The True Reason Why American Soccer is Lagging Behind and Why Almost Everyone Gets It Wrong

There is an ongoing debate as to why U.S. men’s soccer isn’t competitive with the top football countries in the world. Of all the various reasons and criticisms that have been offered up, most people including experts have it all wrong. I am here to set the record straight once and for all.

First and foremost, it goes without saying that I am a huge fan of the beautiful game. I grew up playing soccer at a young age, still love playing today, and even went through a mid-life career change in order to start two companies based on my passion for the sport. I also want to emphasize that I support American soccer. I believe that if you truly love the game, you will encourage it not only at the grassroots level but also give whatever support you can to your local and national teams and leagues. With that said, this article is specifically in regards to the men’s game. (Women’s soccer is a separate topic that will be discussed at another time.)

I know of many soccer fans in the United States who choose to not watch or support MLS or the U.S. men’s national team as they feel they fall “below their standards.” Yet these same “die-hard fans” religiously follow La Liga, Champions League or some other foreign league. They turn their nose up at MLS, usually while making disparaging comments about the league’s skill set or lack of excitement. First of all, which American soccer fan doesn’t know that there are other more competitive leagues with overall higher skill levels? People use that as some sort of proof or credibility of their superior knowledge of the game.

It doesn’t take a savant to realize there are varying degrees of talent and even excitement levels. Personally, I enjoy watching youth club teams, Hispanic leagues at local parks, regular season MLS games, and critical World Cup matches. I just love the game and competition  whatever the scenario. However, I find it mildly amusing that many of these critics (not all) are oftentimes not very good players themselves who possess an inflated sense of their own proficiency. I venture that any person in the U.S. who claims they love the game but don’t support any of the multiple domestic leagues available are actually virtue signaling snobs. This lack of true fan support is directly linked to the root cause which I will connect the dots on later.

Regardless, there is a spirited and ongoing debate as to why soccer in the U.S. isn’t competitive with the top football countries in the world. This discussion and vitriol probably hit a fever pitch when the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Although we had made it to the round of 16 four years earlier, this was the first time we didn’t qualify for the World Cup since 1986. This debacle was made further painful by the fact that we were eliminated after a stunning 2-1 upset to Trinidad and Tobago. Now, mind you, this is a country with a population less than half of the City of Los Angeles. Are you serious? Unsurprisingly, Bruce Arena accepted responsibility and promptly resigned from his head coach duties before he was pilloried in public.

Pundits, coaches, former players, and fans all came out of the woodwork spewing heated criticism towards the USMNT and American soccer in general, while loudly proclaiming that “U.S. soccer was broken” and listing out what they thought was needed to fix it. The majority of the reasons cited then and even now for why America is lagging behind in the world usually fall under three broad categories. They lay blame squarely in the areas of either our development system, faulty infrastructure, or our supposedly insufficient soccer culture — or some combination of all three.

People blaming our development system make such arguments that coaches and clubs prioritize winning over development, we gravitate early on to players of size over skill, and stifle risk taking and creativity for safe, conservative play.

Those criticizing our soccer infrastructure point their fingers at the high cost of soccer including the pay-to-play model, incongruent college soccer system, or lack of integrated promotion and relegation throughout the country.

The culture argument takes aim at things such as Americans theoretically not having enough passion for the game, and as a result we don’t play fervently enough in parks and streets beyond structured environments.

These are all valid points with varying degrees of culpability that make a case for why America is unable to dominate or even compete at the highest level. But as far as any of those reasons or combination thereof as being the ROOT CAUSE for why American soccer is lagging is completely and utterly false.

The actual, true reason for why we don’t dominate, like most things in life, boils down to something much more simple — money. That’s it.

Every critique of why we’re behind in soccer is also present in all of the sports WE Dominate in as well. So what does that tell You?

Although there has been a recent decline, we still have millions of kids growing up playing soccer in our country. There’s a reason why we call women driving around in minivans “soccer moms.” The core issue lies in that although many youths participate in soccer, as they grow older, many of the top athletes and future stars are lured away into other sports. Simply put, as kids get older and an athletic future (either in college but more so professionally) seems viable, it is very likely that they will gravitate towards a particular sport with more attractive rewards either through adult influence or of their own accord. Take a look at the salary structure of MLS in 2020 compared to the four major American sports. Although the average MLS salary pales in comparison, the picture gets particularly bleak when looking at minimum salaries.

