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Hyping USMNT prospects hides the problems that plague US Soccer

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The team needs more than just a few more good players

Apoel Nicosia v Ajax - UEFA Champions League Photo by Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images

One question that has hounded the US Men’s National Team since the team began being relevant in soccer again is - When will the US produce a Pele? or Messi? Or Ronaldo? (Notice it’s never a Maradona, our heroes must come uncomplicated and unflawed or at least have a massive PR effort hiding those flaws and multi-billion dollar corporations ignoring them to keep brands like CR7 running). Every now and then we think we have found the answer in players like: Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, Bobby Convey, Mix Diskerud, Julian Green, Brek Shea, John O’Brien, Jamar Beasley, Juan Agudelo, Luis Gil, and Gedion Zelalem.

None of these players achieved a world class level, were named as a finalist for the Balon d’Or or lived up to the hype they were supposed to. Christian Pulisic is on his way, he’s got a long way to go, but he is the one player who seems to actually be coming close to living up to that potential. Maybe in the last 20 years, there is one other US player who has been truly relevant in the sport, and that’s Clint Dempsey - a player who only appeared in the US youth set up 13 times. In fact, Dempsey might be a better example of a player who slipped through the cracks and could have achieved more had he been in more competitive situations early in his development, but things turned out pretty well for him in the end. Their success comes amid a never ending string of players who never panned out and yet hype continues among a fanbase that is forever dissatisfied with whatever the current USMNT is, but is forever sure that young players will fix the national team.

In reality, fans are projecting their hopes, dreams, and insecurities on these players. A serious look at the player pool shows it has five players in it that are actually playing at a top level and all the while the federation is more concerned about business than soccer. I’ve been banging the drum for a little while that the player pool isn’t very good. Most of this is focused on MLS, but looking abroad there are not many Americans making the Best XI of those leagues either. Compared to top international teams in the world, Americans don’t crack the best club squads the way they do for the nations that can compete to win the World Cup, not by a long-shot.

Meanwhile, the US player pool has Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, Weston McKennie, and... well that’s it. Five players who get regular playing time in a top five league. Perhaps you could throw in Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Alfredo Morales and others who have fallen out of favor with national team managers for whatever reason. Those players show that not everyone is going to be a fit for the national team, or a manager’s conception of the national team, and that’s why depth is more important than hype. Otherwise, there is Tyler Boyd who is a step below those names but perhaps above those with potential like - Tim Weah, Duane Holmes, Antonee Robinson, Matt Miazga, Zack Steffen, Josh Sargent, Andrija Novakovich, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Ethan Horvath. Then there are prospects who immediately become the focus of intense hype like the ones Rob mentioned above, Sergino Dest, and others.

Finding “One Answer” to the larger problems of soccer in the US isn’t restricted to crowning the American Pele though. It is found across the entire discussion around soccer in the country that posit solutions like: i that posit f only there were promotion and relegation, if only the manager were different, if only the sport were more accessible, if only people watched the US Open Cup, if only the USMNT played in the Copa America, if only MLS wasn’t just helping other teams in Concacaf get better, if only the national team played in a certain stadium, if only the team had a left back, if only the manager called in a certain player, if only the team played a certain style, if only a certain player didn’t get injured early in their career...

At the end of the day, the US Soccer Federation and the system that it oversees seems to be prioritizing individual interests over ones that would benefit the sport. Meanwhile, rather than focus on that, US fans seem to think the answer lies in the individual success of a handful of prospects, rather than a system that exists to ensure the success and health of the sport more broadly. For example, Iceland has emerged as a competitive team in a tough confederation because it invested in social infrastructure to build the sport. Germany rose from a team that was being left behind in Europe to a World Cup semi-finalist and champion thanks to re-configuring its youth set up. Though they stumbled, the problems the team had in 2018 seem like they require minor adjustments and not a complete overhaul like the US does.

For the US the state of the player pool is the result of a complex web of factors related to these and other issues. Even if one, or two, or five (which would be a miracle) of the players hyped among the talented youngsters emerged as a solid starter in a top league the systemic problems that are holding back US Soccer will persist because of the choices that the federation leadership has made and continues to make. The US could just as easily follow a different model, like the ones in Iceland and Germany, but is choosing not to. In that way fans are right to hype players because US Soccer has created a system in which the fate of the USMNT will be determined by the success or failure of individuals. But, if history is any indicator, those hopes are misplaced because those players are not likely to solve the problems that the team faces.