First things first. 1. That's not a selfie. 2. US soccer is already great. On the women's side. But with the men's team having gone through a disastrous World Cup qualifying failure where we couldn't beat a Trinidad & Tobago B team that had nothing to play for, the men's side is clearly not great.
It's about to change.
Currently the United States has one young, awesome player in Christian Pulisic and a handful of other young players who are interesting prospects and getting overseas chances, mostly in Germany. While we might never be like Brazil and have 150 players like Pulisic, we don't need that. To be competitive on the world stage, we really just need a couple more Pulisic level players who are competing in higher leagues week in and week out and making an impact.
When I was growing up, kids club soccer barely existed. The Sockers and Pegasus were starting to take foot, but most of the kids I played high school soccer with just played on the local team and that included many who either played college or got college offers and decided not to play. I got scored on twice by Brian McBride in a summer game between Glenbrook North and Buffalo Grove High School. A player of his caliber would never even consider playing high school soccer much less club soccer with his local team (although I believe he also played club). And while I don't know who their coach was, ours was the gym teacher. Great guy, but not really a soccer coach and he was good enough to get us to second in State. Now if you want to play Division 1 soccer you have to likely play for a Development Academy (DA) team and train year round. Starting at u13 they practice four days a week and play on the weekends.
Whether or not this is good for kids is debatable and I personally think that if a kid doesn't have a chance to go pro, it's probably not a good idea. But watching the skill that is developing is amazing. Great players are training with great players every day and for the most part can't rely on their speed or athleticism alone to succeed. The technical ability of the kids I've seen in these games is incredible. My high school team was amazing and the best juggler could do so a couple hundred times. My son played with a kid this summer who juggled an apple for a minute and everyone at his DA club team can juggle hundreds of times. He's 11.
Beyond that though these kids actually are getting soccer IQ's. Most DA teams are coached by former pros and you don't see kick and run anymore. It's all about possession and encouraging individual bravery and creativity. When I was growing up I didn't know about English soccer or La Liga or any other foreign league and even if I did, watching it would be impossible. Soccer kids today can watch high level games every weekend and can learn that way too. They have soccer role models beyond Messi and Ronaldo. They can try to model their games after pros and try the moves they see their soccer heroes doing. This is all relatively new in the US. And these kids are playing year round and specializing in soccer at a young age. Again, it's probably not great for most of them, but it will inevitably produce talent and we are seeing it happen.
While the majority of DA kids are just very good, there are certainly some that have both incredible athletic skill as well as technical soccer skill. These kids are playing futsal and practice under high pressure with the ability to think and play faster than any US Soccer generation before. With the bad press football has gotten over brain injuries, many of our best athletes are in fact now playing soccer and I see it on the field every weekend (and yes I know about concussions in soccer too).
I don't think the DA plan is perfect and if you look at their map of where teams are located, they are very clearly missing out on some of the best players in the country. But they do have a lot of amazing players in the program and while Pulisic is ironically not a product of the DA, there are players of his incredible athletic and technical skill who also have his determination who are coming. It's just a matter of time before we have a bunch of them on the field and can consistently put together a great US Men's National team. For most DA kids it's an almost guaranteed route to play college soccer. For the best though it's a path to becoming a pro and while US Soccer does have a pay to play problem, most DA's are free at the older levels and I've yet to see a club that will turn away an elite player because they don't have the money.
As a huge soccer nerd I am personally devastated by the epic failure last night. It's a huge setback for US Soccer. But help is on the way. Should the coach be fired? Yes although he should resign first. Should the head of US Soccer Sunil Gulati be booted? It's long overdue. The basic structure of a good youth program is in place and it's certainly better than anything we've ever had before. It's not going to make kids want to dribble a soccer ball to school or move away from home at 11 to train as happens in Brazil, Spain and elsewhere, but it is going to give the best prospects the highest level of training that has ever happened in the United States. After that it's really a numbers game. The results are already starting to show at the u17 and u20 levels and that generation and the one behind it should make us great for years to come.