How Friendlies can benefit U.S. National Teams

Like many of my fellow fans, I was upset when the Vancouver Whitecaps-Real Salt Lake match was called off.  But unlike many, I wasn’t upset with the Whitecaps or the weather.  I was more upset at how much that one match is an indication of how much the head honchos of soccer in this country really care about the sport. I’ll make this connection more clear in a moment, but for now, as a supporter of U.S. soccer, how do you feel the summer, the year, has gone?  Can we honestly say that we have become better as a nation?  I certainly don’t feel that it has gone well.  We only need to look at three matches from this year that signal our progress as a soccer nation.   

more after the jump:

1) Mexico 4, U.S.A. 2.  The Gold Cup final hurt not because we lost to a good Mexican side, but because of how we lost.  Our mental fitness wasn’t there and we let the Mexicans romp all over us after going up two goals.

2) Uzbekistan 2, U.S.A. U-17’s 1.  When the U-17’s lost to Uzbekistan (population 28 million) it took them out of an easier pathway to the semifinals and straight into powerhouse Germany’s arms.  The result was a typical 4-0 drubbing.  What did we learn from this?  We learned that our U-17 system is in need of an overhaul and if we don’t do something about we will continue to underachieve.

3) Guatemala 2, U.S.A. U-20’s 1.  This needs little explanation.  Our most talented group of U-20’s in years falls to Guatemala and not only fails to qualify for the U-20 World Cup but also for the Pan-Am games, losing the chance for this talented group to gain playing time together in a tough atmosphere.

So what does this have to do with the Whitecaps-RSL game?  Whether or not those in charge of MLS say the priority was always for the league match, the fact that the temporary surface was laid down means that the priority was already for the friendly.  I do not want to get into whether teams should be playing these games or not.  The fact is they get fans out to games, raise the exposure of soccer in this country, and make much-needed money for the league and for teams.  The real question is where is that money going?

MLS/SUM’s World Football Challenge has to be a moneymaker.  Assuming that all matches are sellouts (which they won’t be, but hopefully close), and an average ticket price of $75 (a very low estimate), the WFC will bring in at least $58 million dollars in revenue.  That is not even mentioning sponsorships (Herbalife) and add-ons (parking, concessions, etc.) that go to the clubs.  I suspect that even with the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Barcelona coming over that MLS/SUM will have plenty of profits when all of this is said and done.

You are probably still thinking, what do these matches have to do with the Whitecaps-RSL game?  If MLS/SUM is going to sacrifice the domestic game for these friendlies, I am suggesting that they at least try to make the domestic game as competitive as possible, and that can only come through the youth game. 

MLS/SUM must take some of their profits and invest in a youth structure that works in this country.  Invest heavily in MLS youth clubs. Make them all full-time residency programs. Establish fully funded U-17 and U-21 league for all MLS teams.  We need our youth playing at high levels.  Every national team coach will tell you that.  Currently, those that excel at the youth level and want to receive a high level of training are forced to head over to Europe.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  We need to replicate that on our own soil.

It only makes sense that the MLS would want to grow its own players that could generate possible transfer fees and a better quality product on the field.  How much better would the league feel about itself if it could land transfer fees regularly for millions of dollars rather than waiting for a Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo, or Andy Najar to come along?  MLS clubs have done a great job at putting competitive teams in the USSDA but it is no secret that there is no real pathway for most players from the U-17 level straight into the first team.  Players either struggle to adapt or often tread water in college. Take this money and create that bridge.  Create a full tiered club structure for all MLS teams.

It is time for MLS/SUM to truly support the game in America.  They need to show a commitment to more than just entertainment and friendlies, they need to show a commitment to growing the game in America.  I think MLS and U.S. Soccer fans would gladly trade a postponed MLS match if the U.S. could win the Gold Cup, and make consistently deep runs in the youth World Cups.

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