The United States Men’s National Team did it again.
They built up the hopes of soccer supporters — fanatics and casual observers alike — in a major tournament, but faltered when it mattered most. The USMNT was brought back down to Earth thanks to Lionel Messi and Argentina, losing 4-0 in the Copa America semifinal on Tuesday.
(Hey, at least there’s a third-place consolation game, right?)
People will call for Jurgen Klinsmann’s head. They’ll call for a formation/tactical change. They’ll say the U.S. will never compete with the world’s best.
They key for success is stability. Changing a coach, mindset and formation every time a team has a bad game is a recipe for disaster. The reason the USMNT has been successful in recent years is stability with Klinsmann, tactics and a somewhat familiar roster. That needs to remain intact.
What needs to be altered is how soccer is perceived in the country, especially by the youth.
That’s why the rest of the world — Spain, Germany, England, Argentina, Brazil, etc etc — is on another level.
Messi is one of the world’s best because he has been in Barcelona’s system since he was 13 years old. Cristiano Ronaldo signed with Sporting Lisbon’s youth academy when he was 12. Neymar joined Santos’ youth ranks when he was 11.
These superstars were taught the club ethos on the field and off it. They learn tactics, skills, strategy, work ethic. They learn how to dress, how to talk, how to walk.
That support system needs to be implemented in the United States if we want to compete with the world’s best. Kids need to specialize in soccer from an early age and go into it 100 percent, not just for fun or in the offseason of football, baseball or basketball.
With that being said, the other thing that needs to change is the mentality/priority of the country’s youth.
Kids who play sports want to grow up and emulate their favorite players — Cam Newton, LeBron James, Bryce Harper. Sure, Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar might be up there too, but not as much as NFL, NBA or MLB players.
There have been positive changes regarding soccer in the United States. Major League Soccer has doubled its member clubs from 10 to 20 since its founding in 1996 and will add two more clubs by 2018. Soccer is available on TV more frequently — NBCSN, ESPN, FOX Sports 1, beIN Sports. FIFA Soccer video games are more and more popular.
Certainly steps in the right direction. But instead of having our youth play the video game pretending to be Messi after Pop Warner practice, we need them to play as Messi after soccer practice.
Soccer needs to be a priority beginning with the youth and they need that system (academy, competition, schooling, training) in place to support it and help it grow.
Until then, the USMNT may upset one of the world’s best here and there. Maybe we’ll make it out of the World Cup group stage again. But we will never win a World Cup or have an American player win the Ballon d’Or until soccer becomes a top priority in the United States like it is in the rest of the world.