Average Salaries by League, 2020

Average NBA salary: $8.32 million 
Average MLB salary: $4.03 million 
Average NFL salary: $3.26 million
Average NHL salary: $2.69 million
Average MLS salary: $410,000

(source: Houston Chronicle)

Minimum Salaries by League, 2020

Minimum NBA salary: $898,310 (source: Republic World)
Minimum NHL salary: $700,000 (source: The Puck Report)
Minimum NFL salary: $610,000 (source: ESPN)
Minimum MLB salary: $563,500 (source: USA Today)
Minimum MLS salary: $56,250 (source: MLS Players Association)

Why would an elite athlete with multiple choices stick around for a likely dismal financial future in soccer when they could choose a much brighter option? If you’re going to dedicate your life and make costly sacrifices towards becoming a professional athlete, you might as well shoot for millions instead of thousands of dollars at the end of that distant rainbow.

The stark reality is that all of the aforementioned supposed reasons for why America lags in soccer behind other countries are also consistently present in all of the other sports. You don’t think basketball, baseball, or American football coaches don’t give preferential treatment to players with superior height and size at the youth level? You don’t think we emphasize and reward wins at the cost of skill development in other sports? You don’t see how the NCAA and NBA have obvious conflicts in regards to their respective objectives?

AAU basketball scouts

One of the loudest complaints against youth soccer in America is that it is too expensive due to the pay-to-play model and that it’s holding us back. Listen, every youth sport in the U.S. at the top levels are comprised of pay-to-play models.

Although there are less costly alternatives for most sports, including AYSO for soccer, you essentially get what you pay for. If one wants high level coaching and top competition within a structured and organized environment, one has to fork over cash … and lots of it. It costs a lot of money to play club or academy level soccer. It also costs a lot of money to play AAU basketball, travel baseball, or Pop Warner football. Even competitive cheerleading can easily run into the thousands of dollars per year. I have a 13-year-old niece who plays beginning level club volleyball in the Bay Area and just her annual club fees alone are over $5,000. It’ll go up to $7-8,000 once she advances.

In actuality, soccer may be one of the least expensive choices outside of Pop Warner football when compared with the four major sports. Yet no one makes the claim that the pay-to-play model is holding us back at the highest international levels in those respective sports — because it isn’t. We’re a dominant force in basketball (ranked No. 1 internationally) and baseball (ranked No. 2 internationally), and respectable in hockey (ranked No. 6 internationally), even though they are all built on pay-to-play models here in America. It goes without saying we dominate American football as well.

Every critique of why we’re lagging behind in soccer is also present in all of the sports in which we’re dominant. So what does that tell you … other than that these “reasons” are not the deciding factor. In actuality, our youth soccer system may in fact be the least dysfunctional. AAU basketball is notorious for having major corruption and money scandals. The more potential money there is at stake, the more rampant misdeeds abound.

The only possible criticism that isn’t common to other sports might be promotion and relegation. However, that is easily dismissed as being the fundamental reason for American soccer’s downfall. Critics argue that if we had promotion and relegation like most other countries, the forced meritocracy and pressure would cause us to rise to their levels. However, we also don’t have promotion and relegation in basketball either, in contrast to Europe and South America. Yet that doesn’t stop Team USA from spanking their collective hides every four years to bring home the gold medal like clockwork.

The reason is clear. We already know we have the best athletes in the world. But because of the huge and obvious salary gap we are systematically siphoning most of the best and most talented athletes from soccer into the other four major sports. Elite players who would’ve helped raise American soccer’s zenith are instead dominating in another sport, or worse yet, languishing as an average player.

Remember how early on I mentioned that there are many soccer fans in America who don’t actually support American soccer? If MLS salaries were to suddenly be on par with the other top sports we would soon find that the overall collective level of soccer would lift accordingly. Even without addressing any of the issues and dysfunctions mentioned above, just like our four major sports with their dirty laundry, we would soon rise to meet and even exceed the rest of the world. But in order for that to happen, the fans would have to walk the walk and pour their consumer dollars to an equivalent level with our other sports into soccer that’s actually here in America. And unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

22 COMMENTS

  1. money can solve many problems in a vast array of issues but owners aren’t always up for overspending for altruistic reasons. as for the future, although playing abroad isn’t the best option, hopefully seeing the monetary success of pulisic, etc will drive the motivations of the next generation.

