US Soccer Strategy
Iceland is good at soccer. Its current Coca-Cola FIFA world ranking is 22. The United States, for comparison, is currently 25. This, despite Iceland having 1000 times (330 million compared to 330 thousand) fewer people than the United States.
There are a number of smart commentaries about why this is. A good chunk of it involves intentionally building a soccer ecosystem in Iceland – compared to a hap-hazard attempt of mis-matched efforts in the United States.
In Slate’s article from 2016, there is the following quote:
In the absence of a sudden influx of Brazilian immigrants, the KSÍ had to make do with what it had. It revamped the country’s coaching education in an attempt to improve the players already available to them. Whereas prospective coaches once had to travel to mainland Europe to get certified, for the past decade cheap courses in Reykjavik have allowed hundreds of coaches to earn UEFA’s A and B licenses. As a result, all but the youngest Icelandic children are now being trained by someone who knows what he’s doing. Davis Harper writes in Howler Magazine that there’s a UEFA-qualified coach for every 500 Icelanders. In England, that number is closer to 1 for every 10,000 people.
Of course, Iceland has a challenge that England doesn’t: the environment. Heavy winds and the temperatures that earned the island its name make outdoor play difficult for much of the year. As a consequence, the KSÍ commissioned 15 publicly owned indoor pitches, transforming a seasonal hobby into a year-round endeavor. They supplemented those with more than 20 new outdoor turf fields and more than 100 new mini-pitches scattered throughout the country. The first of these indoor pitches was built in 2000. Sixteen years later, the first group of players to come of age with the new facilities and the new coaches has qualified for the nation’s first-ever major tournament.
In other words, Iceland built a unique ecosystem to account for its unique challenges of geography, weather, etc. The United States has not done this. The United States is massive geographically – but we run a domestic league focused on trying to be similar to that of England (which is small). The United States has massive engagement from kids – but limited quality coaches because most parents did not play soccer.
Therefore, whereas in other sports where volunteer coaches can at least handle some of the duties for early sports development, that is not possible in the US and has not been done well. Further, the immigrant population of the United States is a hotbed for new soccer talent, and yet, because of pay-to-play, the United States has not established a clean path for development for players that grow up in poor communities – urban or rural. Finally, the United States has poor soccer weather in good chunks of the country for much of the year – too hot in some places, too cold in others. Instead of adjusting and focusing on expanding local facilities, US teams travel all over the country.
In short, our efforts to build a soccer culture are stymied by a lack of awareness of all of the nuances that are uniquely American. Until we account for these nuances with a common effort to build local (due to travel), for all players (to account for poor and immigrants), with better coaching (due to a limited pool of knowledgeable soccer players), with indoor facilities (possibly at local YMCAs or as part of school bond issuances), the level of play will remain dependent on isolated clubs producing limited quality talent. It is not the club’s fault that they are forced to swim upstream at every turn. Instead, it is the organizing body’s fault for trying to paint a foreign picture on a domestic (local) problem. The effort needs to be connected and focused on the unique ecosystems of CITIES in the USA – not the country as a whole. Omaha’s effort should look different from Southern California’s, but these efforts should be connected by a national strategy.