U.S. domestic soccer will continue to grow despite World Cup bid loss
Even without the World Cup, popularity of soccer in the U.S. is growing
Improvements in MLS and youth development need to be made
Poor standard of officiating is one area MLS must improve quickly
Who among us hasn't lamented an opportunity missed? It's that stock tip that you didn't listen to -- the one that eventually made your buddy rich.
But life went on and you made the best of it. And in the end, you probably weren't any worse off than before. Yes, maybe an opportunity came and went that could have made things a little easier, the path forward a little clearer. But comfort arrives in knowing that nothing is worse for it.
That's precisely where soccer in the United States is today. Who knows if the fix was in on last week's unlikely outcome in Zurich? It just doesn't matter now. The soccer establishment around here must keep pushing the boulder up the hill, growing, developing, improving. A good case of amnesia about this whole 2022 mess would be a fine asset at this point.
The sun did indeed come up Friday, on the morning after FIFA handed World Cup 2022 to Qatar. The game has been going forward for 20 years in the U.S., and forward it will continue to go. It's not like development has suddenly been snuffed out. World Cup 2022 would have significantly boosted the pace of development, multiplying interest, TV viewers, sponsor money, rights fees and youth development along the way. Now it's just back to the walking pace, never mind the visions of a sprint forward.
Besides, we could be Australia, where the game is in even more dire need of a major boost.
"What we've always said is we are on a trend line that's positive for this sport, whether it's the league or the national team," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said after Thursday's setback in Zurich. "I've always viewed this as a huge pedal, and a World Cup hosted in the U.S. would give us a foot down on that pedal and take us to a new trend line.
"So, we are obviously not going to have that. Will that trend line still be positive? Yes. Will we still get to where all of us -- where [longtime MLS commissioner] Don [Garber] and I and others -- want to get? The answer is yes. It's going to take longer. It's going to be harder. This was a big part of that plan. There's no way around that."
What does the U.S. Soccer establishment require to progress? Two measures essentially establish a country's place in the global soccer order: strong national team programs and a strong professional game, starting with a robust, tier-one association. Every nation you might view as a "strong soccer land" has one or both, right?
Perhaps MLS isn't your cup of tea. There are plenty of you out there, supporters who love the game but haven't bonded with an MLS club for whatever reason. You may not like to hear it, but MLS is the most visible, ongoing soccer property within the U.S. soccer structure. Betterment of MLS is a major element of the way forward.
"We'll take a deep breath and go back to what we do every day, which is building the game," Garber said last week. "It just might be a little harder now."
Garber has overseen tremendous growth so far, and further expansion of MLS' national footprint must continue to be a priority.
Go ask someone in the Southeast about MLS; he or she will probably look at you like you have three heads. MLS has zero presence in most markets without a team, and there are still too many of those, including prominent ones in Florida and Georgia. Thirteen of the top 25 U.S. TV markets aren't covered under the MLS umbrella. (And that's being generous, by considering San Jose as covering the San Francisco market, for instance.) So, clearly, there's plenty of work remaining there.
For all the remarkable gains in facilities -- 13 of 18 teams will play in their own stadiums this year -- there is plenty of work to do. Finding a suitable solution in Washington, D.C., for instance, remains at the top of MLS' to-do list. To continue adding credibility in the D.C. market (and to make that market financially viable), league and club leaders must fish or cut bait there sooner or later.
Same for New England, where the club continues to dent the league's aesthetic and image by playing at cavernous Gillette Stadium. Like D.C. United, the Kraft family is still operating MLS 1.0 when pretty much everyone else is now operating MLS 2.0 or better.
In terms of player development, the solutions are out there but won't always be popular. Some of them will bother the well-established ways of American youth soccer. But maybe this can be the moment that matters. Maybe last week's setback can inspire some stubborn response, the kind needed to crack the status quo. To wit, soccer leaders will have to listen to what some smart people are saying. People like former U.S. women's national team coach Tony DiCicco, who recently restated the frequent lament that youth soccer is a business, a business about winning and not about developing players.
None of this is news, of course. U.S. men's coach Bob Bradley, his predecessor, Bruce Arena, and plenty of others have said similar.
Claudio Reyna, in his capacity as U.S. Youth Soccer Technical Director, is studying ways to create better coaches and players at the youngest levels. You could say that his job is to improve the law of averages; a better head start will position more players to flourish at a higher level, which would theoretically improve the men's and women's national teams. It would also improve the domestic leagues, not only MLS but also the lower tier pro operations.
Along those lines, the quality of MLS must improve. League owners just addressed the roster situation that had been holding back development. Rosters now have room for 30 players, which should help MLS be more competitive in CONCACAF Champions League. (Which might make a few more people actually care about the regional competition, as only the true hard-cores even know about CCL presently.)
The league's youth development initiatives, including the academies that clubs enjoy trumpeting, are now even more important now. (You can make the argument that MLS "academies" are doing nothing that successful, dominant youth clubs haven't done for years ... but that's a different discussion.)
Referees need to improve. A lot. This has been a dirty little secret in the establishment; league and team officials would carp privately but coddle publicly, declining to acknowledge that U.S. Soccer's match officials must be better top to bottom. Good referees provide the opportunity for talented players to entertain, and MLS needs that.
These are the initiatives MLS requires to make actual progress, never mind wasting time with all this silliness about conforming to the international calendar. That's the one good thing that came from last week's disappointment: MLS doesn't need to pander to this particular Sepp Blatter pet project anymore. We all saw how well the appeasement efforts worked last week.
This is not 1994. For that moment, soccer here needed a weapons grade burst in awareness. World Cup USA delivered such an epochal moment, one that could overcome years of inertia. To put it another way, soccer needed its "game changer" and World Cup 1994 was it.
Soccer in the U.S. doesn't need that kind of fire starter anymore. Now it just needs accelerants.