US soccer and the economics of mediocrity

One goal from Thomas Muller and an entire nation began to cry. Only down one goal and with 78 minutes left to play, one German strike was enough to bring men, women, and children alike to tears. Just the prospect of having to consider defeat was unbearable, an emotional reaction to soccer many in this country would find unfathomable.

The United States’ loss to Belgium almost two weeks earlier came with no tears to be found. There was no dirge for the end of DaMarcus Beasley’s career, no inquest for why Jurgen didn’t get the team to at least where we were in 2002 and no public excoriation for the disappointing play of Michael Bradley.

Instead, it was raving about the wonderful play of 21-year-old DeAndre Yedlin, and the goal of 19-year-old Julian Green. It was the quintessential “we’ll get ‘em next year” sort of response, always focusing on the next big thing and not the haunting disappointment of the past. Always about the sell of what’s next.

In the week since the end of the World Cup, Bayern Munich has launched an American specific website (now selling Julian Green jerseys!), Yedlin has been the subject of seven-figure transfer fees to European based clubs, and members of the US starting lineup Graham Zusi and Matt Besler have signed contracts to stay in Kansas City for the foreseeable future.

Each move is a million-dollar move. It remains to be seen if these moves were also about soccer. Bayern is following the model of clubs in England that have used the US as a revenue stream for years. For example, Manchester United is due to play in a sold-out football stadium in Ann Arbor. Major League Soccer has weird rules where only three players are allowed to make more than a $387,500 salary (Designated Players), which will require Yedlin to move outside the United States to make a salary commensurate with a perceived future superstar. Zusi and Besler’s deal are more complex, and, I think they elucidate the challenges of soccer in the United States.

Both players received interest from better and better-paying European clubs. Zusi has a great work rate, and is willing to help defend. He offered a wonderful corner to John Brooks to beat Ghana. Unfortunately, his pass completion rate of 79% and 10% accurate cross rate were in the lowest third among players in the US’s group. The midfielder’s inability to consistently cross at the international level or make combination play, underline a player who is ill suited to an offensive-minded system.

Zusi represents a classic mistake of the American game, overpaying for talent. This is not a problem unique to soccer, but in a league where your ability to spend is artificially limited like no other sport, its impact is devastating. It’s as if the NBA had a rule where a team could only have one max contract, and every team picked either Kobe or Tristan Thompson to fill that spot.

Matt Besler is a different case. His passing rate of 87.4% and interception rate of 2.3 per game signal a Centerback capable of reading the game very well. A year and a half younger than Zusi, Besler has the potential to remain near his peak past the 2018 World Cup. He apparently received offers from Sunderland and Fulham and those advances were rejected by Besler. Besler is by no means a complete centerback, his tackle rate, among the lowest in Group G show deficiencies on the physical side. Besler’s rejection of a move to England demonstrates a complacency that permeates American soccer culture. Whether it is Freddy Adu being handed starts at 16, Landon Donovan spending an entire career in Los Angeles, or the continued reliance on college soccer, Americans have bred a soccer culture of good enough. America’s best players aren’t forced to compete for minutes because there isn’t the talent in MLS.

Besler could and probably would succeed in the Premier League. Geoff Cameron has earned every minute of playing time at Stoke City, and is becoming a fan favorite. However, Besler could also fall flat on his face. There are risks with moving to Europe, Michael Parkhurst being a cautionary tale. Parkhurst had a successful run in the Champions League, only to see his career stall out at Augsberg in the Bundesliga. Desperate for playing time, he joined Columbus Crew earlier this year, and now makes a fraction of what Besler does.

Matt Besler is an MLS all-star quality defender, but he’s not an elite player. Staying in Kansas City will make that the book on Besler. His physical play could improve, and his failure to go to the most physical league in the world will only highlight those deficiencies. His new contract builds the narrative that playing time, not competition matters. The chance to test your skills against the best is less important than the financial side of the game.

Graham Zusi will forever be remembered for his goal that sent Mexico to the World Cup. Matt Besler will remain a fan favorite and top performer. Unfortunately, whether it is Kaka, David Villa, or Jermaine Defoe, Designated Player spots have become opportunities to monetize the game, not improve the game on the field. MLS has engaged in the ultimate deal with the devil. MLS has sacrificed developing the stars of the 2022 World Cup, for the immediacy of bringing in names familiar to a younger, FIFA Soccer-savvy generation.

