US Eliminated from the U-20s: Discipline Lacking in US Program

While it could be considered unrealistic to continue to expect the US to make runs in the U-20 World Cup, the US had advanced out of the group stage of the last six U-20 World Cups, and the last nine that we had qualified for.

During the tournament the Americans were terribly outplayed, and also demonstrated a lack of discipline and composure. This has become more symptomatic of the US program than many would like the admit.

What’s worse is ESPN’s decision to broadcast all the matches of the tournament on various platforms, including the US games on ESPN2 exposed this program as not being ready for prime time. But given the hype myself and others gave this particular U-20 side, who can blame ESPN for hyping the tournament? After all, youth competitions are traditionally where the US program has looked its best.

Once behind again both Germany and South Korea, the Americans stopped playing except for brief spells. While Thomas Rongen is sure to be blamed for not getting more out of one of the most talented sides the US has brought to the U-20s. But the program seems to be lacking bite at this time. But the trouble with the U-20 team simply mirrors the struggles at the senior level.

The Confederations Cup run has been hailed as a watershed moment in the development of US Soccer. But was it really? An eight team tournament, with several nations that may not qualify for the World Cup in addition to mixed A/B squads from Spain and Italy. The US has three players sent off in the tournament, and despite the whining of US fans, all three red cards were justified by FIFA’s letter of the law interpretation that will be used in next summer’s World Cup. American players continue to show a desperation and lack of technique when tackling leaving officials with little choice but to go to the book regularly when the US plays.

Perhaps, red cards are harsh, but as Roberto Rosseti, a stickler for discipline and regular FIFA official showed in the US-South Korea match, the US commits so many bookable offenses when desperately chasing games, that sometimes simply showing yellow instead of red is a good policy.

In this “watershed” tournament for the US, the program recorded its worst ever loss to Brazil and its worst loss to Italy since the 1934 World Cup held in Italy (thus it was the worst loss for the US against Italy, outside Italy ever).

The US left the Confederations Cup with a runners up medal but also three loses in five matches. Then came the US loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup Final.

Many fans have excused the US performance that day on fielding a “B” team. But few of these apologists point out Mexico also fielded a watered down squad, and that it was El Tri who had the pressure to win that game. What resulted was a complete collapse for the US: after Mexico took a 1-0 lead on a controversial penalty, the Americans lost their composure, leading into tackles early and basically quitting. While this could be excused on being a “B” side, it was without question an embarrassing display that reflected on the lack of discipline and perhaps the sense of entitlement that has grown within the program.

Many American fans believe the US program is better than it is because they are told so by an effective propaganda machine coming out of ESPN, and possibly directed from Soccer House in Chicago, and MLS HQ in New York. While US Soccer and MLS are simply building up its own products, something that every entity in American sports does, another World Cup failure next summer could very well have damaging effects for the sports growth in this country. By continually overselling the quality and success of American players in MLS and abroad, expectations become heightened and like 2006, the inevitable crash is ugly yet completely avoidable.

But in fairness to MLS, they realize improvement is needed. While I have little use for some of the league’s business practices, MLS  does tinker to try and improve its  quality, visibility and relevance. US Soccer, on the other hand has it much easier. The National Team has far greater fan support and media appreciation than the top domestic league does. US Soccer also nets higher TV ratings and benefits from a jingoistic streak among many mainstream American sports fans.

Right now, MLS is a sub par product, while the second tier USL is about to split apart into two leagues. US Soccer is suffering its worst spell in youth tournaments in a long time, and the senior team will at a minimum qualify for the World Cup two games later than in the last cycle. Yet, more Americans are engaged in the sport than ever before. TV ratings for England’s Premier League and Spain’s Primera Division are remarkably high even besting the MLS’ ratings despite being on TV at odd hours.

What has developed thanks to a cadre of uncritical supporters and an obliging football press in this country is a sense of entitlement and unrealistic expectation around both the national team and the domestic league. That has led to a lack of discipline among American players who lose their cool and composure when falling behind in matches.  This has come at a time where the US has spent more money on developing the game than many of our fans realize. While it is fashionable to allege European nations have much more money invested in the game in their countries, it is simply not true outside of the largest and most powerful Western European nations, and Russia.

In the 1993 to 2005 time period, the US had more than its fair share of poor performances. But rarely, if ever would you see the US completely collapse in matches and collectively lose their cool as well. Since 2006, however we’ve seen more and more uneven, uninspiring and flat out embarrassing displays of both football and behavior from US players at all levels.

Going forward, many of these problems must be solved for the US to be as successful as we all hope the program will be.