I’m not going to pretend it hasn’t been a tough couple of days for US soccer fans. Some of you may not have gotten out of the denial and anger stages yet; I’m barely into the bargaining stage myself. Tuesday was a very hard day for the Atlanta United family all around. Consider: Miguel Almiron and Carlos Carmona were both sitting at home watching their nations fail to qualify; Brad Guzan had to watch his from the bench.
But we all have to move on; wallowing in self-pity does no one any good. Our own Joe Patrick has just tossed the 800-pound gorilla out of the room, and there’s a large space to fill. Here’s the good news: Atlanta United can help to fill it. Not only that, but the club is already working to that very end.
The Five Stripes are already important to Major League Soccer. They are the new paradigm, the so-called MLS 3.0, a model that the rest of the league would do well to follow. But that new paradigm also applies to the progress of soccer in the US as a whole, now more than ever. There are several reasons why this is so; three are probably critical.
Reason No. 1: The Front Office
It is a sign of a healthy sports franchise that a team’s front office is held in high esteem by its fans. This is unquestionably so in the case of Atlanta United.
How often are the names of the management team almost as recognizable to the supporters as those of the players, or even the coaches? Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra are as good as household names in the city already, and Paul McDonough is probably not far behind. Why is that? Quite simply, they have done a sterling job. Darren Eales was tasked with assembling a top-notch team, and proceeded to do so. As a result, there is very little the club has done to date that can be uncategorically identified as a mistake.
The same cannot be said of USSF’s senior management. Just as Atlanta’s success starts at the top, so does the US’ failure. Sunil Gulati’s extended incumbency as USSF President appears to be an ever-lengthening parade of missteps. Not least of which are his selections for the men’s head coaching position.
The USSF needs much stronger management than it currently has, and United have shown how it is easily possible to do that. Which is why Gulati should resign, even before his term ends next February. But even he doesn’t, there are steps he can take to radically improve the situation. First, it may come as a surprise to many of you, but USSF President is a part-time unpaid position. Which is why Gulati has not given up his job at Columbia University. The USSF is in fact managed on a day-to-day basis by CEO Dan Flynn. How many of you know that name?
Hiring (well, to be accurate, electing) a well-qualified leader is much harder if there’s no financial incentive. Adding a salary would vastly expand the pool of candidates. The USSF may not have Arthur Blank’s deep resources, but it is sitting on a hoard of some $100 million. Spending a fraction of that on a strong leader would be money well-invested.
By the way, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl has already made an excellent proposal on reorganizing USSF management, and who he thinks should be hired to do it.
Reason No. 2: Team Identity
When Jurgen Klinsmann was hired as the national team coach, he stated that wanted a team with a style that reflected the American identity. He then immediately started stomping on that like a Monty Python foot. At the time of his firing, most observers noted that the team, far from displaying a clear identity, appeared to have no identity at all. There were brief glimpses of one in the first few games under Bruce Arena, but Tuesday evening those seemed to have faded away again.
In contrast, Tata Martino came to Atlanta with a crystal clear idea of how wanted his team to play. He signed players who he felt could not only execute his vision, but thrive under it. And he has not deviated one iota from his plan.
This is an obvious recipe for success. If the players know what they are expected to do, and are trained to do it, their chances of carrying out the plan increase exponentially. It builds confidence, it builds unity, it builds winning.
So the next job for USSF is to find a coach that can do that. Martino’s name has been floated by some, of course, but I doubt he wants the job, and—I’m going to be a complete club over country homer here—I don’t want him to leave Atlanta. There are plenty of excellent coaches out there; why is it so hard to attract one? See Reason No. 1.
Reason No. 3: Youth Development
United are not alone, or even the first, in establishing a strong youth development academy in MLS. For example, FC Dallas’ academy program is impressive. But as far as I am aware, United were the first team in the league to establish an academy program before the senior team. Again, a superb hiring decision was made in this area: Tony Annan has worked wonders.
The academy is performing astonishingly well, and has more than a few names who are likely to become stars in the not too distant future. Three of them are with the US U-17 team in India right now, and two more with other national squads.
There are many problems with youth development in US soccer. That’s a long and involved article in its own right. And they are not going to be solved overnight. The USSF has done far less than it should in this area and the results are clear: the talent pool should be overflowing; instead, it’s barely ankle-deep. But the USSF could do worse than to encourage clubs, not just in MLS, but all the way down the US soccer pyramid, to form strong youth programs and to invest in them heavily. Once again, refer to Reason No. 1 to find out how.
So, there is light at the end of the tunnel. And it just happens to be a rail tunnel that leads to Atlanta.