SBJ/Aug. 25-31, 2014/Opinion

U.S. soccer growth hinges on player development

Is soccer as a business proposition in the U.S. a stock I’m buying? (SportsBusiness Journal, Aug. 11-17)

I think your question needs to be answered in two parts. Top-flight international soccer friendlies are a great investment in the U.S. As some of the people interviewed for your article said, Americans love excellence. Watching the top players in the world compete in the World Cup or for their club teams is a treat that people are willing to pay for and will continue to pay for. To answer your question: I’m buying this stock.

The more difficult question is in predicting the success of Major League Soccer. The single-entity structure of MLS makes investing in U.S. soccer a huge potential growth stock (to stick with your analogy). That being said, two things need to happen: 

(1) MLS needs to stop signing 30- to 33-year-old foreign stars and start signing foreign top-level talent in their prime. Considering what the top players go for internationally, I doubt that MLS is willing to make that type of investment, especially since thoughts of the former NASL are always lingering in the collective memory of U.S. brass and owners. 

(2) The U.S. needs to develop more technically sound domestic players (meaning players who can dribble, pass, shoot and “handle the rock” like their European and South American counterparts) who will eventually play in MLS and raise the level of the product. Current U.S. players are noticeably less technical than players in Europe or South America. The fundamentals of the sport are something that are learned over a long period of time. U.S. Soccer, the individual MLS clubs and the grassroots youth soccer apparatus need to make a concerted effort to focus on the development of the individual technical ability of each American youth player. 

Many critics simply say our players are not as good because the top athletes in the U.S. play the other big four sports. I do not think so. Our U.S. players are subpar due to a failure of coaching in the U.S. Until the coaches become better educated and focused on developing each player’s technical ability, the U.S. will always be a second- or third-rate league, which Americans will not look on favorably.

Current U.S. coaching icons are products of an era when soccer was extremely unpopular. Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid, Bob Bradley are considered America’s top coaches. Sure, they have studied the tactics of the game and are capable enough managers; however, their grasp of the fundamentals is lacking, to no fault of their own possibly. Jason Kreis is a nice contrast. He is a generation younger, played the game growing up — played in college, played for the U.S. and had a very good MLS career. He is a much more capable coach than our current American coaching icons. Even still, Kreis is a transitional product, growing up in the old U.S. soccer landscape and being good enough to excel professionally. We will have to wait for the first truly professional players to matriculate through their careers before we see U.S. coaches on the level of those in Europe/South America who can develop our young talent appropriately.

Short answer: I’d monitor this stock to see how they handle domestic player development.

Evan Whitfield
Chicago

Whitfield played soccer at Duke University, professionally for the Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake (1999-2005), and for the U.S. Olympic team in 2000. He practices law at Schiller Ducanto & Fleck in Chicago.

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