RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE Mandatory Credit: Photo by Jose Breton/NurPhoto/Shutterstock (13642508f) USA players celebrate victory after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between IR Iran and USA at Al Thumama Stadium on November 29, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. IR Iran v USA: Group B – FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Doha – 30 Nov 2022
In a sense, the dawning of this Golden Generation of USA Soccer has its roots in a minivan.
Somewhere between sipping on a Starbucks, throwing a roast in the Instapot, and tying their hair in a bun, a number of paradigm-shifting Soccer Moms collectively had a revelation.
They were, in fact, doing it wrong.
Priorities were skewed, and no scholarship was worth burning out their 14-year-old babies. The system, in fact, needed to be changed.
So, at the urging of visionary USA Soccer executives and coaches, Moms were the first to buy into drastic changes the game and the system needed in this country.
And now, we are seeing the early returns of it all in Qatar.
When USA Soccer bounced off the field with a World Cup win over Iran this week, advancing to the knockout stages for the first time since 2014, it signaled as big a victory off the field as on.
USA Soccer today is in the midst of the most promising future it has ever had. This team is no fluke. It is young, creative, skilled, and tough.
Just 20 years ago, when Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley brought the USA a quarterfinals appearance in the 2002 World Cup, this is what millions of Americans thought would happen.
But it did not, thanks to an unorganized vision, an array of unqualified coaches, and overly ambitious parents. Things began heading down a much sketchier path and then spiraled into a giant mess.
With that 2002 run, elite soccer became the biggest American suburban phenomenon since avocado-green appliances. Moms and Dads everywhere foolishly thought their little Sallys and Johnnys were just a select team away from earning a college scholarship and maybe even a World Cup or Olympic roster berth.
And so, they did what so many status-hungry, vicariously living Moms and Dads do. They jumped in. They indulged. And then they overindulged.
If one four-game soccer tournament got kids experience and exposure, then just imagine what three or four tournaments in a month could do. If the neighborhood team coached by an insurance salesman helped kids shine, imagine what a “select” team coached by a former backup small-college player could do?
It was all a ruse. It was a true house of cards that, over the next decade-plus, crumbled and splintered to the point of American soccer becoming an international embarrassment, failing to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
The crutch many used for decades explaining USA Soccer’s international shortcomings was that young players did not come through the pipeline or engage as much as they did with other sports. However, every piece of evidence said otherwise, with the peak of soccer’s popularity occurring between 2006 and 2012.
The problem was most organized soccer was largely suburban. Most were largely pay-to-play and, frankly, sucked the life out of kids. Underprivileged youth reached a financial ceiling and never got to pursue the game. Pay-to-play kids were run ragged, playing “elite” tournaments while never learning to be creative or honing skills. Some “travel team” players participated in up to 80 games a year outside their middle- or high school games and tournaments.
In a 2006 self-study by USA Soccer, elite international coaches and consultants found a disturbing trend: American kids, at the urging of their often-underqualified coaches and parents, played a dozen games or more every month but practiced less than 10 times a month.
Desperate to get their kids exposure to college recruiters, ambition actually prevented many of the most talented players in this country from learning the intricacies of the game.
They never learned how to be creative. They never learned improvisational skills. They never learned team strategies. Worst of all, even those that earned scholarships spent four years getting older but not better.
Hence, the average age of the USA’s World Cup team continued to rise while world-class skills fell. Eight years ago, the average age of the Team USA roster was nearly 28 years old. And few had top-level international professional experience, if at all.
In Qatar, though, Team USA is one of the youngest teams in the field, averaging just over 23 years old. And significantly, the entire midfield and front-line that started in the huge win over Iran consisted of top-level international professionals for elite teams like Chelsea, Juventus, Leeds United, and Valencia.
And it all started by convincing Soccer Moms there was a better way. It all started with USA Soccer identifying America’s best players and then convincing parents to change how they view development. Fewer games. Fewer tournaments. More instruction and technique.
Today, some 17 of the 26 members of the USA World Cup roster came through USA Soccer’s Developmental Academy rather than toiling through travel tournament after travel tournament and four years of middling college soccer.
That is not to say Academy players do not get scholarship opportunities – quite the contrary. The USA Academies simply offered more instruction, better coaching, legitimate team strategies, and academics that fit around training.
It is the European model tweaked to accommodate American lifestyles. Players have been immersed in intense soccer-centric environments but can still earn scholarships. The only difference is that the best of the best can skip the college route and earn contracts into Major League Soccer (which helps the domestic product), international soccer, and play at a higher level.
Christian Pulisic, the hero versus Iran, is 24 years old. Timothy Weah is 22. Josh Sargent is 22. Giovanni Reyna is 20. Yunas Musah is 20.
On and on it goes.
USA Soccer is on a roll. And by the time the World Cup arrives to the United States in 2026, it just might be threatening to hold up the world’s most prestigious trophy.
Way to go, Mom.