Brian McBride: It will take time and money to fix U.S. soccer
Brian McBride is one of those American players with an impressive breadth of experience. He has represented the U.S. at three World Cups, and spent parts of his club career in Germany and England, as well as in Major League Soccer. There is little that he hasn't seen, both good and bad.
Yet McBride, who is a regular pundit on ESPN FC TV, was as surprised as anyone over the failure of the U.S. men's national team to qualify for the World Cup. And like many former U.S. internationals, he has his share of opinions about the U.S. team's failure, and what are some of the next steps that should be taken.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
ESPN FC: Where do you think the biggest problems lie in terms of the failure to qualify for the World Cup? Was it players? Coaches? The federation? Or does it sink all the way down to the youth levels and how we develop players and coaches in this country?
McBride: I think at the root of everything, yeah, we definitely have a long way to go until we have the best solution. That takes a long time to change an infrastructure that has been around because there was no professional league for many years. You had the main goal of trying to get a scholarship, and if by some small percentage you had the ability to get a tryout overseas, then you took it. That's basically how youth soccer was set up. Now it's different. So finding that way to change what's been a part of the landscape for forever is very difficult and it takes a lot of money, and it takes people that are making a lot of money to make a decision that you're going to take less money to help the sport grow. That part is going to be very difficult.
But when you look at qualifying, there's a lot of blame to be doled out. I think in the end, the players too often weren't up to it physically. The level of effort wasn't where it needed to be too often. You saw that in the games early on, and you saw that in the first half against Trinidad & Tobago.
There are times when you're not going to be at your best. Everybody goes through that. But when you're not at your best, and nothing is really clicking, and you're not able to break a team down, you then need to work harder. There shouldn't have been that much time allowed with the ball for the T&T players. Once the hosts got in the game and realized their game plan is working, and they actually had time on the ball when they won the ball, it gave them more confidence and belief that not only could they score a goal or two, but try crazy things like hitting a 40-yard shot from a bad angle.
I think there was some issues with continuity in the beginning, and it certainly looked like they didn't have the desire to play. They didn't look like they were together as a team. You bring Bruce [Arena] in, and that changed. It definitely looked much more cohesive and much more goal oriented as a group, and then you lay an egg. You lay an egg in a first half, where you can't do that. And they were made to pay.
The other thing that I think is quite obvious is this group of players was good enough to qualify. It wasn't that they weren't talented enough. It wasn't that the talent level was behind Panama or Honduras or Costa Rica. But Costa Rica played like a team, and of course they used their strengths. They've got one of the best goalkeepers in the world, who made some very good saves in the game that the U.S. loses. But they were effective, and they executed better than the U.S. did.
ESPN FC: You talked about the youth aspect, and people taking less money. Can you elaborate on that? What else would you change?
McBride: The education process is changing. You have a Youth A and Adult A [license]. Those are things U.S. Soccer has seen. But as far as youth infrastructure goes, we should be able to educate our coaches better. A parent that is just getting their kid into soccer, someone who doesn't know anything about soccer, should be able to access information that would help them to help their kid in the back yard. I know U.S. Soccer wants that. It's just about bridging that information gap. That's at the very earliest level. As we get going and we grow the coaching side of it, we've got to make it more of a technical side when we're younger, so that there are more players who are comfortable on the ball and can do things.
But we don't really talk about in this country the education process for the player to understand the game better -- not just the technical side, which I do believe is very important at the younger age to get. Also to understand what you're doing. I was on professional teams here and players that were professionals didn't necessarily understand or know what the right decision was when they were in a certain position on the field. That doesn't happen in most other places. But it comes down to many different things because these kids are great athletes and at a younger age, the coach doesn't want to take away those attributes and the ability to use that. Or it could be extreme technical ability.
But as they get older, whether they dribble past two or three guys and then don't make the right pass, you think "Oh my gosh, I can dribble past another two," when you're younger and technically more gifted. You find out [later], "Wait a second, this guy is just as gifted as me, but he's more gifted defensively." So I've got to understand what to do with the ball in this situation, and that learning process, I think we can do a much better job as a whole organization, the whole setup inside of youth soccer in America.
Finally, I think the hardest part is the transition, when they're 17 or 18, to give them the opportunity to play professional soccer, or at least be around professional soccer in a professional setting. Meaning these players -- you saw our U-17s, some very good players. You have good technical players, you have some great players that could have some real big futures in the game. But they're not necessarily training with the first team.
OK, that's not necessarily a must, but training around the first team and understanding the culture of what it takes to be a professional, and seeing players that have been professionals for a while and who understand the attitude you need to take with you every time you step on the practice field, the intensity of those practices. And then comes the opportunity to step into those practices if a player gets hurt, or if they had a game on Sunday and now they have a game on Wednesday: they need to train players that didn't play.
It's important to put young players into those settings more and more, and make sure the quality drop-off isn't immense like it is at the moment. This gradual introduction of players who are of a very good quality into settings where there is a little more pressure, but not the pressure of an actual game, helps so much to really see and give direction to the younger player, to understand what is required of them, then finally be asked to be a part of a first team.
ESPN FC: So you think too many guys in that age group, between 18-21, are failing to take that next step?
McBride: I think in the past for a lot of guys, they get recognized, they get that first contract and they take their foot off the gas a little bit. Even that little bit brings everybody back into play as far as what they can do. It doesn't keep them rising above the players they were with when they were younger.
