The Purple Mermaids, an under-eight girls’ team, takes part in a New York City soccer league that has “everyone plays” as its motto. The league is not competitive, statistics are not recorded, and no results are logged. The keyword is participation and fun. The team will end its fall season this weekend with a trophy presentation. Each player will receive a plastic trophy after the final game, an award for the simple act of turning up.
“I’m only coming next Saturday to get my trophy!” said Caitlyn* last weekend. Under-eight soccer usually sits somewhere between a babysitting service, the best fun ever, and for some players an endeavor to build skills – but Caitlyn’s attitude was new to this team.
Her excitement was laudable but some teammates called her out. The Purple Mermaids are about teamwork, not trophies, they said. Caitlyn thought about it. “I’m coming next Saturday!” she shouted. Kids say the darndest things.
The adult Caitlyns shouldn’t worry too much: the US women’s team are still ranked No1 in the world. But the incident speaks to a larger malaise embedded in the structure of the sport in the US: everyone wants a trophy just for turning up. And it is having an effect on the men’s team in particular. From top to bottom, American soccer is wrapped in a culture of cotton wool where no one is challenged, mediocrity is rewarded, and there are rarely consequences for failure.
Of course, this all starts at the top. The debacle against Costa Rica has highlighted how vulnerable the highest level of soccer in America is. The men’s national team was humiliated in San Jose by an energetic Costa Rica, just days after embarrassingly collapsing at home against Mexico. The response from those running the sport? Caution.
Apparently, US soccer is unique, and different from the rest of the world. Instead of coach Jürgen Klinsmann resigning immediately after the game or being fired in a quick-fire meeting outside the locker room like we see elsewhere, US Soccer president Sunil Gulati suggested, like an incoming Trump presidency, everyone should wait and see what happens.
“We’ll think about what happened today and talk with Jürgen and look at the situation,” said Gulati, coolly, after the game.
Klinsmann is Gulati’s mediocre man. The German was given an extension to his reported $3m per year contract in December 2013, six months before the 2014 World Cup, an event usually considered a performance indicator for most national team coaches. With that new contract came an expansion of Klinsmann’s role – US Soccer’s technical director – overseeing all levels of the national team programs. Stability is one thing, so is job security, but so too are competitive performance-based reviews. Yes, he took the team to the last 16 in 2014, but goal difference meant the team could just as easily have been out in the first round. But none of that actually matters. Klinsmann was considered a lock until at least 2018, regardless of results.
It’s not all on Klinsmann, of course. There’s also the players. Remember them? When two of the supposed best – the team captain and star striker – quit Europe in their mid-20s to play Major League Soccer for big money contracts with Toronto FC, it doesn’t reflect upon the growth and strength of the domestic league.
It says more that Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, each aged 26 then, at what should have been the peak of their career, took a soft option. It’s excellent that Toronto FC has the resources to offer money in excess of what those players were earning in Europe. Lake Ontario is also beautiful in summer. But the stark reality is that America’s supposedly best homegrown talent thought Canada rather than Italy or England is where peak pro soccer is at.
A cruel joke circulated within US soccer circles after a young Landon Donovan returned to America to join San Jose Earthquakes. Unlike Christian Pulisic, Donovan struggled to adapt to the rigors of pro soccer in Germany. “Landon couldn’t adapt because German refrigerators aren’t as big as in California,” a person close to the player laughed. The joke was just that, but that it could even be told revealed how American players could make career decisions that hungrier players from elsewhere would never consider. They could always return to home comforts. Donovan played out his club career in MLS with a couple of short loan stints in the Premier League with Everton. These were mostly novelty events but showed he had the talent to play in Europe – when it was applied.
MLS – which Donovan whimsically returned to this past season after he decided retirement was a soft option too far – is put forward, rightly, as a barometer of the health of the professional game in this country. MLS’s survival proves its success on one level but it’s also a league that, in what executives insist is necessary for stability, encourages mediocrity, when there are no consequences for failure.
An MLS team can be truly awful and finish dead set last in its conference. The only consequence is an under-eight styled “best of luck next year” when you get first pick at some new players. MLS is one of the few professional soccer leagues in the world that does not employ promotion or relegation. The challenge, league insiders say, is that team owners will never agree to a system where their own shortcomings may have repercussions. The point is, if professional sport is supposed to be ruthlessly competitive, the Purple Mermaids under-eights play in a league with as many consequences for failure as MLS.
Which brings us to the president. That would be Sunil Gulati, who after being nominated by MLS commissioner Don Garber, was elected unopposed as the boss of US Soccer in 2006. And reelected unopposed for a second term in 2010. And again in 2014. In 2018, when US Soccer holds its next election for its board of directors, Gulati will have been in the job for 12 years. His tenure has coincided with a period of phenomenal growth for the sport in this country and region but even Mike Bloomberg, mayor of a booming New York City for 12 years, had opponents during elections.
Gulati is also a vice-president of Concacaf, recovering financially and morally after an FBI probe found it rotten to its core. Gulati also sits on Fifa’s newly minted council but has not spoken in detail about the FBI investigation, the role of Americans and Concacaf on it, nor answered questions about related issues such as his relationship with disgraced American executive Chuck Blazer.
Corruption occurred on Gulati’s doorstep, and there have been opportunities to talk. In July, 2015, US Soccer representatives were called to appear before a Senate subcommittee hearing in Washington DC. In light of the FBI investigation, the committee wanted to know what was going on with all this soccer business. Gulati, who should know all the answers, declined to attend. Instead, US Soccer chief executive Dan Flynn faced questions he said he had no clue about. There’s no suggestion Gulati is corrupt or involved in any wrongdoing. But if he decides to run again in 2018, he will likely be elected unopposed.
Still, no one need panic, especially with regards to the national team’s result against Costa Rica. Concacaf’s World Cup qualifying system is structured in such a way that the most mediocre of teams get a second chance at qualification for Russia. If the US can’t rally to make third place in the Hex, Klinsmann’s team could still finish fourth and face a play-off against the fifth best team in Asia, although that’s a challenge arguably more difficult than qualifying directly through Concacaf.
So maybe Caitlyn is right. She’s at the bottom of a culture where just turning up gets you a trophy and you will rarely be challenged. There are rarely consequences for failure. Everyone can play. Alternatively, as one of her coaches, it’s been decided that this Saturday she won’t get an award for nothing. This season all players will have some kind of character-defining quality attached to the foot-tall trophy provided by the league. Caitlyn will be clapped for “Always Being There For Your Team Mates”, which is accurate and appropriate. She does turn up to play every game and does try hard.
Which is more than can be said for the US men’s national team. Caitlyn will also probably get a hug. Which, in this big, tough, world, is just what American soccer needs now, too. Go, Mermaids.
*Not her real name