The United States doesn’t need to win a World Cup; our fan base doesn’t demand success on that level. Chris Wondolowski will not live in infamy for his miss against Belgium. Lionel Messi will forever walk in Maradona’s shadow because he didn’t win a World Cup. Passion flows for an American team that can be respected and monetized, not one that can dominate.

Soccer is an outlier in this country; it is the only sport where the highest level of competition is not American. Unless that changes, the United States will not win a World Cup. Despite the disappointment of the US team, ratings for the World Cup final were the highest ever, MLS crowds are growing, and soccer awareness is on the rise. All of this means bigger TV contracts, more hype for Julian Green, and new MLS franchises. MLS has learned from the big American sports how to make money, now they just have to learn how to win, or round of 16 collapses will just have to be good enough.

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3 thoughts on “US soccer and the economics of mediocrity

  1. Let me get this straight. We should be dissing our not even 20 years old domestic league because it doesn’t boast the most talent in the world despite the fact it has a salary cap and a public that is just beginning to accept soccer is even a sport and its competition are leagues 100+ years old in countries where soccer is as popular as Amer. football is here and there are few if any established alternatives. We should also be crucifying our coach and our players because they don’t live up to the standard that die mannschaft is currently setting?

    I just don’t understand these articles. Shouldn’t our short term expectations be realistic and shouldn’t we be focusing on the root causes of our failings instead of the symptoms?

    • This is a frustrating article. It hits on a lot of important areas, and includes valid statistics and observations, but the conclusions are borderline indecipherable. I still don’t really know what he is saying is the right decision for Zusi/Besler, even though I agree with a lot of the observations. What is the recommendation? What is the goal? Who messed up on the decisions? Who did well?

      I think more than anything, this piece is a little bit undecided on who the stakeholders are. It is the hard part of writing about US Soccer. One way to think about it is just to write down the identity of every stakeholder you can think of, and see where the disconnects are. Here is an example for Besler (using what I believe to be the author’s position as stated above)

      Stakeholder Analysis – Besler Remains in KC

      USMNT:
      US Soccer as a Competitive Team: Negative – Player’s promising development stagnates, does not reach full potential
      US Soccer as Long-term Brand: Negative – US back-line continues to be anchored by a lunchpail unknown. Perhaps some negative impact for future players in the eyes of would-be suitors
      US Soccer Financial: N/A

      Club:
      Sporting KC as a Competitive Team: Positive. Champion team keeps a key contributor in stingy defense
      Sporting KC as a Brand: Positive Kept a key player in a medium-sized, less cosmopolitan town despite interest from more glamourous bidders. Rewarded its contributors, which speaks well of organizational philosophy
      Sporting KC Financial: Negative(?). Formerly attractive player salary is now repriced to DP, also reducing roster flexibility. Vague how negative this is. Should KC have opted to seek out a younger replacement at a cheap price, perhaps compromising the side’s MLS Cup defense ? That’s the sense I get from the article, but this is a key point.

      League:
      I sense that league goals in this case effectively align with club goals above, with some subtleties. MLS club defends an asset from formerly sexy suitors by paying up and being proactive. Not a bad message to send. The club/league analysis would likely diverge in the case of a more globally “sexy” player

      Player:
      Besler as a Player: Negative – Development hits ceiling following some minor improvment in same role
      Besler as a Brand: Negative – USMNT spot may not have the same shelf life as soon as replacement is identified
      Besler (Financial/Salary): Good though perhaps sub-optimal, player would earn more now and after with a repricing from Europe move, though salary is very attractive for MLS and at 27, difference may not be high

      So what does this tell us (assuming there are no stakeholders who are missing and significant)?

      Looks like SKC did well for themselves. They are in a “win now” phase and this helps, even if it costs a few more bucks. Along with Zusi, they keep their internal story strong. SKC can now say they offer their prospects a true career path, complete with MLS championships and World Cup experience. MLS probably quite similar in their assessment of the move. So it’s Besler and USMNT that really most likely to suffer in the eyes of the writer. But why does this feel wrong? Besler is an MLS product, a 27 year old domestic gem of the classic “late bloomer” USMNT mold. He no longer fits the age profile to anchor a Champions’ League defense and might well be a bit-part performer in Europe. He could have his budding confidence crushed playing for a terminal crisis club like Sunderland alongside a backline of journeymen and A-list rejects, under a rotating cast of coaches who have never heard of him. The writer hints at this possibility, as well.

      So what should we be doing? I still don’t know, but I hope to read more from this writer, because I believe there is good stuff here. Cheers.

  2. Pingback: US soccer and the economics of mediocrity | Footballing Community

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