If ever a case was made for finding a better way to teach American players how to compete with everything on the line no matter what level of opponent or circumstance, Tuesday night’s loss by the U.S. Men’s National Team to Trinidad and Tobago was it.
Our players, the same ones that walked over Panama four days earlier in Orlando, played like they had all the time in the world last night. There was no sense of urgency, no reaction when a fluke goal went in early, and no material change to the tactics of the game or improvement in defensive organization.
From the opening whistle, the U.S. team was set up to try and play the same old textbook game of possess, switch the point of attack, and hope strong and fast forwards would finish against a physically weaker and presumably less organized opponent. Slowed by a sloppy field and 10-players behind the ball by the opponent, little changed for most of the game despite everything that was on the line. 2-0 down at the half could have been much worse when you look at the no-call penalty and the fortunate recovery by Tim Howard to get his shoulder to a ball he had over-committed to on a short hop.
We have the athletes. We should have won the game on paper 100 times in a row. What was missing was urgency, and it was missing at every level until maybe in the final minutes when Clint Dempsey nearly saved the day by taking the game to the opponent directly. The same Dempsey who saved Fulham from relegation from the Premier League so many years ago by the way.
It’s time to figure out a way to add a severe penalty and big reward system to our domestic league system so every player in our biggest recruiting pool deals with that pressure every day.
I understand MLS owners are unlikely to vote to risk their own clubs’ spots in the top tier. I understand that risk would reduce the size of the expansion fees MLS can command. I understand allowing promotion into the league means they lose control over the types of owners and stadiums the league wants. And I understand the sponsors would do shorter term deals and be harder to convince.
There are a lot of reasons not to do promotion and relegation. But ALL of those reasons are about business, while NONE of those directly address the game itself and how our country is set up to develop players.
Long term – and we’re in this for the long term now, right? – I contend even the business payoff would be much bigger for everyone. Think about the investments that would be made in the game at every level below MLS and outside of U.S. Soccer Incorporated. The connections from youth playgrounds to MLS would be far more obvious to the entire system, and that system would invest. It’s the simple concept of a rising tide floating all boats.
Without promotion and relegation in our domestic league, players on teams not in the playoff hunt have no reason to compete beyond simply earning a paycheck or their next contract offer…
Which means we lose to teams like we did last night in the most important game we’ve played in over 30 years – against a “B” team with nothing to play for (other than becoming legends like they just did).
Without promotion and relegation in our domestic leagues, fans don’t pay attention or add pressure to their teams soon enough if a season starts off slow…
Which means they don’t start conversations and social media rants that generate ideas, pressure and media attention that cause club management to look really hard every day at the soccer they put on the field.
Without promotion and relegation in our domestic leagues, coaches aren’t fired often enough…
Which means too many aren’t held accountable enough for the players they chose or how they’re deployed, while fewer coaches with fresh ideas get chances to break into the game at the higher levels.
Without promotion and relegation in our domestic leagues, the media doesn’t ask enough hard questions because nothing really matters until the playoff race solidifies…
Which means very few people in club management beyond the head coaches ever have to answer for their decisions at every level of a club.
Without promotion and relegation in our domestic leagues, talented players and coaches in lower levels don’t get enough attention and the opportunities that would come with it…
Which means players and coaches who might have truly gone on to be great – and inspired thousands more to follow their paths – give up too soon in their careers.
Without promotion and relegation in our domestic leagues, owners aren’t motivated enough to invest more in youth development…
Which means our upside-down youth system of pay-to-play will continue to lead the day, and a million players per generation from lower income levels who ‘might have been’, will never find a path to the next level.
Without promotion and relegation in our domestic league, we will never win a World Cup.
We don’t have to do promotion and relegation like they do in other countries to enjoy most of the benefits. There can be other incentives to keep teams fighting and fans tuned in all season. There can be grandfathering and second chances, probationary periods, and more to ease into the process over a decade if needed. There can be parachute payments, bundled TV deals and revenue sharing. And MLS could buy USL to make it all an easier process overall.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Perhaps this devastating nightmare of missing out on the World Cup will finally give us the will.
P.S. And while we’re at it, let’s do solidarity payments so youth clubs finally have the motivation to prepare players to be pros rather than just focus on getting college scholarships.