Cheating the System: A Short-Term Solution for Improving the USMNT’s Next Generation

I told someone Saturday night as we were waiting for the start of the U.S. men’s game against Venezuela that it was a little tougher for me to get excited for the January Camp Cupcake friendlies during an Olympic year, since we’re going to get to see the real future of the team in qualifying and (hopefully) in the Olympic tournament itself later this year.

As a U.S. fan, I’m constantly looking to the future. To the team we’re going to have in qualifying, for the next Gold Cup, for the 2014 World Cup and more and more, beyond even that. This is what you do when your team is not there yet, you look to the time when you might get there. When I look at the U-23s and the other young players, I feel alternately optimistic and pessimistic, the former because we’re getting better younger, and the latter because it’s still not quite clear when we are going to get there.


Look at all these guys we’ve got going right to Europe!
Guys who couldn’t beat Guatemala to make the U-20 World Cup!
But they’re getting minutes!
Minutes for the reserve sides of mid-table teams, or in relatively minor leagues!
They’re improving! They’re scoring! They’re moving on up[1] to the East Side!
But the world’s Gotzes, Thiagos, and Neymars are light years ahead of them!

I think I just puked over the side of the emotional rollercoaster.

Our U17 team.

The U23 generation will in all likelihood not win the World Cup. They certainly will never be favored to win it, and if they do manage to pull it off, there will almost certainly be at least one and probably multiple Lake Placid-style upsets over heavily-favored teams. Likewise for the generation after them, who I’m already mentally calling the Junior Avengers in honor of Junior Flores and his troop of Marvel-ready alliterative teammates: Wesley Wade, Tyler Turner, Rubio Rubin.[2]They aren’t the ones, as it were. We’re not quite there yet now, nor will we be ten years from now.

This is where the emotional rollercoaster bottoms out. Incremental progress is nice – it’s certainly better than incremental decline, as England is finding out – but it can be frustrating. I love rooting for a team that I believe is going to be better this year than they were last, and better next year than they are this. I don’t love not knowing how much better we’re going to get, or whether that belief will have to contend with the odd year when two steps forward are met with three steps back. I recognize this is a part of the fandom experience, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder: Isn’t there a faster way to boost performance?

Well, yes. I can think of one way, or at least one way that doesn’t involve growing the next Pele/Maradona/fat Ronaldo/thin Ronaldo/Messi in a lab.[3] This way is relatively straightforward, and can be broken down into three steps.

Step 1

Step 1: Find a billionaire. This shouldn’t be too hard; there are 412 of them in the U.S. alone, if Wikipedia and Forbes are to be believed. We’ll even take people who are close to that mark, near-misses could probably also afford our project.

Step 2: Have that person buy a European soccer team.

Step 3: Buy up the contracts of as many promising American talents – players in that U23 generation, guys who we know can play, but still have room to develop – as we possibly can. I want to see a Gyau-Boyd-Gatt front line, backed by Okugo or Kitchen or Williams and Michael Bradley and whichever one of our 20-something attacking midfielders makes the leap to the point where we get a consensus that he’s the best of the lot. In defense, Timmy Chandler and our left back savior[4] bookend elder statesmen Oguchi Onyewu and some centerback who’s fast enough to play next to Oguchi Onyewu.

There. That was easy.

I tend to think of this as the short-term solution. Unlike the long-term solution – improving player development – this would only convey benefits on the current squad, meaning once those players have matriculated out of the system we’d be back where we started. Still, this has been a persistent fantasy of mine throughout my USMNT fandom, because it would help the team I root for become more like the teams I most appreciate from a historical standpoint.

I’m a big fan of systems, of teams who play in a very deliberate and well-thought out way. Teams that rely on more than the individual talents of players, that make the players within it better, where the whole is greater than the sum of their parts, yaddayaddayadda. I started writing our Formation Renovation columns as an excuse to take a closer look at some of those systems, from catenaccio and Total Football to dedicated long-ball squads and Bayern’s Beckenbauer-3-3-3 formation.

