Can America catch up to Europe in soccer? This question was posed to me on the website I write for, Sidelines. Responding to that question in the simplest form, I think the answer is maybe in the long run and probably not in the short run. Starting with the short run, there are several disadvantages that hurt American soccer: 1. In Europe and South America, most kids play soccer and this is particularly true of poor kids. In the U.S., formal soccer tends to organize more around the middle class and wealthy, with poor kids more likely to play pick up games or any of the other four major sports. This is a huge disadvantage, as it undermines the hungriest players and those most likely to make it to the top level. The U.S. needs to support these youth if they are to take the next step. 2. MLS versus other domestic leagues: while the MLS has made strides in recent years, capturing quality players near the twilight of their careers, the next step involves providing the money and prestige to entice younger players to make the switch to America. The quality of the domestic leagues appears to play a huge role in the overall success of the national team, or the ability of players from countries like Holland to allow their best players to play across the leagues of Europe. Few Americans have successfully made the move overseas and that has arguably cost us over the years. Howard has been successful at Everton for a long time and there are a few other sporadic examples, but the recent return of Josy Altidore and Dempsey to MLS shows that there is a long way to go on that front. 3. MLS Schedule: the MLS schedule doesn’t do America any favors either and it is time to seriously consider putting that schedule in line with leagues around the world. Sure it affects some of the colder stadiums, but modern technology should be able to address this issue (if global warming doesn’t do it instead). 4. Youth Development: the U.S. soccer federation is starting to invest more heavily in developing youth from a young age, but they are still way behind Spain, Germany and even England. A stronger effort must be made to start the development process at a young age if kids are to gain the technical, physical and tactical skills necessary to compete at the highest level. Given the club structure of European teams versus the MLS, I’m not sure how much money would be necessary to establish a quality program, but this is a prerequisite to reaching the next level. In the meantime, it might be sensible to send more youth to Europe, as happened with Landon Donovan, among a host of others. 5. Play in Europe: building on the aforementioned four points, I do think it is essential that more American players attempt to get into the European or South American leagues. This is easier said than done, but I believe Donovan will look back on his career and wish he had pushed harder to leave the Galaxy after the 2010 World Cup, when he was a hot commodity. He was excellent in a short loan spell with Everton and should have jumped to the next level. The recent return of Altidore, Dempsey and Bradley, among others, is bad news for American soccer and something that must be addressed by the players and coaches, ensuring that they are competing against the best in the world as often as possible.
On the positive side, MLS is growing in revenue and stature and we can certainly build on the recent World Cup success to attempt to keep U.S. Soccer in the news. Millions of Americans, including me, following England or some other European league and this could be the springboard to more interest in the MLS (I did go to a Galaxy playoff game last year). Beyond this, the success in the WC last year shows that America is moving in the right direction, with a number of young players shining. Their further development over the next three and a half years (and replacement of the aging stars) will be key to the U.S. doing as well or even better the next time around. Another positive to consider is the increase in the number of youth playing soccer in the country and the reality that we have over 300 million people here and thus a much larger pool of talent than any European country alone. Cultivating that talent from a young age is the key to capitalize on our superior resources. Finally, the MLS is capturing more players just past their prime but has to find a way to take the next step and make sure those players stay and that they start to pick up a few middling stars in their prime.