The club season has begun and the memories of an uneven summer of international soccer are fading quickly, but it's hard to ignore that our understanding of the world of soccer might have shifted, even significantly. Start with the U.S. Men who showed how good they could be and how limited they are within the span of days. They trounced close rival Costa Rica and gutted out two wins against Paraguay and Ecuador to reach the Copa America Centenario semifinal, only to finish bitterly with an embarrassing performance against Argentina. The ultimate question left on minds of the faithful was - is this progress?
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the European understanding of soccer was undergoing a lobotomy. Iceland, a country 0.1 percent of the population of the United States, played a highly structured style of ball all the way to the Euro quarters, and a similarly defensive Portugal won the title. What has happened since the tiki-taka glory days of Spain and Barcelona that now that the reactive styles of Leicester City, Atletico Madrid and Portugal are, as the French might say, en vogue?
From the point of view of U.S. Soccer these odd successes of summer raise key questions. Does size matter? One of the great hopes for the future of American soccer is the sheer size of the population. Is that as much of an advantage as we think? Does controlling the ball matter? Klinsmann has desired to build a proactive team here in the United States. Is that necessary? How should U.S. Soccer answer these questions?
Much has already been said about the sensational rise of Iceland soccer. The country has invested heavily to develop indoor infrastructure and coaches and has rallied the entire country around the sport. The country was ranked 133rd by FIFA in 2012 and since then has defeated Netherlands and England and reached the quarterfinals of a Euro. The plan has been fifteen years in the making but the investments have paid off.
Iceland's story has left all soccer federation leaders holding their chins pondering if there isn't something more they should be doing. If Iceland can do it, why can't everyone? While Sunil Gulati has his share of structural issues in the United States he's also sitting on an embarrassment of resources. It has to be asked if the U.S. Soccer Federation's vision is bold enough and doing all it possibly can to develop soccer players under their supervision.
Dadi Rafnsson coach at Briedablik football club in Iceland summed up the secret to their success succinctly, "My theory on why we are achieving is that nowhere in the world do as many kids get to practice as much per week for as long with a qualified coach in such good conditions."
Contrast that utopia with the constraints Gulati and Klinsmann are faced with: High competition from more popular American sports, pay to play rampant in youth clubs, a restrictive college system, and a lack of high quality coaches, to name a few. One issue Gulati can't complain about is playing infrastructure. Even still it's unclear exactly what the vision and plan is for overcoming these issues. There are a shortage of definitive statements on the long term vision from Gulati and the Federation. But one thing we can look at is U.S. Soccer's bottom line, their public financial statements, to see exactly what's being done with the money under their control.
Starting with revenue and expenses here's how the U.S. Soccer Federation financials look over the last eight years.
Given the Federation is a non-profit the low net profitability (listed as change in assets) of $8.8 million over 8 years isn't a surprise. It's promising to see the revenues have doubled over the eight years shown. Nestled in these numbers is a breakdown of the coaching school courses revenue and expenses for the coaching program which combined operates at a loss. They collected $10.3 million in coaching fees over the eight years and spent $16.6 million. That gross outlay on the coaching program is just 3.4 percent of the revenues earned over that period. Is that a large enough net investment in coach development? Can the Federation rely on external factors to develop such a critical component of the value chain?
Meanwhile U.S. Soccer has been building a solid nest egg. Here are the cash stores and undesignated investments over the last eight years.
There is a section in the audited financial statements that describes the various investments the Federation is making, and they are the usual suspects in a relatively conservative investment fund; large caps, small caps, U.S. Treasuries, Bonds, etc. A trove of $80M+ in cash and investments is a modest amount of money but it also a fairly big operating cushion and it seems like the money could be better used on something soccer related. Of the $83M in total net assets under the management of the Federation 71 percent of the funds are currently listed as undesignated. Which again leads to the question what is exactly is the plan for this money? Is it working hard enough for the development of soccer in the U.S.?
Could this money start a program to incent coaches who have shown commitment and promise to continue their coaching education? Could that money be used as an investment in soccer infrastructure rather than U.S. T-Bills? Could it support programs in inner cities to expand the reach of youth soccer?
The U.S. Soccer Foundation which is focused on development in underserved communities and funded from money earned during the 1994 World Cup spent more than $10 million and operated at a nearly $3 million loss during its last fiscal year. That's an important project for broadening the reach of soccer, but again, is that creating enough of an impact?
Iceland has proven what a vision coupled with an investment can accomplish. There is no doubt that other Federation leaders are putting plans into action in response to Iceland's projects which means that if the U.S. does not act it could actually fall behind. U.S. Soccer has the financial resources but do they have a vision and commitment to development that is required for a country that is trying to catch up?
Portugal's big call
Portugal are a nation consistently in the upper echelon of world soccer. They've found themselves ranked outside the top 20 teams according to FIFA just twice in the last twenty years, but it wasn't until this summer's Euro that they won their first trophy. The reality was that while Portugal were quite good, they simply weren't good enough to go toe-to-toe with the giants. It's no coincidence then that the defensive mastermind Fernando Santos oversaw the breakthrough. As with Greece, Santos implements a bunker and counter mentality and has consistently outperformed expectations. Portugal were criticized for their closed style of play through the Euro but the reality is if they had opened up they would have repeated mistakes of the past.
The USMNT currently find themselves in a bit of an identity crisis much like Portugal experienced prior to Santos' arrival. The U.S. can dominate most of the teams in CONCACAF and play whatever style they want, but when it comes to the best teams, like Argentina, they are woefully overmatched. The U.S. and Klinsmann desire to be among the best and the best don't play like Portugal do now. They play proactive attacking soccer. So what is the right path? Continue to work toward a proactive style as the fans might want or commit to a style that offers the best chance of winning in the most important games? It's not realistic to believe the U.S. can develop multiple styles as international players have so little time together, which makes commitment to a tactical strategy even more important.
The U.S. needs to look hard at what Portugal accomplished and decide if they too should commit to a defensive style of play in preparation for the most important games. It served them well against Paraguay and Ecuador in the Copa Centenario. The fans were not complaining. It served Sweden well against the USWNT at the Olympics. What if Klinsmann committed to Portugal's style completely? Would that not give them the best chance to win in Russia and for the foreseeable future?
Fans might be concerned that adopting a Santos mentality will delay progress even further, but the Klinnsman/Low era in Germany is a good indication that the transition from a defensive team to attacking team can happen quickly. The pair were the benefactors of an FA that had turned the screws on the youth development system eight years earlier and they transitioned the German team leading to the 2006 World Cup. Germany has not looked back since. When the talent develops the change in tactics can be quick. Until the full youth system can develop the U.S. should leverage their set piece strength and competitive grit and build a style that gives them the best chance when faced with the best in the world.
The heroics of the U.S., Iceland and Portugal were highlights this summer but it's the source of Iceland and Portugal's success that U.S. Soccer needs to take a hard look at as they approach Russia and future cycles. Is the long term vision bold enough to get the U.S. where it could be? Is U.S. Soccer doing everything they can with the resources they have? Are they creative enough with the resources they don't control? Should Klinsmann commit to a style of play that gives the U.S. men the best chance to win now while a long term plan is in motion? These questions need to be answered and then communicated to fans. Whatever the answers to these questions, Iceland and Portugal showed the world it pays to be bold and to be committed.