    • Agreed. But owners wouldn’t need to spend for altruistic reasons if fans in America supported soccer relative to the four major sports. It would be a business decision.

  2. I’ve heard through the grapevine… a certain youth director will only promote players to a first team if he has a Quid pro quo in line with the family/player.

    • Not surprised, really. There are those incidences and worse in the other sports. Look at AAU basketball. The more money there is at stake, the more corruption exists.

  3. The US wouldn’t know a talented player if they had him. they would likely break him down and he would play down in level so the other 17 terrible players on the roster can look good also.

    • There are bad coaches and teams as well as good coaches and teams. It’s not just at the amateur level either. Look at the NY Knicks for example. They have a huge budget and look at their missteps and track record the past few decades.

      • This will continue to happen in USA without Pro/Rel. Zero accountability. Nick’s owners banks no matter how bad he sucks as an owner because he is gauranteed NBA status every year.

  4. Pro/Rel is easily dismissed? Lol. Really?

    So then why in heavens do we have more foreignors in the Nba than ever before. In fact, it went from 24 foreignors to 110 in 25 years. Look at the Nba draft every year for the past 20 years and you will see a very noticeable and steady increase in foreignors and their rankings each year rise.
    Their impact in today’s game is noticeable.
    Luka is a world class player.
    This is a sport that takes a huge back seat to soccer in europe.

    The money factor as well in Euro Basketbol was no where near soccer so there goes that money fcator you gave as reason.

    Black people dominate basketball because they love to play it. At first they weren’t even given in opportunity to play it in USA but that didn’t stop them from building themselves I to the best and made an instant impact once they were allowed to play pro. Money had nothing to do with it.

    We dominate Nfl Football but it’s not a top 10 sport in the world. Neither is baseball nor hockey.

    Maybe do some better research next time when coming up with excuses for us sucking.

    Pro/Rel is the answer. It’s what is getting Europe to catch up with Usa at an alarming rate and especially so when compared to us with soccer

    • “We dominate Nfl Football but it’s not a top 10 sport in the world. Neither is baseball nor hockey.”

      NFL is a niche sport. Baseball and hockey not being top 10 sports in the world is meaningless, especially for hockey, since there’s enough foreign leagues that have pro-reg which aren’t even close to rivaling the NHL. Pro-reg has little to no bearing on whether or not the league is good.

      “Maybe do some better research next time”

      Let us look closer at Luka’s case. (1) Basketball is seen as viable option to play and not stigmatized in Slovenia and (2) academies like Real Madrid scouted him and picked him up. Luka, while in Europe, was never on a team that was faced with relegation, in fact he only played a few seasons at RM. Real Madrid was competitive every year to win the domestic title in basketball. The fact that Liga ACB is pro-reg, I’d argue, has little to do with his success. Luka is great because he has a natural ability towards basketball where his talents were properly developed via academy.

      “Pro/Rel is the answer. It’s what is getting Europe to catch up with Usa at an alarming rate”

      Not, it’s not, and you have zero proof of your assertion. Europe isn’t catching up the US “at an alarming rate” in basketball, so please back away and put down the Pro-Reg blunt. What’s happening is that the sport is becoming more popular abroad where there’s proper developmental academies/systems put in place to produce players good enough to play in the NBA, and, once every four years, make Team USA pee a little in their shorts.

  5. Promotion/relegation does have some impact – all of the aforementioned reasons have varying degrees of impact, which I stated. However, promotion/relegation is easily dismissed as being the FUNDAMENTAL REASON for American soccer’s downfall.

    Yes we have more foreigners in the NBA than ever before. And yes promotion/relegation exists in basketball in most of the top countries except for the US. But the NBA is still by far the best basketball league in the world and understandably pays the most by a considerable margin – that’s why the top foreigners play in the NBA. The point is you can still have the best league in the world (by a considerable measure) WITHOUT promotion/relegation. We do it in basketball, baseball and American football and we can do it in soccer.

