By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 8, 2018) US Soccer Players - In the final stop on the USMNT’s early-summer tour, Dave Sarachan’s youth movement is about to face its stiffest test to date. The young Yanks are in Lyon, France this week, preparing for a friendly vs Les Bleus on Saturday afternoon (3pm ET - ESPN). It’s a daunting opponent, one with legitimate aims of winning this summer’s World Cup thanks mainly to a supremely talented player pool featuring some of the biggest stars on the planet.
You probably know most of the names by now. Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Samuel Umtiti, and the list goes on. Given the timing of this game, with French players hustling to prove themselves deserving of prime roles in Russia, the visitors can expect a very high-intensity level for most or all of the 90 minutes at Groupama Stadium. This is the gold standard. It’s a valuable measuring stick for the rising crops US Soccer wants to cultivate, even if it turns out to be a humbling one. For US Soccer at large, it’s also a bit of a glimpse through sliding doors to parallel universes.
For many of us, a glimpse at France is a reminder of what’s possible, even in the presence of enormous obstacles. A large nation with deep histories of colonialism and immigration, teeming with enormous ethnic, racial, cultural, regional, and economic diversity. A landscape rife with both peril and opportunity for those operating its national teams.
Tortuous challenges seem to lurk at every turn. From the push-pull of national identity amid the human movement of globalization to managing the explosive interpersonal environments that can arise when so much ability and ambition is in one locker room.
Modern world soccer has witnessed France produce superlative achievements and spectacular flameouts in almost equal measure. The same program that failed to qualify for both Italia 1990 and USA 94 won the 1998 World Cup on home soil and has not missed one since. Along the way, they’ve yo-yo-ed from champions to group-stage flops to finalists and back down to grotesque underachievement yet again.
The 1998 heroes inspired the term black, blanc, beur (“black, white, Arab”), to celebrate the team’s reflection of France’s rising diversity. The winning roster and stylish tactics were a map not only of the mother country, but also its far-flung colonial holdings in Africa, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and beyond. Eight years later Zinedine Zidane, one of its central stars, almost led a return to the trophy dais only to throw away the chance with his sensational headbutt of Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final.
In 2010, a squad of similar potential melted down in the fire of its own internal issues. That included a player revolt against manager Raymond Domenach. Their campaign in South Africa ended at the group stage, to the shame of the fans back home. A year later, the French public learned that federation officials had conspired to secretly cap the numbers of nonwhite players admitted into the academy system.
Today, even with these tempestuous topics always close at hand, France is a model of player development. The FFF, its member clubs and the wider soccer culture as a whole have fostered a conveyor belt of talent that churns out many of the world’s most technical, gifted, and expensive players. Periodic fluctuations aside, the national team pool is consistently deep and ferociously competitive, headlined by stars coveted by the world’s biggest clubs.
Greater Paris has become probably the single richest area of players on earth, as Simon Kuper documented for ESPN last year. Decades of post-World War II immigration have made the city’s sprawling blue-collar suburbs a fertile ground for growing elite prospects from Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira to Pogba, Mbappe and myriad dual nationals who wind up wearing the colors of their family’s former homelands.
“The Ile-de-France (as Greater Paris is known) probably produces more talent than Asia, Africa and North America combined,” wrote Kuper. "Nowadays, the region typically produces more than a third of the French squad.... "In these suburbs, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the world, talent is refined by an efficient state sporting structure. The best local kids are swiftly lifted into the professional orbit."
A government-sponsored youth soccer pyramid looks like a tall order to implement in the US. That said, there are some potentially useful comparisons. Especially for those who’ve gotten any sort of glimpse of the enormously under-scouted segments of the American game, among Latino communities in particular.
Major League Soccer has a coaching education partnership with the French Federation. For the past few years MLS teams have been sending their top academy coaches to France, at substantial time and expense, to work through a rigorous 14-month development course that eventually earns them their “Elite Formation Coaching License,” a revered certification that includes in-depth visits to the inner workings of top European academies like Olympique Lyonnais, Atletico Madrid and RB Leipzig.
There’s something of a “flavor of the month” factor here, with US Soccer and its various member organizations having careened from one overseas infatuation to the next over the decades. At various times the US has looked to Germany, England, the Netherlands, Spain, Argentina and yes, France, seeking any sort of blueprint or magical ingredients it can find to close down the gap between this country and the global elite.
Some of it has borne fruit, others less so. Still more initiatives have simply faded into the background. The ones rumpeted at the time of announcement and allowed to drift once leadership has changed hands or process and/or results didnt't go as expected.
This week USSF announced that Earnie Stewart, a USMNT icon with strong Dutch roots, will take up the program’s new general manager post. At a similarly influential position on the fed’s convoluted flowchart of authority sits Nico Romeijn, a Dutchman who arrived at Soccer House to lead an overhaul of its coaching education system and has since moved up to the title of sport development programs director. So perhaps we’re headed in an Orange direction again, even as the Netherlands tweaks its own course in the wake of a failed World Cup qualifying campaign.
Every country is different. The United States’ relatively unique historical relationship with soccer has few close comparisons around the world. France is just like the rest of Europe in that the beautiful game enjoys a dominant place on the sporting landscape. It holds nowhere near as many rivals for footprint and attention as soccer does amid America’s rich buffet of pastimes and diversions. We Yanks must continue to try to adapt the world’s best practices to our quirky situation, resisting both temptations to photocopy and a tendency to go our own lonely way.
When Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, and company face off against the Pogba generation on Saturday, they will test themselves against perhaps the most powerful case study available for charting the new American way forward.
More from Charles Boehm:
- A “respectfully rebellious” view from abroad: Todd Beane on the state of American coaching
- No more coach/GMs: Complexity and specialization in MLS technical staffs
- US Soccer coaching education and the strange case of the “war on rondos”
- A USMNT alum prospers on the prairie
Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com