We're all accountable. The coaching is accountable; the player himself has to have the drive to keep improving. The players around them have to nurture and mentor these young guys. All that has been the culture of European, South American and Mexican clubs, because they've had that. That's something that is generational for them. For us, it's still happening. We have to have our own culture. Our job, for the players that have been in those settings and are coming back and playing in MLS, is to help with those younger players. Some younger players don't want to hear it. I've had both experiences. I think that then becomes the full circle to that respect side.
ESPN FC: Obviously there is a lot of anger and frustration within the fan base, a lot of calls to burn the whole system down. What are your thoughts on what some of the next steps are?
McBride: Because youth soccer is a business in this country, there's never going to be a time where we burn the thing completely down because there's too many clubs that have been entrenched in this sport. Some of them have produced some great players, some have some great results, some great history. Those clubs are a business. They make a lot of money.
That's why when Claudio Reyna made his comments -- I know Claudio knows that there are some good coaches out there -- I think he was generalizing and saying, "Most think they are the best coach in the world." Some understand that it's about the players and about the growth of the players. And that's how it should be. It shouldn't be "Look at me. We're 14-0-0 this season. I made this substitution right after halftime, and look at the result we get." That shouldn't be anything you ever say when you're talking about a youth team. It's not about you, it's about the kids and the way that they continue to improve. And hopefully while they're improving, you're improving as a coach, understanding and learning from mistakes.
But my take on it? The next thing we need to do is we need to get the best coaches coaching the best talent. Then having better and more educated coaching throughout the levels, and coaches who understand that at certain ages, as you get into 16, 17 and 18 years old, it becomes a big part of managing the player and not just coaching the team. You have to understand the intricacies of how each player reacts to one another and finding out the best way to handle players. Some players need a kick, some players need an arm around the shoulder and the more you understand things as a coach, the more effective you become in your ability to teach and coach.
ESPN FC: Speaking of coaches, who would you like to see be the next coach?
McBride: I don't have a preference. I think there are some good people out there in the U.S. who certainly should be looked at. Tab Ramos should be one. Peter Vermes should be one. I think if I'm U.S. Soccer, I look at it as we're either hiring a U.S. coach or we're hiring a very prominent international coach. I say that for the marketing side and for sponsors, because those sorts of things are important.
ESPN FC: There's been a lot of talk about a technical director and I know Jurgen Klinsmann held that post for a while. Now Ramos has taken over some of those responsibilities. How important do you think that position is and who would you like to see take that slot?
McBride: I think the technical director has to have some affiliation with the head coach because, and I'm not saying youth technical director because I do think there needs to be two different types. I'm talking about the technical director for the men's national team, and it should be someone who has a good relationship and similar views as the head coach. Otherwise, the players that he's bringing in and the information that he's bringing back to the coach is going to have a competing affect rather than a cohesive effect.
That said, the youth setup should be all integrated to one whole process, which is what Jurgen did. There should be an alignment and an understanding of the ideas of how we should play as a country. Not something set in stone by any means, but certainly someone who has a vision and a way of getting those points across while putting together the staff.
ESPN FC: So what do you think the technical director's job actually is? Is it to set a direction in terms of style and have that filter down, or are there other aspects?
McBride: I think the technical director's job would be more to understand the landscape of soccer in the world and bring in ideas, bring in techniques. Go to coaching symposiums, go to areas of interest that might help the national team, that might help the coach themselves. They get ideas that come from the same understanding. The youth technical director should be [focused on] an ideal of how to play the game, how to then grow and educate not only our coaches but our players, and have an infrastructure that allows us to have a bigger reach.
ESPN FC: Speaking of "reach," pay-to-play always comes up and it's obviously an unwieldy kind of reality that the game has to deal with in this country, but what thoughts do you have on how to combat that and expand the net in which the U.S. looks for players and make the game more accessible?
McBride: I know there have been discussions about the USSF raising money for a fund to go into the inner cities and have more outreach. As for reach: right now it's pretty organic, but they have local area invites once a month where they invite kids into a setting where it's similar to an old ODP setting but to get them to practice with U.S. Soccer coaches, run through drills and give them a chance to analyze individual players.
I don't know what the reach is but in the bigger cities, it's probably easier to see talent because a lot of Latin and Hispanic teams are playing in main leagues. Certainly at the younger ages, there are ethnic leagues that are specific to heritage but as they get older, more and more players are around. It's not making sure that people get a chance to see them in a setting where they're comfortable. That costs money, it takes more time, it takes a specific structure and plan so that everybody is seen. I don't think they have that in place right now, as much as everybody is trying. Dollar-wise, it's going to cost money.
The further you get out -- like, say, in Iowa -- you've got to imagine there's a kid that is 40 miles away from the nearest club and doesn't have the same opportunities. When I say you can't blow the whole structure up, what you can do is have a greater reach in analyzing players, and making sure those players are seen.
One thing we don't talk about is once they're seen, how do you get them involved in clubs that are going to provide them the best ability to grow? That takes a lot of work and a lot of infrastructure. Say some kid lives 500 miles from the nearest MLS club or academy. They're not going to drive in every single day. So what are their options? It's either they move or move their family, and we all know how difficult that is. So providing some sort of consistent training is a major cost and when it comes down to it, that is one of our biggest issues: the cost.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.