    You think that after we start having teams bounce up and down between MLS and USL it’ll naturally result in us having a league that’s better than La Liga and EPL?? It’ll help the overall quality but it still won’t be the best league in the world if you keep the annual salary rate the same (which is FAR below the major four sports). Top developing players like Christian Pulisic will still leave for Europe where the money, competition and overall potential is superior.

    My point is that the lack of promotion/relegation either in soccer or basketball in America IS NOT THE DECIDING FACTOR. It’s that whoever pays the most money in salary will always have the best talent. If American soccer fans poured as much money into soccer like we did the NBA, and salaries were equivalent then soon we would have the top athletes in MLS as well. And then US socceer would dominate and spank the rest of the countries in soccer just like we do in most other sports.

  6. I’d be more interested in seeing the median income for each sport rather than the average. Those $300 million contracts in MLB and NBA really throw off the “average” numbers there.

    • The median numbers are harder to come by and not readily available. But I still think the average is a much more meaningful metric than the median. The median would simply represent the middle number and also not really take into full consideration the exorbitant salaries at the high end. That’s why I included the minimum salary as well to put it into full context. Can you imagine what the median salary would be for MLS then? The MLS average salary at least takes into account the handful of $1MM+ salaries that are paid out.

      To add further, NBA minimum salaries are on an upward sliding scale. For example, minimum salary is already $1,445,697 with just one year of experience. I included the link in the article but here it is again for reference: https://www.republicworld.com/sports-news/basketball-news/nba-2020-21-season-to-have-an-898310-minimum-salary-for-unchanged-109m-salary-cap.html

      I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

  7. In this country, Black people don’t play soccer, it wouldn’t matter what it pays. Baseball pays, golf pays, it doesn’t matter. As long as the best athletes have no interest in your sport it doesn’t matter what it pays.

    • That’s the point. The amount it pays has a direct correlation and relationship to what people will stick with and play long-term. I’m not saying culture doesn’t play a big part, it does. But if the MLS was also handing out $40MM annual salaries the profile landscape of their athletes would definitely change.

      I disagree with the notion that blacks in America won’t ever play soccer. FYI Odell Beckham Jr. played soccer growing up and almost joined the USMNT but quit at 13 and decided to stick with basketball, baseball and football. Also, although they do generally dominate professional sports in America the best athletes are not limited to blacks only. We have to tap into the best athletes that are gifted in soccer period, not just the best black athletes.

  8. To me the top athletes excuse is not good at all. Take out all the basketball, football, baseball players. You’re telling a country this big cannot still find top athletes? And not all of those top athletes equal successful body type in soccer. LeBron James would not be a good soccer player. But that’s another debate.

    The whole issue comes down to culture, money, and development.
    Culture no explanation needed there.
    Development would come if there was some sort option to sell players like Ajax and many other clubs in Europe do. Stop caring so much about wins and losses at a young age, and develop knowing you can make hundreds of thousands and millions for developing the right players. Stop trying to just develop the bigger stronger faster kids, do both.

    Then use that money to build your facilities, get better choices, etc etc

  9. To me the top athletes excuse is not good at all. Take out all the basketball, football, baseball players. You’re telling a country this big cannot still find top athletes? And not all of those top athletes equal successful body type in soccer. LeBron James would not be a good soccer player. But that’s another debate.

    The whole issue comes down to culture, money, and development.
    Culture no explanation needed there.
    Development would come if there was some sort option to sell players like Ajax and many other clubs in Europe do. Stop caring so much about wins and losses at a young age, and develop knowing you can make hundreds of thousands and millions for developing the right players. Stop trying to just develop the bigger stronger faster kids, do both.

    Then use that money to build your facilities, get better choices, etc etc

  10. Your article unwittingly highlights the problem with US soccer. You do not need the best athletes, you need the BEST FOOTBALL PLAYERS. Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt, or Michael Jordan, would not be the best football players. They would have the ball taken from them repeatedly until they no longer even wanted to look at a football again.

    • Your comparison suggests taking the best athletes in other sports and switching them to soccer as adults. I’m making the argument that these young athletes started off in soccer and the best athletes received the best training and coaching without being siphoned into other sports. The best of the best are usually the most athletic or close to it in their respective sports. Messi is probably the fastest in the world while dribbling and Cristiano’s overall athleticism is off the charts – his vertical leap is higher than the NBA average.

