By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 2, 2020) US Soccer Players - Another year in American soccer has passed and a new, even more eventful one is at hand. Here's a few reflections and observations on 2019.
The ceiling for American players is rising
The first year of the USMNT's Gregg Berhalter era featured some fits and starts. Amid an overall record of 11-5-2, a few of the team's more prominent losses drove some fans back towards the default gloominess that marked much of 2018. That should not obscure the wider trend of progress for individual players and, in at least one case, coaches too.
Christian Pulisic moved from Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea in a high-profile deal that smashed the record for biggest transfer fee ever paid for an American. After navigating a brief early-season learning curve, he found his feet and then some. Producing several match-winning displays in both Premier League and UEFA Champions League action, Pulisic climbed into the Blues' regular rotation and gave us all reason to believe he can go even further.
Zack Steffen inked a season-long loan deal with Bundesliga side Fortuna Dusseldorf. Through a combination of good fortune and high performance, he's started all 17 of their league games to date. Tyler Adams moved from the New York Red Bulls to their German siblings RB Leipzig in mid-winter, becoming a key starter almost immediately. In another corner of the Red Bull global empire, former USMNT assistant coach Jesse Marsch has been blazing a new trail as the manager of RB Salzburg, going toe to toe with the likes of Liverpool in the Champions League.
Somewhere north of a dozen Americans are getting regular minutes across the English soccer pyramid. Perhaps even more are doing similar work in Germany, many of them pursuing those opportunities markedly earlier in their careers than their predecessors. Overseas clubs are also showing increased willingness to invest real money in Yanks, too, and not just Pulisic. Borussia Monchengladbach paid the highest-ever fee for a 16-year-old MLS player, signing NYCFC and US U-17s prospect Joe Scally.
The point is, US-reared talents are getting real chances at the game's top levels. Many are making the most of them. There's reason to believe it will continue.
Controversy still dogs the Federation
Carlos Cordeiro promised a new era and a clean slate when he won the contentious 2018 US Soccer presidential election. The old ways don't die quite that easily, though, based on what's transpired since then.
Somewhere north of a dozen youth national team coaching positions remain unfilled, some for years. One of the few filled in 2019 has now come open again, with Raphael Wicky leaving the U-17s post for the Chicago Fire. Widely blamed is the new policy requiring full-time residence in Chicago.
Even at that, Federation officials have acknowledged that Soccer House, their historic current headquarters, is already bursting at the seams. Rumors have a relocation or decentralization of the whole operation as possible, usually in conjunction with the concept of a national training center, or centers.
Perhaps most frustrating for outsiders was the revelation at last month's board of directors meeting that US Soccer's annual legal fees are running somewhere around $9 million, three times what's usually projected in the budget. The result of several lawsuits filed against the Fed by NASL, Hope Solo, and others, that eye-watering figure constitutes a direct drain on soccer programming. It also cast a negative light on what should or could have been an encouraging revelation that USSF plans to spend large chunks of its surplus on initiatives to help improve the national teams and the game as a whole.
People inside the Fed will argue that much of this litigation is due to the perception that USSF is a ripe target because of that big, much-discussed surplus. However, the full picture suggests that cultural issues continue to hamper US Soccer's ability to operate at full efficiency.
MLS has "grandes" now, and they're pulling away
For much of its existence, Major League Soccer has been defiantly socialist, perhaps even communist, in nature and structure. Single-entity, parity, salary budgets, limits on travel spending, even a single leaguewide kit and gear sponsor. Generally speaking, it's all designed to keep everyone in contention every year and head off the have/have-not divide that dogs many top leagues around the world.
Much of that infrastructure remains in place. However, the richest and most ambitious clubs are slowly but surely finding ways to bring their advantages to bear. Seattle, Toronto, Atlanta, and most recently LAFC have joined the league's old elites. Little by little they're chipping away at the self-imposed limits that smaller players like Colorado and Columbus have traditionally seen as protection from their hefty spending power.
Seven of the last 10 MLS Cup finalists can be considered "grandes," to borrow a term from Latin America. Atlanta United's ability to win two trophies this year and reach the Eastern Conference Final even while laboring for long stretches under coach Frank de Boer's new system is instructive here. Their elite talent dragged them forward in spite of what many would consider collective underachievement.
Even the league's most frugal sides have taken notice. Columbus, Sporting Kansas City and the Vancouver Whitecaps having broken their own transfer-fee records on big new signings in recent weeks. It looks like an arms race has cranked up. There's no signs of it stopping any time soon.
The expansion business is still very good
As MLS's membership ticks upwards towards 30 teams and the USL Championship surges well past that number, one might conclude that the domestic pro landscape is approaching its saturation point. The decision makers don't seem to see it that way.
For good reasons. They seem to have pulled off a neat trick. They are cultivating their supply/demand equations well enough to maintain a healthy list of aspiring newcomers while keeping the admission fees high and growing. They've arguably done so without obviously watering down the talent pool and the product on the field. Will 30 be the stopping point? Perhaps 32? Or maybe the whole idea of stopping points is just part of the hustle.
The latest slot in MLS has proved to be far and away the most expensive, with David Tapper reportedly dropping $325 million to gain entry for Charlotte. While it costs a much more pedestrian $7 million or thereabouts to get into the second division, that still represents a marked increase from the recent past. Meanwhile, USL is busily building out its second tier, League One, to provide another option, and is experiencing steady growth there, too.
Whether you read all this as encouraging signs of healthy growth or the ill-gotten gains of monopoly, any thoughts that 2019 would see it jump the shark simply didn't happen.
VAR is here, and it's hard
The past year saw the Video Assistant Referee system implemented across big swaths of the global game, most notably on the big stage of the English Premier League. As you've probably seen, this has been a highly contentious process, with the pinpoint interpretation of the offside rule in particular bedeviling all involved.
At the same time, the sample size of early adopters like MLS grew enough to allow for some big-picture evaluations. We're now at a point you might call the second wave. That means addressing kinks and flaws and perhaps even tweaking the fundamental laws of the game to make a more coherent whole.
This being a human-led process in spite of the technology involved, it remains subject to the human element. We can expect it to be a fountain of argument and controversy for the foreseeable future. The most intense VAR discussions seem to boil down to the question of whether it's altered the rhythm and fiber of the beautiful game beyond a level most stakeholders find comfortable. Conversely, pragmatists wonder whether instant replay itself is the sort of genie that the authorities have any hope of pushing back into the bottle. Love it or loathe it, we came face to face with VAR's legacy in 2019. Making peace with it may take a good deal longer.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Minimalism, empty vessels and FCs galore: American soccer leans into the rebrand
- "Soccer in the City" aims to tell a new story of the American game
- Is American big money finally warming up to soccer?
- What I’m grateful for in soccer this Thanksgiving
Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com