State of US Soccer Post World Cup: What MLS Could Learn from Bud Selig

Soccer is a passion. To me, soccer is an incredible game with which I grow more deeply connected nearly every passing day. It has something for everyone. Beauty and grace, physicality, athleticism, moments of wonder, moments of agony, political power and meaning, religious controversy. Lately it has shed, or is shedding slowly its traditional old-guard modes of player evaluation and tactical constancy, incorporating science and math into its unwritten guides to excellence.  It has the most passionate fan bases and its rivalries are incomparable in the world of American sport, save college football and Red Sox-Yankees. It has more legends than nearly any other game anywhere, more fans than any other game period, and once every four years it provides the most captivating event in all of sport. Indeed, as I wrote in a prior post—it is a distinct tragedy of human existence that one’s life on the high end involves twenty World Cups. Its injustices and controversies tend to be relational to the criticism it faces from those who either aren’t fans or who actively and at times ignorantly choose to loathe it. It is too low-scoring. It is bland, unfair and unpredictable in a bad way. How that isn’t a great deal like life, and as such a rare brilliant imperfection, I still can’t figure. Isn’t that why so many relate to the game? As in life, we are let down by it from time to time. The World Cup Final comes to mind as an example. But like an old friend who changes from time to time, we come to accept those moments as part of something we love, the good so remarkably outweighing the bad. Yes, without question, I love soccer.

I suppose it is fitting that The Yanks Are Coming started in a coffee shop the morning after a devastating American defeat. Loving soccer and being an American is, with growing exception, a coffee shop regular thing to do. It is absolutely marvelous that many of the new readers who came to this blog during the Confederations Cup last summer, and of course in far greater swaths in the World Cup this summer, seem to be sticking around. Unlike Matthew at our friends The Shin Guardian, we can’t promise free beer but we’re very happy you’re here. Part of the mission of this blog, if we ever really had one other than an outlet for our thoughts on the National Team and a game we’re all very passionate about—was to be a mechanism that helps grow the game in the States. It’s growing rapidly, and if I learned anything in the World Cup it was that people are starting to recognize that soccer as a game doesn’t necessarily run counter to our cultural sensibilities. Sure, as one of my favorite sportswriters Bethlehem Shoals notes—the USMNT was portrayed (to some extent) not as a soccer team but as Americans kicking ass—and that’s part of why both Shoals (not a fan) and I (a fan) both smiled, albeit for entirely different reasons—when we heard conversations about the game at “yuppie Mom hair salons” and in grocery-store checkout lines, in the “shoe section at Nordstrom” and on the Lexington Ave 4 train.

Sure, Shoals is correct to write that part of the cultural phenomenon that came of the Landon Donovan goal was that Americans didn’t grasp the game, didn’t understand wholly how difficult goals are to score at the highest level of the game (they are a small-time miracle, really—but that’s an entirely different article). It made the portrayal of the Yanks, in Shoals words, as a “scrappy, inspired and raw” bunch that would “make John Wayne proud” possible, and it didn’t matter at that point that the Americans had struggled against Slovenia, been victimized by calls most the new onlookers didn’t fully understand, or lost to a Ghana team they should have beaten because they for better or worse, finally ran out of answers after putting themselves in difficult positions. Perhaps it was that portrayal that led to an embrace of a team, and not a game.

Yet one has to wonder if the truth isn’t somewhere in the middle. If you place Shoals contention on one extreme end of a plane and label it “Embraced as Wholly American, Game Not Particularly Relevant” and the other end of the plain is “Soccer integrating comfortably into American cultural sporting narrative”, you probably end up somewhere in between. And, as one of the writers Shoals labels “responsible” to know more about the game than other American voices, I suppose I feel obligated to point this out. And perhaps it is best to do so from a uniquely American perspective. Forget footy, the pitch, form, fitness and confounding referee decisions for a moment (those terms are used to denigrate the stereotypical American soccer elitist anyway) and think of the net result in a different way. The World Cup and the performance of the Yanks therein titled the pendulum further down the line of my experimental plane. People are paying more attention. Q-Ratings alone sustain this argument, and Shoals, of “Free Darko” fame and an enormous basketball fan, should understand this as a flaw in the overarching suggestion he makes in the above-linked article.

