A soccer federation is the most political entity outside of an actual political entity. Around the world, the one thing that unites all countries, races, and nationalities is the shared experience of the angst of figuring out what exactly a football federation stands for. All nations undergo this soul searching and some (Germany currently for example) come through set for success for years. Others constantly fight internally and impede any progress towards success. In the latter category is the U.S. Soccer Federation. Unlike a small FA, however, this civil war has repercussions across the soccer world.
First, apologies for the Americanized nomenclature, but the use of soccer is easier when discussing American sports. It also is an element of the debate.
To describe the U.S. soccer feud as a civil war is doing it a disservice; there actually are a number of factions battling for supremacy or at least the loudest microphone. The soccer conversation in the U.S. is more like the Italian parliament; a number of small parties come together in the moment to form a cohesive ruling coalition. Also, this war is not being fought in public at the highest levels of the governing bodies; rather, the real fights are occurring at the grassroots level and trickling up to the top. The leadership of U.S. Soccer as a federation has been stable; it’s the rest of the soccer world in the U.S. in turmoil.
If we wanted to simplify this discussion into two camps – and we do – the first side of this civil war is the Europhile side. These are the fans who wake up, turn on the coffee machine, and watch the Premier League before the sun rises. Coaches with accents know best and the more hired in the U.S. to bring more tactical creativity, the better. My use of the word soccer in this article is unsettling as the older and more international football should be using that name. U.S. players who want to excel should go overseas and play in the toughest league they can. To them, Christian Pulisic is a god and Bobby Wood is his prophet. Jurgen Klinsmann spoke the truth when he said U.S. players should challenge themselves outside of the U.S. and while his results were poor, his strategy was right.
The other camp we can call Nationalists. These are the folks who spend $80 a year on MLS Live, to watch as many Major League Soccer matches as possible. They will watch and root for other leagues and clubs, but the national game is something they feel should be valued for what it is. They passionately defend MLS as a league that is almost as good as Europe’s top leagues and soon will be as good. The league also allows national team players to earn a good wage and improve their game here, where they can best excel. Bruce Arena is a god and Bob Bradley was not given a chance to prove himself at Swansea, despite their subsequent success. The American game does not need to comply with international… anything actually.
Again, this is an extreme categorization but the problem is immediately apparent. There is little in common between these two general camps and their positions are extreme. The national soccer/football association leans more Nationalist but as you can see with the Klinsmann hire that their main goal is to win. If that means dipping into the European coaches’ pool, then that is fine. The number one goal for men’s soccer is making the World Cup and eventually winning, and this guides the entire philosophy.
What does this matter to the rest of the world? The big takeaway is that the guiding philosophy in place at the moment dictates which players are capped for the U.S. Because of the U.S.’s foreign policy decisions over the past 50 years, there are many players throughout Europe and Latin America who are eligible for a U.S. call-up. Under Klinsmann player-development role, he actively recruited European (primarily German) dual nationals to convince them to join the U.S. Klinsmann helped Jermaine Jones become a starter and was a major influence for key players like Bobby Wood. American fans still cringe at New Jersey’s own Giuseppe Rossi shunning the U.S. to chase an Italian cap. More critical of a miss was Neven Subotic, who allegedly plays for Serbia based on negative comments from the then-U.S. coaching staff.
When the pendulum swings back to the U.S. first system, dual nationals playing outside the U.S. have less incentive to declare for the U.S. This opens up opportunities for other nations to convince young talent to be capped early for their country. Subotic would have been massive for the U.S., a definite starter in a weak spot in the U.S. senior side. Instead Serbia have a world class defender. Bruce Arena has said he will be scouting the world for talent, but UEFA and CONCACAF nations must be salivating at the thought of swinging a few young players with massive potential to their side if the U.S. again looks at MLS as the primary source of national team talent.