Soccer is booming in the United States. By almost all measures, the sport is making significant progress into the consciousness of the country. The USWNT regained their place at the top in the 2015 Women’s World Cup, and more people than ever are playing and watching soccer.
Still, it’s this momentum that creates the dissonance we sense when confronted with the fact that the USMNT will miss their first World Cup since 1986. With all the progress being made, why are the men regressing? Is this simply a one-time failure of an under-performing generation? Or, is there something wrong with the system?
As it relates to the MNT, progress is being viewed through a dark glass. Not only are the growth metrics pointed to largely insignificant, but they fail to capture an important context: the competition. Through this different lens, progress can be seen as far less than certain.
Below is a look at various outcomes that highlight the growth of soccer in the United States. The data starts in 2007 and is indexed against that year so that multiple metrics can be compared (the soccer playing population starts in 2009). These results roughly define the tenure of Sunil Gulati, who took the reins in 2006.
Not surprisingly, the biggest gainers have been financially related. The value of Major League Soccer teams has grown over nine times their 2007 values, according to Forbes. A large amount of that growth is due to expansion, but expansion is a legitimate measuring stick for popularity. Meanwhile, U.S. Soccer has nearly quadrupled the amount of money they are holding in their investment portfolio. The investment portfolio is a good proxy for how much surplus has been accumulated over the last decade. While holding some reserves is prudent, the amount is excessive and the USSF is deliberating on the best way to invest that surplus.
The number of professional soccer teams has doubled to 70, which indicates that wealth is expanding beyond MLS and USSF. MLS attendance has grown to over eight million a season, up from more than three million. The number of people who have reportedly played soccer in the last twelve months is over fifteen million, with an average annual growth rate of over five percent. Not many countries can say that they are growing their soccer pool by five percent per year.
There has even been strong growth in the youth ranks. In 2007, the U.S. Soccer Federation launched their Development Academy and 64 clubs were part of the initial campaign. Currently the DA has 149 clubs involved, indicating encouraging momentum.
Now, contrast that information with the rank of the USMNT over the same timeframe, as referenced by the gray line:
Looking at two ranking methods, FIFA’s ranking and an ELO rating method, the U.S. has generally regressed relative to the rest of the world since 2007. Here, the dissonance really begins to kick in. The issue is that the metrics that are usually referenced to highlight progress have very little relationship to what it takes to build a great national team.
A national team is judged by the roughly 30 players that compete in key competitions, and progress is measured by the quality of those players. At the risk of sounding dystopian, U.S. Soccer’s role is to oversee a large funnel that moves kids from the U6 level all the way to the senior team, and success needs to be measured in terms of moving players between levels and the extent to which those levels improve. This type of progress is very difficult to measure, but it’s clear that the U.S. is not growing as efficiently in this area as they are in the other metrics.
Consider that Iceland has just 21,000 youth players in their system while they produce 30 players at least the equivalent of the U.S. Men’s team. Iceland’s ability to move players from one level to the next and improve the quality of each level is dramatically more efficient. But that wasn’t always the case. Iceland started investing heavily in the funnel before Sunil Gulati came into office and now have quality coaches in place when kids are six years old.
There are many factors driving how efficiently players progress through the system but there are four key themes - coaching players, scouting players, motivating players (mostly to choose to play soccer) and players’ financial ability to play. Observing progress in these areas is far more difficult but far more critical than how much money is being made. When considering the sheer number of people playing soccer, the U.S. ranks as one of the least efficient nations at producing top players.
But addressing these issues is not enough because all the other countries in the world are working on the exact same funnel. If the U.S. wants to improve their national ranking and be competitive with the final eight teams in the World Cup, they need to improve at a rate that is faster than the countries they are trailing.
If your boss were to give you a three percent raise, you might leave the office feeling pretty good. But, if the country’s currency inflation is increasing by four percent, the quality of your lifestyle would actually be declining. Soccer is no different. Switzerland, for example, is getting better at training, motivating, tactics and scouting all the time, as are all nations with serious goals in soccer. There is a rate which the world is improving. If the U.S. isn’t keeping up, then we are going backwards.
How many of the top 30 American U-17 players would be in the top 30 for England? Germany? How many of the top 30 senior team players would be in the top 30 for Belgium? Brazil? These metrics are more subjective and difficult to assess, but they are the imperative metrics to truly discuss growth in this country.
The popularity of soccer continues to grow, but that growth has just a marginal impact on what really matters: moving kids and young adults through a large national team machine and improving the output of that machine. Evidence of growth in this area is harder to come by, and the long term trends and recent qualifying debacle indicate the United States is likely falling behind. The impressive growth of players and eyeballs doesn’t really matter, or at least the impact is marginalized by the inefficiency in developing players.
Is the U.S. just in a lull, with the momentum from the Development Academy about to reveal its fruit? That’s the best case scenario that will play out over the next cycle. The worst case scenario is the one the USSF needs to be planning for. The good news is the United States has tremendous advantages in resources, and we don’t need to be very efficient to be a major player on the global stage. We clearly need to grow faster and differently than we currently are despite what the growth of the sport in this country might suggest.