-Ben McCormick

Let's fix American soccer.

Right here, right now. By the end of this post, you will know exactly how the USMNT will get to where it should be: firmly above Mexico, challenging the world powers consistently. It's a long post, but I swear, by the end you'll know exactly how to fix it.

From top to bottom in the US men's program, it's been a crappy few months. Starting with the U-20 team's failure to qualify for the U-20 World Cup and ending with the U-17 team's embarrassing loss to Germany in the round of 16 at the U-17 World Cup, US Soccer has fallen on hard times.

The worst loss of all, though, comes in the form of the Gold Cup final defeat against Mexico. After the ideal 2-0 start, I was already looking forward to the good night's sleep I'd be getting in a few hours after a satisfying US win. My dreams were literally and metaphorically shattered, though, once Steve Cherundolo went off injured to be replaced by Jonathan Bornstein, exposing the US squad's biggest weakness: depth.

There's no doubt when Cherundolo, arguably the most consistent US player in the tournament to that point, went off and Bornstein, the seldom played UANL Tigres man came on the US were noticeably weaker. Any sensible US fan knew the potent Mexican attack was going to challenge the American defense early and often, and Cherundolo was a key part of the glue that would hopefully hold off the Mexican barrage. When Bornstein came on, it was easy to see the US was in serious trouble. He was directly at fault on the first two Mexican goals. On the first he was just plain beat by Barrera's run. On the second, he was caught out of position when the ball was played over the top of him to Dos Santos before failing to close him down, allowing for his pass/shot that resulted in tying goal.

Now the question that needs to be asked instead of "why didn't Bornstein make those plays?" is "Why doesn't the US have the calibre of reserve player to fill in effectively like Mexico does?"

You might not even remember star Mexican left back Carlos Salcido was removed shortly after Cherundolo due to injury and replaced by Jorge Torres Nilo, ironically the starting left back at UANL Tigres in front of Bornstein. I would have a hard time being convinced Mexico missed a single beat after that change. When Bornstein came on, there was a collective groan from US fans and a smirk from Mexican fans. His status as a weak point was obvious from the moment he stepped on the field. With Torres Nilo though, even a hardcore fan would have been hard pressed to notice a big difference between Mexico with him and Mexico with Salcido. If the US had a player pool as deep as Mexico's, there is a lot of reason to believe that match still ends in a US victory, but that's unfortunately not a luxury the US has available.

So how does the US get depth of that quality? Where does it come from? The answer is simple: the domestic league, and right now it's not much of a secret that Mexico's Primera is of higher quality than MLS. Put it to you this way: If there's an American consistently in the first XI of a Mexican Primera Division club, he has at some point either been capped by the US national team or has been close to it. In Bornstein's case, he didn't even have to play regularly whatsoever. Compare that to MLS, where there are many, many Americans playing every week, but there aren't a significant amount of them that are national team material. In other words, Mexico has a league full of players playing at a high level whereas America can only draw from the "special talent" of the domestic league for reliable national team players, if that "special talent" is even good enough (see Rogers, Robbie and Bornstein, Jonathan).

It doesn't take a lot of brain power to come up with "good youth development" as the best way to improve a domestic league and thus a national player pool. Good youth development brings higher quality players to the domestic league, and thus strengthens the depth of the national player pool. Ok, so that sounds like it make sense, but the US U-17s got their clock cleaned by Germany and lost to Uzbekistan and the U-20 team couldn't even qualify for the World Cup! With these poor results, our youth seem to be regressing, not progressing!

Slow down.

Ignoring one of the "don'ts" of the soccer writing world, I'm going to reference baseball. Well, Michael Lewis' s Moneyball to be exact. Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A's who cheated the system by churning out annual playoff teams with one of the lowest budgets in baseball using math, said "my job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is f****** luck." Think of a soccer tournament like the U-17 World Cup, the CONCACAF U-20 Championship or the Gold Cup as a playoff series. Around seven games in a fairly short time frame, which leaves a lot of important things such as injuries, player form, referee form or weather to chance or even luck. It was calculated in Pete Palmer's The Hidden Game of Baseball that the average run difference in a game of baseball due to skill is one run, and the average difference due to luck was four runs. Over the course of a long season (or something like a World Cup qualifying campaign) the luck evens out and skill shines through, but in just a few games, anything can happen.

