Drawing parallels between English national team ‘problems,’ U.S. soccer

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England isn’t the only soccer nation suffering from developmental problems. For a long time, American soccer has remained fairly static in its ability to churn out young products who can compete at a world-class level.

The English Football Association has set up a commission to improve the talent pool available for national team selection, and specifically increase the number of Englishmen playing in the Premier League.

“The FA’s investment in and commitment to coaching is exemplified by St. George’s Park [England’s national training center],” FA chairman Greg Dyke (pictured) said during the commission announcement. “The Premier League’s focus on Youth Development through the Elite Player Performance Plan promises much.”

Premier League chairman Anthony Fry added: “It is evident from discussions with the clubs that there is a strong desire to see greater numbers of England-qualified players coming through their Academy systems that are capable of performing at both Premier League and international standard.”

source: Getty Images
Before becoming the head coach of the Portland Timbers in 2013, Caleb Porter amassed a record of 119 wins, 18 losses, 17 ties, and one national championship in seven years at University of Akron. (Photo: Getty Images.)

That sounds a lot like U.S. Soccer’s justification for setting up its Development Academy, in which every Major League Soccer club in the U.S. (and the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps) participates. The system is supposed to “provide the best youth players in the U.S. with an every day environment designed to produce the next generation of National Team players” by putting the best players in front of top-level coaches and scouts on a weekly basis.

The biggest problem, which nobody on either side of the Atlantic Ocean has thoroughly addressed so far, is how to ensure the quality of those coaches. Aside from U.S. Soccer’s Coaching Curriculum developed by Claudio Reyna and implemented or ignored by Academy teams as they see fit, the Player Development Task Force created in 2006 has done little to advance the level of play so far.

As Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers put it in an interview with Henry Winter of The Daily Telegraph: “We need to stop blaming the players. The players get the blame in this country. No. It’s the coaching.”

Rodgers’ team plays some of the most attractive soccer in the Premier League, as did his previous club, Swansea City. He will be invited to present his opinions to the FA commission, Winter reported, but his views should be heard in the U.S. as well.

St. George’s is a very impressive site, and it’s great that they [England] have the site. But I look at what we had at Swansea: We trained on an AstroTurf pitch at Swansea because we had no facilities. I used to get showered with the public.

We had nothing — absolutely nothing — yet everyone was wondering and talking about how we played football. It’s about football principles and defending those principles with your life. If you can get that fusion between the British players who will work their socks off but also have technique and tactical understanding, then young players will get better and better.

Rodgers named several lower-level and youth coaches who have never been given an opportunity at the higher levels. Instead, the Premier League — and MLS in the U.S. — rely on a merry-go-round of the same coaches, maintaining the status quo instead of evolving to a higher level of soccer.

The possible exceptions that have blossomed in 2013 have been Colorado Rapids coach Óscar Pareja and Portland Timbers maestro Caleb Porter. Pareja started his coaching career in the U.S. youth national team programs and as FC Dallas’ academy director, while Porter coached University of Akron.

Another coach trying to climb up the ranks in the U.S., Paul Dalglish, made similar observations on Twitter:

Dalglish, the son of former Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, began his coaching career as an assistant with the Houston Dynamo, followed up by stints in the lower divisions with the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Austin Aztex. He is the Lonestar SC technical director.

In February, MLS began a partnership with the French Football Federation to further coaching education among the league’s academies. As part of the agreement, one coach from each club is enrolled in the Elite Formation Coaching License course, which includes first-hand observation of top-level European academies.

France is in an elite group of European nations when it comes to player development, with its Clairefontaine facility churning out Thierry Henry, Hatem Ben Arfa and Abou Diaby, among others. But enrolling less than 20 American coaches in a foreign coaching course and expecting the knowledge to spread to the rest of the nation through osmosis is hardly enough.

The majority of Homegrown Player signings still don’t work. The biggest stars in MLS over the last few years, Landon Donovan aside, have been largely foreign players, much like the Premier League’s top crop. Players who go abroad still find vastly superior development opportunities.

It’s not that this country doesn’t have the coaches and players who could turn the U.S. into a soccer superpower. It’s that those people have been shut out in favor of a largely pedestrian old boys’ club who continually walk through a revolving door of high-level American soccer jobs.

Until that changes, the U.S. will continue to lag behind countries with lower population and less resources.