Glaring problems persist as United States Soccer seeks to reverse downward trend

by Santino Torres / Staff Reporter

USA’s loss to Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup qualifying game in 2017. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Blackwell.

On Oct. 15, at BMO Field in Toronto, the United States men’s soccer team took their first loss in 34 years against Canada in a historic 2-0 result. Both goals came in the second half, including one that occurred in stoppage time. 

Two years prior, the USMNT was eliminated from World Cup contention when Trinidad & Tobago knocked off the Americans in a 2-1 result that saw Christian Pulisic split the lead in half, but unable to find the equalizer. 

The showing and performance in both games gave off the idea that the United States is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to soccer.

This trend is nothing new, the nation continues to struggle with finding the methodology required to correctly develop young talent. Aiding that trend is the inconsistency with the coaching. 

At the top, the United States are on their fourth head coach in as many years, exhausting through the likes of Jürgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena. At the bottom, 11 Major League Soccer (MLS) coaches are foreign, and only Brian Schmetzer is a proven homegrown, having played with the Seattle Sounders until he began coaching the team as an assistant in 2002, before they joined MLS. No other coach has been with their team beyond 2009.

“I think for a long time, you saw that American style of play with Bradley and Arena. That trickles down to the club and the universities,” said Adrian Calleros, head coach of Eric Solorio Academy’s boy’s soccer program. Calleros was also an assistant coach for Graham Brennan at Roosevelt University in 2012. 

“For a long time, you would see, ‘we’ll give up possession, stay in the back and defend for 90 minutes and hope that we get a set piece where we score on a corner or free kick.’ The loss that they took to Canada, I gave them credit. They tried coming out playing in the back,” Calleros said. 

The main difference between their performances against Trinidad & Tobago and against Canada was the team on the pitch against Canada tried to deviate from a traditional style of play. They attempted to become a more possession-oriented team.

Teams that play a possession style of soccer normally build their attacks up with passes from the back, with the ball and players working together simultaneously while moving upward in unison. This is the style of play the new, young talent should begin adapting to now, if the United States is going to eventually take the next step in their progression. In fact, more young talent should be invested into this adaptation in an effort to help create an identity across the board for the younger talent to model after, starting with an experience in growth at the domestic league.

Jim Konrad, now coaches the team he once played for —Naperville North High School. He won three straight state championships from 2016-18, and was named United Soccer Coaches’ National High School Coach of the Year in 2018. 

“There’s a tier of talent that we want here because they’re special but have to be overseas. The MLS has to promote growth,” he said. “They got to develop and grow players that fit into our national team’s model. What can we offer these kids who are just transitioning into becoming men, that can really propel them forward? The more they can do to help educate coaches; I think all those things really have to help MLS teams.”

“Right now, the biggest issue we have that I see, is coaching,” said Calleros. “Right now, there’s more kids than ever, playing soccer. I don’t think there’s quality coaching out there.”

Both Calleros and Konrad’s programs emphasize the growth of the sport, as well as the beginning of the investment process of young, local talent: the communities which both programs serve are very soccer-driven areas, with the game having an established presence in both the Gage Park/Elsdon area and Naperville suburb that hosts each program. Kevin Thunholm, head coach of the Libertyville boys’ soccer team, is in an ideal situation. Libertyville is a far-north, close-knit soccer suburb that hosts a club team and a soccer complex.

“The reason I think we’re successful is that we have a good relationship with our club; I think that makes for stronger teams,” said Thunholm, whose nationally-ranked team had placed as runner-up in back-to-back 3A IHSA State tournaments and fielded two All-Americans during that time span. “Some of the other schools have four or five different clubs that feed into their high school. There’s a trust there. It’s a small, local community so everybody goes and cheers for club, and then when club season’s over, everybody goes and cheers for school,” Thunholm added. 

“A lot of coaches invest in the local clubs,” said Konrad “We’re pretty fortunate. I think that we had a great group of players these last few years. My brother coached a lot of them in club all the way up until they got to high school. So, our feeder system is strong.”

“If you look at the neighborhood [Eric Solorio Academy] is in, a Latino soccer-rich community, you can’t drive by a park or a street or even a parking lot for that matter and not see little pick-up games going on,” said Calleros. “When we have tryouts, it’s 100 kids coming out for 18 positions at the lower levels. Now when you’re talking about the varsity, the numbers are even greater.”

There’s no question that the interest to turn the soccer industry in the United States around is there. Whether it is a mismanagement of talent or a lack of solid coaching, it appears as if there is an underlying problem that can’t seem to be uncovered to determine what needs to be changed for the United States to become a competitive soccer nation.

“A lot of these academy coaches are telling them that if you don’t invest in this academy, which is seven days a week, travel the country, lots of money, you can’t do anything else,” Thunholm said. “Kids decide to quit, and I think we’re missing the boat there. We’re almost telling these kids, ‘all or nothing.”  

Categories: Sports


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