Futból, Fussball, Futebol… Soccer?? : What we can learn from the Americans.
by Sean Taylor
On November 19th 1989 tragedy struck at the then National Stadium as the Strike Squad were dumped out of Italia ’90 qualification at the 11th hour. Paul Caligiuri would have never scored a more important goal in his career as his freak shot condemned the home team to World Cup purgatory for the next 16 years. The pre-match hype dictated that the “Yanks” were about to be pulverised and sent back home to stick to baseball, their glorified version of rounders. On paper, the hype was pretty apt as we boasted a galaxy of stars in Dwight Yorke, Leonson Lewis, Russel Latapy among others in a legendary team. It was the footballing fluke of the century.
Almost 23 years later, the opposite is in fact the case as far as international football pedigree is concerned. With the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation in constant disrepute, and lack of funds going their way, plus a national team that have already relinquished their chance to go to Brazil more than two years before the World Cup; things are at an all-time low for T&T football.
Conversely the MLS has been lauded by the Premier League teams as an improving league as English teams find it more and more difficult to beat them when they go on pre-season tour each year. Case in point: the MLS All Star team defeated a multi-million-dollar Chelsea team who won the Champions League months ago. So how did the Americans change their status from being cannon fodder to an actually functional team that can reach the odd Confederations Cup Final?
It is the only place where the beautiful game is called “soccer.” Soccer is not an entirely new sport despite the dissimilarity of the moniker to the traditional name. It is a sport played across the world by almost every country, but for years was overlooked by the Americans. The traditional American sports all have frequent breaks in play which allowed sponsors to get their advertising time. Football Soccer, with its continuous play never allowed that thus it was never going to be profitable. Not even the great god of football, Pelé and is subjects Beckenbauer and Cruijff were able to spark the lucrative market in the NASL in the ‘70s.
Even when the MLS was founded in late 1993, the enthusiasm in the country did not raise an iota until after the United States hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1994. After USA ’94 the next milestone was the successful Korea/Japan campaign in 2002 where they got to the quarter-finals notably beating Portugal who were favourites at the time. Then three years ago the US team were two goals up before losing to Brazil in the Confederations Cup Final in South Africa. This gradual improvement can be attributed to a number of factors in the MLS setup.
The Draft system is one that has been utilised for decades now and is one of the main reasons why the standard of professional sport in the States is so much higher than in other countries. The way that the Americans develop their athletes from grass roots and the path that the individuals take on their journey to the top are reflected in their success in sport. The Olympics is a prime example; every four years the Americans invariably top the medal table thanks to their will to win and superior ability but – above all – thanks to the opportunity they were given through the unique developmental process.
The draft system is not just conducive to sporting success but also to academic achievement; those who strive to be entered into the Draft in any sport must maintain a certain level of academic performance in order to be put forward.
The crowds attracted to watch the average TT Pro League (bearing in mind this is our top-level football league) seldom exceed triple figures, whereas the American’s college-level sports, regularly attracts hordes of thousands. Some College venues have a capacity of over 100,000, yet another glaring example of the ambition shown by the Americans when it comes to sport. Money is pumped into the sporting curriculum at every level of the American education system from Elementary School right the way through to College in order to prepare athletes ultimately, for professional competition.
Apart from integrating their draft system into the MLS to scout talent, their Designated Player Programme has paid rich dividends. A designated player is basically a star player who would boast a superior salary cap to his team mates as well as attract a lot of attention and coverage for the club. The Beckham experiment introduced the first designated player of its kind and many agree has been a huge turning point for Los Angeles Galaxy as well as the league. Subsequent players included Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Freddie Ljunberg, Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez from Mexico.
In 2006 sport manufacturer Adidas also overhauled the league and became its chief sponsor. The advertising and campaigning power the brand possesses has given the MLS a more international appeal. Most recently the Adidas Mi Coach technology where they place a computer chip into the sole of your boots, has launched a “Smart Soccer” campaign where in the next season, coaches can immediately assess their player’s performance on the pitch statistically as the match unfolds.
The end result has been manifesting gradually over the years. Claudio Reyna, Landon Donovan, Brad Freidel, Clint Dempsey and most recently Stuart Holden has been courted by British clubs in the past 12 years. So yes, the Americans have come a long way from the semi-professionals who beat us in 1989. Ever since that qualification for the 1990 World Cup they have not missed out since. While currently the Soca Warriors have trouble even to get to the final of the Digicel Caribbean Cup.
The picture has been painted about what we can learn from the land of the dollar. We do not have to play “soccer” as they do, but take heed from the ambition they have shown in the last two decades. Otherwise unexceptional teams like Seattle Sounders will always come to our shores and make a mockery of a team from a nation that has closer ties to football comparatively. Football is going to have to start from scratch; from the grassroots level up in this country. And with no World Cup to play for until 2018, now is the perfect opportunity to finally move forward. Caligiuri and his ‘89 troops were a perfect example of a much needed football catharsis.