count only two players who find themselves in such company -- former Red Bulls center back Matt Miazga, 20, who is trying to break through with Chelsea in the English Premier League, and 17-year-old midfielder-forward Christian Pulisic, who is started to make a name for himself and turn heads at Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga in Germany.

Miazga, incidentally, was not part of the Copa team this month.

But those are the only ones at the present time.

If they remain on track and stay away from injuries, Miazga and Pulisic could become regulars. If continue that path and have some luck, they could become influential club players.

Hopefully, that would spill over to the national team.

Would that make the USA an elite side? Probably not, but it certainly would elevate the team; hey, every little bit helps.

In other words, the Americans need more players on more top teams and that just doesn't happen overnight.

While I have read and heard fans talking about when we will have our Lionel Messi, that isn’t fair. He comes along once in a generation or even in a century. Heck, I would "settle" for someone like a Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero or Angel Di Maria.

It is easy to lay the blame on the USA coach -- I have had my issues with Jurgen Klinsmann as it has been well documented -- and his players. Everyone has an opinion whether Klinsmann should be the coach and his lineup decisions (ie. starting Chris Wondolowski against Argentina, for starters) and the quality of his players.

As for the quality of future players, that could be a challenge.

Cases in point:

* The goalkeeping position, which once seemed to be a bottomless pit in terms of quality and depth, might be entering a drought period. Not necessarily the same type of drought that has plagued England since the English Premier League has been dominated by foreign keepers, but in terms of quality and depth. Since 1990, we have been spoiled by Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard (and several other candidates who were good, but could not wrestle the position away from them). Quite frankly, the new generation doesn’t have anyone in that orbit.

* Just where are the goal-creators and goal-scorers? Let's see. Landon Donovan, who could score and can be a playmaker, has retired. Clint Dempsey, who has enjoyed an outstanding Copa with three goals entering Saturday's third-place match, is 33 and can't play forever. You would assume that Jozy Altidore would be a perfect candidate to take the baton from Deuce, but it appears a chronic hamstring problem could limit his international play and turn him into a liability. Please, please tell me about anyone on the horizon. Yes, there's Pulisic and we'll get to him in a minute.

Major League Soccer, which was created to help develop talent for the U.S. national team, certainly has helped many U.S. internationals reach their potential. Some have stayed home in the league, some have gone on to Europe to seek greater fame and fortune and some have return home to find more playing time or to close out their careers.

It is all part of the cycle, which happens in many countries and leagues in the world.

However, you have to question MLS' decision to allow teams to have eight foreign players on their roster. No scientific proof here, but many of those players are taking the spots where American players might play (if you say there are not enough USA players to play regularly, then MLS shouldn’t be expanding, which dilutes the player pool).

That brings us to the question whether MLS is developing creative American players.

Well, the answer is yes and no. Donovan and Dempsey are two prime examples, as MLS allowed them to soar and then some, even if they are from an older generation.

But that was then and this is now.

When Donovan and Dempsey were young, the league was a different league, just trying to survive. It's a different ball game today with soccer-specific stadiums, $100 million expansion fees and hopes of increasing the number of clubs to 24 if not more. It has a different vibe and that helps it attract offensive-minded players to man positions at which Americans might have players.

Let's take a look at who are the most influential American attacking players in the league.

Of the seven leading goal-scorers in the league (seven or more goals), there is only one American on the list -- San Jose's Wondolowski (seven goals). Wondo, 33, has enjoyed a fabulous MLS career, although his skills have not always translated into consistent performances at the international level.

In fact, of the top 20 goal-scorers, only five are USA citizens. That includes Red Bulls midfielder Mike Grella, 29, (six), LA Galaxy midfielder-forward Mike Magee, 31, (five), Philadelphia Union midfielder-forward Chris Pontius, 29, (five) and Seattle Sounders striker Jordan Morris (five). Morris, 21, has worn the red, white and blue of the national team, scoring in an international friendly against Mexico last year.

Except for Morris, the others might be considered a bit long in the tooth by Klinsmann.