More folks watched the USA-Ghana match, and the World Cup final, for that matter, than Game Seven of David Stern and Darko’s NBA Finals. If you think I’m clutching that morsel of information too tightly, a “Desperate Soccer Guy” holding his one trump card—you’re mistaken. Above all, I use that information as a Sergeant Joe Friday “Dragnet” moment: “Just the Facts, Ma’am.”

What’s more—my argument isn’t so much that the pendulum is extremely close to the opposite end of the imaginary plane—simply that it is in the middle. Without question there is work to be done. Signing players like Thierry Henry is certainly part of that process, as I wrote yesterday. Like any developmental process, however, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it. That’s why I was saddened yesterday evening to hear that MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who has been the head man of MLS since 1999, had announced that Landon Donovan wasn’t for sale. Actually, let me reframe that claim. I was upset to hear the justification for keeping Donovan. Precisely, Garber stated (that Donovan) is a “real American hero,” and further, that “MLS needs soccer heroes, and we have a great American soccer hero playing for us in LA, holding the torch for the sport in our country, and that’s very important. I don’t believe that it’s something we can do without.” That MLS needs heroes is not something with which I can readily disagree. That Donovan is one is also beyond reproach. That Garber can capitalize on the uniquely American story made of our national team to benefit his league which of course ultimately benefits soccer is without question true. His identification of Donovan as the point man, as Matthew at the Shin Guardian wrote here, is also correct. It is the notion that we can’t do without him that is the terribly disconcerting.  It identifies a deep underlying problem, and one I fear begins, and ends, with Don Garber. Here’s why, with a uniquely American spin.

As I stated above, I love soccer. That said, beyond faith and family, my closest friends will tell you that above all things, I’m a baseball fan. Not an NFL guy, although I pay attention and understand the American appeal that has without question made it the dominant American sports league for the last decade and a half. I just don’t really buy all the “any Given Sunday” stuff. The baseball nerd in me, the numbers nerd, knows better. Parity is a mirage once standard deviations get involved and sports fans probably at their core don’t want equality anyway. But again, that’s a different column.

I’m a baseball guy, first and foremost. I’ll answer all the various criticisms of the game (the longer you’re around, the more there are bound to be—the NFL, for example, is getting a taste of this with its new overtime rules). I get that the Yankees winning is good for baseball, and always has been, regardless of EPL-esque complaints about parity. I love the numbers aspect of it, how it is scientifically difficult but also explainable. It’s so hard a game that success three times in ten over ten years means a trip to the Hall of Fame. As a soccer fan, I marvel at how similar the games are in history and in practice and yet how one is part of a cultural fabric the world doesn’t quite understand, the other part of a global fabric a culture doesn’t quite understand. People hate the Yankees, for example, for the same reason you hate Manchester United. Cheering for either is like pulling for the house in blackjack. And that’s okay. Because at the end of the day, I’m a baseball guy. And this makes me uniquely qualified to talk about Don Garber.

Garber’s decision to hold Donovan back because he needs a standard-bearer is one that can only be blamed on him. It doesn’t matter that it is bad for the US National Team big picture if Landon can’t play overseas as we move into a new cycle. That shouldn’t be the focus of the discussion around Garber’s proclamation. What should is an analysis of Garber himself. If the MLS Commissioner thinks he must keep Landon Donovan because his league needs an “American hero”, a “torch bearer”, or the like—he’s got no one to blame but himself. For all of his successes, Garber has failed because MLS has found no one to fill the void.

While Garber is to be commended for various decisions—designated players and his recent expansion team choices come to mind immediately—the fact remains he has dropped the ball with development so badly that he needs Donovan to, as they say in London, mind the gap. Suni Gulati noted the US developmental problems several years ago, and went about the process of beginning to correct them. There is still much work to be done but the appointment of Claudio Reyna as technical director was a good beginning. Yet there is unquestionably a developmental void and it is a costly one for the league domestically and as a result, to some extent, it is a dangerous one for the national team.

