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Opinion: US Soccer Needs New Development Model

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The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)

 

Two World Cup cycles ago, a thoughtful and well-researched soccer story anchored the June 2, 2010, edition of The New York Times Magazine. The title: "How a Soccer Star is Made." It is the story of the AFC Ajax Youth Academy, the sole purpose of which is to turn Dutch children into elite footballers.

There are other such facilities dotting Europe, Asia and Central and South America. Ajax remains the gold standard.

Michael Sokolove, the author of the Times piece, wrote: There are two ways to become a world-class player. One is to spend hours and hours in pickup games ... This is the Brazilian way and also the model of much of the rest of South America, Central America and the soccer hotbeds of Africa. ... The other way is the Ajax method. Scientific training. Attention to detail. Time spent touching the ball rather than playing a mindless number of organized games.

In America, we opt for a mindless number of organized games.

There has been a great hue and cry in the week since the U.S. men's national team's loss to Trinidad and Tobago. The defeat knocked the Americans out of the 2018 World Cup, a setback that has been described in Pompeii-like terms. The U.S. failing to emerge from CONCACAF is like the Browns finishing behind Bluffton University in the Heartland Conference standings.

Perhaps you've heard of Sokolove. He wrote that Pete Rose book, "Hustle." Monday, Sokolove was driving home from New York, where a television series named "Rise" is in production. It is based on one of his recent books, "Drama High," about a brilliant high-school drama teacher.

Sokolove was kind enough to entertain a phone call. First question: Has anything changed with U.S. Soccer in the seven years since he wrote that piece for The New York Times Magazine?

"I think nothing, in a way," he said. "I am not going to hold myself up as a soccer expert; I just looked deeply into the way we train and raise players. It's still stunning to lose to Trinidad and Tobago and get knocked out."

Let this be said: The U.S. women's national team is fabulous, because we have fabulous female athletes, and for other reasons that would take another column to explore.

On the men's side, there has been a call for heads to roll. Coach Bruce Arena has resigned, but U.S. federation president Sunil Gulati seems bent on avoiding the guillotine. Sokolove is a proponent of change (a sentiment I share). Progress, he said, can be made with a full-time president buttressed by people who understand American sports culture — and by outsiders who have a grasp of how players are developed in other countries.

America has vast resources, even for soccer. Why aren't there more Christian Pulisics?

First, nobody is playing pickup soccer.

Second, nobody is ready to commit to an Ajax-like system, where thousands of kids are put in a hopper at age 7 and, after puberty, three or four of them are sold to Chelsea.

What is possible, though, is a hybrid system that fits America's democratic idea of participation — in combination with an elite development tier that bypasses the NCAA game. College is far from an effective finishing school for elite soccer players.

"The problem is there is tremendous economic incentive not to change," Sokolove said. "Complexes are built to provide X number of hotel rooms and generate restaurant traffic, and everyone comes down to compete for college scholarships."

Those who can afford it are playing on travel teams under the auspices of unregulated and highly profitable youth-sports systems in proximity to hotels and restaurants. Those who can't afford it are playing in rec leagues. In either case, they're playing a mindless number of games and threatening their knees at a young age (see Sokolove's "Warrior Girls").

If we take nothing else from the rest of the world — and, as Sokolove said, "we rarely listen to anyone else" -- we should take the lesson of practice, practice, practice. Major League Soccer academies have made inroads and they will be part of a larger solution — if there is a solution. And if there is, the U.S. is not yet halfway through the process.

marace@dispatch.com

@MichaelArace1

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