At the international level, there are a couple of these squads and systems that stand out for their success and their places in the popular imagination. Hungary of the 1950s, Holland and Germany of the 1970s, Spain of the present. Those teams all had two things in common. The first is a golden generation of players, a supremely talented and complimentary group who all happened to come along at the right time. Puskás, Bozsik, Kocsis, Czibor; Cruyff, Neeskens, Rep, Haan; Beckenbauer, Maier, Hoeness, Muller; Xavi, Iniesta, Pique, Busquets.

The second is that they all had a nucleus of players – in this case, the players listed above – who played together at the club level at Honved, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, respectively. Gusztáv Sebes, the Hungarian National coach, recognized the huge advantage that came from having all your players training together constantly[5]and rigged Hungary’s newly communist system to get the players he wanted all on one club by having the army take over a club and conscript players to play for it. Practice makes perfect.

And you don’t even need a golden generation for it to work. Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s late-period USSR, which finished second in the European Championship while featuring nine starters from his Dynamo Kyiv team. Guus Hiddink’s 2002 South Korea squad, which wasn’t a situation of them belonging to one club but where the vast majority of players reported months before the start of the tournament to drill together and train together and learn how to subtly psychologically influence the referees together and ended up finishing fourth.

The limiting factor for national team coaches – the reason people point out that the Champions League, not the World Cup, is the premier soccer competition on Earth – is time. Club coaches have it, while national coaches don’t. By having your club and national team be roughly the same thing, you do away with that factor.

So who would we get our imaginary billionaire to buy? In terms of sheer numbers Hoffenheim, with Danny Williams, Fabian Johnson, and Gyau, would be nice, but given the fan-ownership model of clubs in the Bundesliga and that club’s unique financial situation – software mogul/club sugar daddy Dietmar Hopp bankrolled a rise from the fifth division to the top flight in eight years – that’s probably not realistic. (As opposed to the rest of the plan, which, shhhh).

Plus, there’s the matter of finding the appropriate level. I’ll admit I don’t watch enough Bundesliga games to know where the full-strength U.S. National Team would finish, much less our hypothetical junior side, but in the case of the latter I’d be willing to bet it’s a lot closer to the bottom than the top.[6] But theoretically that wouldn’t remain the case forever. If we were to start this experiment in, say, Norway, and toss all these other players onto Josh Gatt’s Molde team, they’d hopefully outgrow that league pretty quickly. Then where would be the perfect landing point for them?

Not surprisingly, all the other clubs in our sample played in the country of the national team their nucleus would represent. Likewise, if we’re going to build our American Superteam, MLS would be the place to do it. Player identification and recruitment is easier domestically; we wouldn’t even need our imaginary billionaire, just a lot of scouts and a clever method for circumventing the Homegrown Player rules. Right now, the level’s not there, but perhaps one day it will be to a point where the players that dominate in MLS can be competitive in a world environment. The league’s own incremental progress is carrying it in that direction. We’ll just have to wait and see when it gets there.


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1.(Moving on up!)

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2. That is unless they develop superspeed or the ability to fly or a Messi-anic internal gyroscope that keeps them on their feet and in possession of the ball at all times.

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3.You know, since we’re having such luck producing them organically.

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4. Maybe we should try to grow the next Paolo Maldini instead.

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5. An idea he stole from Austrian and Italian teams of the 1930s.

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6. Which isn’t to say the full squad would finish near the top, but given the examples we have of members playing in Germany I don’t think they’d be favorites to get relegated either.

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5 Responses to Cheating the System: A Short-Term Solution for Improving the USMNT’s Next Generation

  1. Pingback: QWK KCKS: Wearing the Hat of Passion | KCKRS

  2. hansh says:

    Yay! The Princess Bride! Also, yay! Dreams of a better future for American soccer!

  3. Alex says:

    Can we start sending letters to all those billionaires? I’m sure at least one of them likes soccer. And maybe we could take someone like Caleb Porter as manager. And Thomas Rongen as a scout. Maybe Wilmer Cabrera as an assistant. One can dream…

  4. Love the post Betts. Sort of like how I love the USMNT – I wish it would make good on our hopes of being good; however, I think there are some fundamental ways the US sports system makes it hard for us to ever be on the level of European football, which is something I told Wes I would write for you guys, and still haven’t… But you’ve inspired me. Time to do some research.

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