Garber’s efforts to reverse this void have come far later than they should have. In 2007, the “Home Grown Player Initiative”, in which each franchise was required to start amateur teams at six age-group levels, starting with under-14, with an eye towards future familiarity, club signing rights and accelerated development,  came eight years after Garber took over at MLS. It was started, along with Generation Adidas, which filled in for its predecessor, Project 40, in 2005, in order to ensure that young talent was identified and given the opportunity to impact the league more quickly. While no one will argue that Generation Adidas hasn’t worked (see this list of alumni), the question remains: Why weren’t more initiatives created? And why didn’t Garber help US Soccer with talent-location—which is a larger problem than the developmental clubs and academies themselves? Surely a torch-bearer might have been found in that group. Garber is equally responsible for the easiest critique of my argument—that the future torch-bearers have already departed for Europe. If that is the case, and Garber was concerned about a standard-setter, a “real American soccer hero”, then why did he let them leave? Why not keep a Stu Holden or a Clint Dempsey stateside? And worse—why the double standard for Landon Donovan?  At bottom, there is no legitimate answer to this question. Coupled with his tardiness on developmental initiatives, Garber is the equivalent of an attorney who figures out how to win a civil action lawsuit after the statute of limitations procedurally shuts the courtroom door. This is unacceptable, and MLS can do better.

What do they need?  Glad you asked. Remember, as a baseball guy, I know things about commissioners. In this most global of games, to get the domestic league better from the bottom-up—to find new “American soccer heroes” organically, America has a commissioner who would be a good role model. MLS needs a Bud Selig. Selig is, in my opinion, the finest commissioner in any professional American sport. He’s the greatest baseball commissioner ever, and it isn’t even close. In all likelihood, he’ll leave MLB next season—but if he does turn out the lights he’ll have a list of accomplishments that write a fine legacy. He’ll have steered the sport to record setting growth after the black cloud days of the strike in 1994. He’ll have navigated the PR nightmare of the steroids era admirably, setting professional sports most aggressive steroids testing plan in motion and letting George Mitchell tell as much of the story as he could—which doesn’t seem like much until you compare it to the NFL’s handling of concussions and brain injuries and its lax testing policies and Goodell looks like even more of a disaster. Can you imagine the NFL doing so much soul-cleansing? He’ll have overseen the most new ballparks built and opened in the history of the game, seen attendance figures rise eight straight years and, best of all, beyond generating labor piece (twice); he’ll have radically altered revenue-sharing (1.2 billion in 92 to 7 billion today, if you wondered).  Selig is going to be, in a word, extraordinarily difficult to replace. Garber won’t be. In fact, thanks to his on-job performance, I’d say he’s far more replaceable than Landon Donovan. And here’s another great American narrative—there’s always someone else out there who is hungrier, more willing, and more determined to do the job better. Maybe that’s what a league seeking to write its own Horatio Alger tale needs.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com and found on Twitter @nwb_usmnt.

Filed Under: Major League Soccer

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  • Raf

    Excellent article. I agree especially with what to me is your most compelling point – that if Landon is the soccer hero right now, then Garber’s actions are indeed short-sighted. The interesting question to ask is where Landon’s going to be in 4 years? Is he going to be our “soccer hero” then? Perhaps not; maybe Jozy or Sacha or Adu will fulfill their enormous potential. Perhaps Stu Holden, Michael Bradley, Robbie Rodgers, or Mo Edu will emerge. But, all of these players have left for Europe, and presumably they shouldn’t return. Why then does Landon have to deal with the double standard. I predict that Landon’s status as “hero” will fade within 6 months. At the same time, his professional development will have been stunted, and in the meantime, other young potentially “hero-like” players will have departed. If Garber is serious about keeping home-grown hero talent around, he needs to look more toward guys in their mid-20’s (not late 20’s) with enormous potential who are on the verge of approaching their primes. Not players like Landon who are in their primes and by the time the next WC rolls around could very well be out of their primes.

    Also into your NFL/MLB analysis. Spot on there. Really good piece.

  • Nick T.

    To me it seems to be a question of money. Garber thinks keeping Landon around will put asses in seats and boost soccer tv ratings.

  • Daniel Ross

    That is certainly it, Nick. I suppose you could argue that Garber thinks having a “hero” in the domestic league will inspire more youth players, but the cynic in me says it’s primarily about $$$. That’s shortsighted. In the end, the best thing to do is develop the best talent possible, so players need to go to Europe. Better players equal more interest in the long run (why does the EPL attract more viewers in the States than the MLS?) bottom line, fans want to watch the beat soccer possible. Whether the players are American or not is just icing.

  • Super Rookie

    If course it is about the $$$.

    MLS is a business.

    What smart business owner is going to give away his prized possession with out a crap load of money. A smart business owner exploits the hell out of it.

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