Ok, let's go to the assist list.

Hmmm, Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Kljestan leads everyone with 10 assists and was a major reason why New York won the Supporters Shield last year and for the team's recent resurgence. Kjlestan, 30, incidentally, has 46 caps, but for some reason has been ignored by Klinsmann. New England Revolution midfielder-forward Lee Nguyen is third with six assists. Nguyen, 29, has represented the USA nine times, including three games at Copa America 2007.

The third American in the top 10 in assists is New York City FC midfielder Tommy McNamara, 25 (five).

So, where are the other younger players? Are they getting an opportunity?

Sadly, not enough.

Listen, I realize that the above argument uses pure numbers and a players' worth can be defined beyond the quantity, but rather by the quality. Then there's the age issue. Players in their late 20's and early 30's many times can be under the national coach's radar screen because many times he is searching for younger players (there have been exceptions, including Kyle Beckerman making his World Cup debut at 32 in 2014).

Also, using players -- Americans or otherwise -- is a club-by-club decision because it is a dog fight to win MLS Cup and you cannot tell a team owner who has invested millions in the league and in his club how to spend his money. Like many owners, they want to have the best possible selection of players at all positions, especially at attacking mid and striker. If they're Americans, great. If not, it's not the end of the world as long as they players can produce and the team is winning.

Part of the problem lays below MLS and the national team -- at the development level.

U.S. Soccer has tried to speed things up with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. It has helped, accelerating players' progress, but unfortunately that has not been enough over the short haul. It has yet to produce many, if any, international players.

Just a reminder that talent development is evolutionary and not revolutionary.

It takes time. It's not like in two years you're going to get a new and improved American striker for your favorite team, because you can buy the latest and greatest cellphone that does everything for you but cook meals. Producing game-changers takes time, years and sometimes decades.

Again, I don't have scientific evidence on my lap, but I have seen enough games and coaches to believe players are not allowed to develop their games when they are younger, particularly on the attacking end.

Two examples:

* When Tab Ramos grew up in Kearny, N.J., he was allowed by some coaches to develop his skills, dribbling and the ability to be fearless while going one-on-one with defenders. It must be noted that Ramos sometimes ignored suggestions of some of his coaches to pass the ball more. He developed some superb dribbling skills and confidence added several moves into his personal arsenal and became the most accomplished American goal-creator of his generation.

* Christian Pulisic is the son of former Long Islander Mark Pulisic, who played some in Yugoslavia/Croatia during the civil war and with the Harrisburg Heat (National Professional Soccer League). When he was younger, Christian Pulisic played and trained with men on that Harrisburg indoor team. You have to have talent and athletic ability to excel and the younger Pulisic had it and it was honed playing against men who were bigger and more physical. He developed his skills, worked hard and eventually signed a contract with Dortmund.

In other words, creative players are not only born, but they are also made.

They have to be given the God-given talent to develop their skill set to the highest level possible.

They also must be allowed to train and perform in the best environment possible.

While the U.S. and MLS clubs have improved their facilities -- take the Red Bull Training Facility in Hanover, N.J. as a perfect example -- and have made great strides in developing young talent, what we have is dwarfed in comparison to overseas clubs.

When the Red Bulls held their 2009 preseason camp in Argentina, the team played an exhibition game Velez Sarsfield. I could not believe the complex. It had about dozen fields, mostly for training of its youth teams. Each field was enclosed with a metal fence, to keep spectators from the playing field, and dugouts. The field on which the Red Bulls played the Sarsfield side included a mini-field house that held locker rooms for the home team, a weight room, a trainer's room, a coaches’ room and even a changing room for the game officials (bathroom and shower included).

And this wasn't River Plate or Boca Juniors, two of that country's greatest clubs (it must be noted that Velez Sarsfield has won its share of titles in recent seasons, so the team must be doing something right).

While our facilities and environment have improved, many are nowhere near that of the world's great clubs.

We can speed things up a bit, but we still need be patient, like it not.

As I have learned to understand and preached about over the years: it is evolution and not revolution.

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