Soccer can take the phrase "a game of inches" to a whole new level. One inch can be the difference between a golazo and a ball that goes sailing over the bar or the difference between a clean tackle and a red card. There are so many "luck" variables that come into play in one short tournament, although I realize soccer is played on a rectangle and counts goals instead of runs, it's very realistic to see short tournaments as crapshoots. Their status as crapshoots makes them fun, don't get me wrong, but it's a crapshoot nonetheless.

So despite the U-20s failure to qualify for its World Cup, it still remains arguably the most talented and deep cycles in US history. The loss in the quarterfinals didn't change the fact 1860 Munich loves Bobby Wood, or Josh Gatt being linked with Manchester United, or Joe Gyau being a coveted player at Hoffenheim. Perhaps most importantly, for the first time in its history, the U-20 team fielded a squad entirely made up of professionals in 2010 for a tournament in Peru. And despite the U-17s shellacking at the hands of Germany, there are rumors of 2013 to be the last cycle for Bradenton residency because the Development Academy is strong enough to properly develop America's best talent, a testament to the high level of play in the DA. What happens in a few matches doesn't change the steady progress of the US youth program.

Given the status of short tournaments as crapshoots, perhaps the best measuring stick there is for American soccer is the CONCACAF Champions League, a longer tournament that measures depth rather than a short national team tournament that only measures the perceived "best" players. MLS has made strides in the CCL recently with Real Salt Lake's presence and near victory in the final. Even there, though, the gulf in quality of players claiming the same nationality as their clubs was clear.

Using the first leg of the final (so we can even add an extra American in Kyle Beckerman) Real Salt Lake fielded five American players out of its eleven starters. The Americans included a goalkeeper, three defenders and one midfielder. Monterrey, however, featured only four non-Mexican players in its lineup, including one forward, two midfielders and one defender. Monterrey heavily relied upon its Mexican players such as Aldo de Nigris, Ricardo Osorio or captain Luis Ernesto Perez to lead their team to success. RSL, on the other hand, relied on its international players much more than Monterrey did, constantly counting on Alvaro Saborio, Jamison Olave, Javi Morales and Fabian Espindola to lead the team.

The most impressive part of RSL's run to the final in terms of US Soccer's future was the manager. Specifically, the fact Jason Kreis is a manager who is both young and American. All roads in developing quality players lead to here: coaching is the key to the strengthening of a nation's player pool.

Currently in MLS, there are 8 American-bred managers and 10 non-American bred managers. A total of five of the eight American-bred managers, including Kreis, played in MLS since its inception in 1996. By contrast, the Mexican Primera has 12 Mexican managers up against 6 non-Mexican managers. 9 of the 12 Mexican managers have Primera playing experience and two of the other three had extensive coaching experience prior to earning their current position. The Mexican Primera was founded in 1943, giving Mexico 53 extra years to turn players into managers.

And there is the difference between the success of US player development and Mexican player development. Right there. Mexico is on its third generation of managers with professional domestic league experience while America is in the adolescence of its first with guys like Kreis and Ben Olsen seemingly being thrust into the role. Ex-players like Jesse Marsch, Claudio Reyna and Tab Ramos are starting to make their mark on the coming generation of players by becoming coaches, a phenomenon that will continue to grow as time goes by. America has had only had 15 years to do this while Mexico is on its 68th year.

Mexico has achieved its deep player pool through good youth development that only occurs as a result of its ex-players moving into the coaching ranks. As years go by, more and more players retire and look to take on new roles in the game, and the greater number of coaches with quality playing experience there are, the greater number of quality players will be developed. So as to say, each generation of players will be better than the last simply because their coaches were exposed to a higher level of play than the coaches before them. This is why American athletes are always getting faster, stronger and smarter. Think about it. Mexico has a 53 year head start on this "player becomes a coach who coaches a player who becomes a coach" cycle that ultimately creates a deep player pool. Simply put, It takes time.

So here's how to fix the depth problem in the US player pool: Everyone,set your phone alarm for 12:00PM July 8, 2031. When that alarm goes off, check back on the progress of the player pool. You might be pleasantly surprised.
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