The Klinsmann - Garber Debate
Last year, the juxtaposition of the futbol debate about excellence versus mediocrity, manifested itself in comments made by USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who publicly declared and encouraged his players to choose Europe (the global standard of futbol excellence) over the United States and implicitly, over MLS, because only by being exposed day-in day-out to the world's best competition, can the players on the USMNT become truly world-class, and ultimately, challenge for global respectability according to the highest global standards of the game, both on the pitch and off.
Klinsmann's statements were countered publicly by MLS Commissioner Don Garber. Don Garber's comments in response were just shy of asking for Jurgen Klinsmann's head, but the debate was and still is about excellence versus mediocrity.
In the USA today, and across the entire futbol pyramid, from U.S. Soccer to the lowest rungs of youth futbol, the global standard of excellence in the USA has two points of reference: the USWNT and Jurgen Klinsmann.
The pressure that Klinsmann is under, particularly after the recent 3-2 loss to Mexico at the Rose Bowl (with the winner going to the Confederation's Cup in Russia in 2017), and the prior failure to make the CONCACAF Gold Cup final, is ironic.
We expect the USMNT's coach to deliver world-class results without having a team of world-class players capable of producing world-class results, regardless of the competition. What standard of excellence are we holding MLS to? Why we are holding Klinsmann to a higher standard than Don Garber is anybody's guess.
In a very real sense, Klinsmann's problem at the national team level, is directly related to Don Garber's and MLS's underperformance. And maybe, just maybe that is why Don Garber reacted with such vehemence to Klinsmann's statements. Because indirectly, Klinsmann is saying, whether we want to hear him or not, that MLS is not world-class and has no prospect of becoming world-class any time soon -- certainly not within the next decade.
People want Klinsmann to perform miracles. For Don Garber everyone is perfectly content with his strategy of slow and steady growth. In fact, slow and steady growth is a misnomer. MLS's growth strategy has at its essence another agenda, namely, maintaining the status quo.
Maintaining the status quo for MLS, means securing its place as the top professional league in the USA and Canada, irrespective of whether it is in reality a second or third tier league when compared against the global benchmarks.
In any valid analysis, MLS must be constantly compared against the global standards of excellence for this sport -- and right now that means Europe. When compared to Europe, particularly at the league level with the EPL and Bundesliga, and at the club level with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Paris St. Germain, etc., MLS is losing ground, not gaining it.
In fact, MLS has lost ground over the past 20 years not gained it. MLS has established its own myth to the contrary, and that myth has been sold to the press and the public extremely well.
The European leagues since MLS's inception in 1996, have outgrown, outspent and created an increasingly better product. The gap with Europe widened from 1996 until now, and promises to widen further.
The essence of the irony is that Don Garber gets consistent pats on the back for a job well-done, while the very product he has created and manages is the exact problem that Klinsmann has to face every day -- we are not producing world-class talent in the USA. It is just that simple.
Klinsmann, even as technical director, cannot correct the wrongs at the top. And it is the top that dictates what happens at the bottom. The inspiration from pro sports leagues and the wish for dollars always trickles down. We all know this.
The NFL, the NBA, the WNBA, MLB and the NHL, hold the keys to providing young athletes with the incentive to aspire to greatness and the global standard of excellence. Not to mention the money. Each of those leagues is the global standard of excellence in its respective sport.
The best athletes we have in the USA groom themselves for years to reach that professional league standard of excellence. Until the top of the pyramid, currently occupied by MLS, mirrors that same global standard of excellence, our best athletes and the money will not flow, either up or down the futbol pyramid.
Why the Women Win and the Men Don't
Here is the answer to the question we asked earlier. The U.S. women have developed their skills along the years through a system and via infrastructure that is world-class when compared to women in the rest of the world. No other country in the world has an NCAA.
Europe, particularly Western Europe, has the equivalent of an integrated club system, which has global standard of excellence professional men's teams at the top of the pyramid, which in turn support (financially) professional women's teams and the youth teams and infrastructure below.
By way of comparison, the USA women are getting at least the same attention, support and infrastructure as their best competitors in Europe, Latin America and Asia, and in many cases it is better or the best in the world. Arguably, however, this should come with a caveat. The USA has not been able to sustain a women's professional league to match the best professional women's leagues in Europe, and this is for a very simple reason. Because those leagues in Europe in large measure, are built on top of or alongside successful men's leagues and clubs, and a well-organized pyramid below.
The women of Europe usually play under the same club brand as the men (there are exceptions of course). But if you look at the UEFA women's tournament, big name clubs represented by women are the norm.
NWSL isn't quite there yet, and I would argue that NWSL will never get there, under our current system.
Our professional game in the USA and Canada is fragmented and dysfunctional. We have four independent leagues (MLS, NWSL, NASL and USL Pro) across three divisions with no relegation. There is some cross-fertilization between the leagues. For instance, the Houston MLS franchise is also the ownership group for the Houston NWSL women's team. MLS's Orlando franchise is preparing to field both a men's and women's NWSL team. MLS is also cooperating with USL Pro, to obligate MLS owner's to establish the equivalent of minor league farm teams in USL Pro. These, however, are not differences that make a difference.
At the level below the professionals, youth, amateur, etc., we have a plethora of organizations, which make up the bottom of the pyramid. This level, despite the tremendous time and money spent annually largely by volunteers and families, is also fractured and in many ways also dysfunctional (the whole pay-to-play model needs rethinking, if not outright abandonment and substitution).
There is something wrong. U.S. Soccer, which is responsible for managing this futbol pyramid from the neutral position of an administrator, has recently proven to be anything but neutral.
The Yedlin case is a clear indication that U.S. Soccer has taken sides with MLS, to the detriment of youth futbol. What does this mean? From the perspective of the global standard of futbol excellence, it means that U.S. Soccer is taking the side of mediocrity, and worse, institutionally reinforcing it.
There may be a perception that MLS has deep pockets. Certainly, the profiles of the MLS owners would lead one to believe that that is the case. But in truth, the MLS business model is structured to avoid leveraging their wealth.
The MLS salary cap this year is USD 3.5MM per team. In the EPL, the average salary per player is the equivalent of approximately USD 3.5MM per year.
Which brings us full circle to the men's game.