The Obsession with Average
By: Jon Townsend
Having played the game since I was four and staying with it in some (or multiple) capacities ever since, I’m prepared to say the American player has an obsession with average. Part of this obsession with average is a systemic issue whereby society has granted people carte blanche to do the bare minimum and expect to yield greatness. This is akin to grabbing a cooking sheet, slathering it with lard, placing rotten ingredients on it (input) and expecting a gourmet meal fit for royalty (output) when the dinner bell rings.
So, what’s the other part responsible for this obsession with average? A lack of incentive and desperation in the game. And no, this isn’t a problem with America, it’s a problem with American soccer. For a sport to yield and produce elite talent it needs incentives far exceeding the dispersal of its talent vying for [partial] college scholarships or making insultingly low salaries in MLS, NASL, or USL-Pro. Looking at sports like basketball and American football and their primary talent pool sources, we can see the connections to soccer everywhere except in the United States.
Other than being a pay-to-play enterprise rife with clueless coaches, clueless journalists posing as soccer writers, and out-of-touch perceptions aimed to keep the game framed as a “foreign” sport or presenting it as some abstract sport played elsewhere, which is trendy (and mockery), American soccer has yet to fully make the game accessible to all people.
Desperation destroys complacency and eliminates average. Here, kids are rewarded for mere participation in an activity. They soak up praise for the simplest of activities provided they put their smartphones down, turn off their video games, and get their asses off the couch. At school, every single grade has somehow become a “negotiation” between helicopter parent and underpaid teacher. This means if you happen to be a teacher and a coach, you are in perpetual Hell.
What is the solution? Well, that depends on the player and on the situation. The United States, for a lot of people, is no easy place to grow up in and although there’s an absence of fútbol de barrio, there’s no shortage of players coming from the streets who live, play, and view [all] sports as if their lives depended on it. Soccer is the game of the People and yet in the “Land of Opportunity”, it has become an elitist sport run by highbrow visionaries on all levels.
Rather than discuss why promotion and relegation needs to happen, I’ll just discuss what promotion and relegation would do for the growth of the game at levels outside of MLS, which is interested in expansion–and that’s not the growth I’m alluding to (and relax, MLS peeps, I’m not attacking the league). Promotion and relegation turns a formerly closed soccer market into a open marketplace for the sport whereby player development and competition are rewarded via meritocracy, monetarily through player trades, allows coaches to be compensated and incentivized to produce better players, and opens the door for small businesses to provide incentives for teams gearing up to earn their way to the top.
The takeaway, in simple terms, is clubs will have a means and a path based on meritocracy to climb or fall within a pyramidal system that allows independent clubs to make business decisions for their own good. Just like the working place, performance ideally dictates outcome for better or worse. Teams that can’t produce and remain competitive should be relegated just like business that can’t produce or compete should improve or downsize to re-calibrate. People fear the mechanism of promotion and relegation because they see it as punishment. Under what entitled view should teams with poor ownership, direction, player production, and a litany of other negatives be afforded the right to remain safe from the drop? What that reinforces is bad soccer. What that reinforces is mediocrity.
When teams and players compete in league systems that reward performance, the current standard is smashed and the bar is raised. If the bar is raised at the bottom, the teams at the top of the pyramid must raise their own level of play because, now, there’s a target on their backs. Change demands the deconstruction of the status quo, which is scary to those in high (and therefore, safe) positions. The current system rewards and safeguards mediocrity. The sport will not die if teams traverse the levels in an open pyramid. If DC United was relegated last year, believe me, the sport would have continued to be played in America. In fact, the very thought of teams rising up in a country with unrivaled infrastructure resources would raise the the allure, popularity, and level of the game. Of course, these are issues met with default defensive reactions by those who can’t see it working (yet), or those who aim to safeguard the status quo.
Before the anti-pro/rel people drag my name through the mud (again), however, this is not a fantasy where I pretend to know the economic implications and business potential of such a drastic change. In my opinion, I’d venture to put stock in the game’s evolution with regional leagues (mitigating the “but our country is so big!” excuse) with promotion and relegation to help strengthen and shake the bedrock of independent clubs to better their product. Where that breaks out could be through any number of estuaries that open up. The top clubs from each region could form their own division to compete under NASL and USL-Pro thereby lessening the burden for travel for small teams by allowing competition to be region-based and localized. The top three teams of each region could form a tier that connects them to the established professional leagues (again, outside of MLS).
So, how does this entire thought-process circle back to an obsession with average? I recall a conversation I had with one of my best friends who grew up in England. Over the span of his years watching the game he’s witnessed disappointment after disappointment from the national team, his boyhood club (Tottenham Hotspur), and the scant number of British players who actually go abroad to play the game during their development and as seasoned professionals. He said, “The problem with British players is similar to the problem with American players. They aren’t going to leave their cozy little homes and play on some shit field in Eastern Europe.”
It wasn’t a revelation or epiphany to me, but it just made more sense when I heard someone else who grew up in a different country say it. The reality is American (and, according to my British buddy, English) players aren’t going to live on someone’s couch going from trial to trial in all corners of the world trying to eek a living out of the game en masse. Nor will most American players do what African, South American, Asian, and continental Europeans do with regularity, which is be persistent, tough, and determined enough to become successful because they sure as hell don’t want to go back home and live the same lives everyone else does. England has this problem and the United States does because everyone is content with being average and comfortable. You don’t see scores of English and American players going abroad and getting away from the systems that hold them back technically, tactically, and culturally. The result is two national teams that oscillate with similar FIFA rankings and won’t win a World Cup anytime soon while the countries with these types of players tend to breed tougher, more versatile and talented players.
However, I intend to hit on a few things that need to change immediately. Recall my abrasive post where I challenge the toughness and resolve of the American player. Just let every example of just how content players are to be average here marinate for a bit. How often do you see kids playing in parks and empty lots until the street lights flicker on? How often does a player find a way to train after formal practice? What are you, as coaches and parents, praising on the sidelines and after games? Hard shots? Big clearances to nobody? Mouthing off to a referee? Grandstanding displays of arrogance?
I ask because I haven’t seen those players willing to grind it out with not a penny to their name get the recognition they deserve. The kid from a poor family who has to walk, run, ride a bike, catch a city bus or train, just to get to practice. Instead, America lauds the suburban kid with more money on his feet in the form of clown-colored shoes than most families have in their checking account. We ensure the kids who show up to practice in lavish cars and SUVs with heated seats are taken care of, everyone else, well, thanks for playing.
Something is amiss with the soccer culture in the United States. It’s addicted to average.
Average is a disease. Mediocrity is another word for stagnation–and that’s what we need to get away from to actually use the wealth of untapped talent at our disposal.