      You have no idea if Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt or Michael Jordan would’ve dominated if they had chosen soccer as their profession (doesn’t have to be them specifically but athletes like them) . I contend that they or someone of similar profile would have been elite soccer players.

      Carl Lewis = A faster Thierry Henry
      Usain Bolt = Faster, stronger Paul Pogba
      Michael Jordan = Much more athletic Zlatan Ibrahimovic

      I am not denying that there aren’t other issues with soccer in America – I stated that up front and listed them as well. However, if the very best athletes of a country for the most part are systematically choosing other sports, then you’re ultimately going to get an inferior end product. There’s no denying that.

  11. I don’t think kids are leaving youth soccer because it pays more to play basketball or anything like that. The reason they leave is because soccer is such a simple game rule wise, that it’s great to teach to kids and use it as a first sport. Than they move into other sports as their capacity to understand the rules increases. The pay to play problem is a problem because other countries don’t have it. We are a top team in those other sports because culturally speaking most other nations don’t have as developed of systems as we do. They don’t have big basketball development systems. . . Hockey only has good development systems in certain other countries like Canada and Russia. Baseball only has significant development systems in Japan and certain parts of Latin America. But when it comes to soccer we are competing against a large amount of nations who all have better development systems then ours. Ones that don’t involve pay to play. And the other thing is that the development system in soccer is more important than anything. You can teach an athletic person to dribble and shoot in basketball . . . football there have been players who played in the NFL who never played football before the NFL. Soccer is a sport that when you get to the higher levels skill means a lot more than athletic ability. You can’t just grab an athletic person and teach him touch in a few years and have him able to compete at the pro-levels. You have to take people who basically started playing before they where 10 and never stopped.

  12. The pay to play model is a major problem in the US for all sports, not just soccer. The reality is that the majority of youth athletes paying all this money are simply not genetically gifted enough to ever be top athletes – they just have parents living vicariously through their kids with a pipe dream. There are many self proclaimed expert coaches gladly willing to take these parent’s money instead of having a real job.

    Michael Jordan, Pele, Hank Aaron, and Tom Brady never paid thousands to play high level youth sports.

    I actually do coach multiple youth sports- soccer and basketball. I am also a former college basketball player.

    I played soccer, basketball, and baseball my entire youth. I didn’t play AAU basketball until I was 15. I was 6’7″ tall with a 32″ vertical and a decent jumpshot. I did not get any of this from paying “top coaches.” When I did play AAU, most of the cost was covered through sponsors like Adidas and other groups – because I was on a top level team, not some schmoe team with a coach trying to make money by lying to parents about their kid’s “potential.”

    I had no chance of playing NBA basketball. No amount of coaching was going to change that.

    My 12 year old daughter is an excellent soccer player for her age and especially good at keeper. We play rec. When she turns 14 if she wants to dedicate the time and effort we may seek a more comprehensive team/training program. I can afford to pay a bunch of money to some guy who might know more than me, but I am not willing to do it unless my daughter wants it 100% – unfortunatley for most kids it is the parents who want it far more than the kid.

    I see a bunch of kids on “top select teams” who are certainly better than they would be playing in the rec league, but who are far less skilled than the poor kid with superior genetics who dominates the rec league. Most of these kids have no chance at being a pro – not even close – no matter how much their parents are willing to pay.

    The argument that hard work and training alone can make you great at soccer, along with the argument that top soccer players are not genetically gifted because they are only 5’9″ and “not that fast” (i.e. Messi) is ridiculous. Speed and height are not the sole predetermined genetic factors for athletic success. Look at John Stockton in basketball. Messi and Ronaldo are genetic specimens – just not in the same way as an NFL or NBA player.

    Athletic genetics is far more complicated than how people oversimplify it.

    The solution to US Men’s Soccer is simple. Stop forcing kids to choose one sport and drop all other sports when they are 8 years old. Encourage diversity of sport from age 4 to 14. This will enhance coordination Encourage, speed, and overall muscle and skeletal development.

    Create junior high school soccer teams across the board like we have for all other major sports. Encourage top athletes to play for their school. (most top soccer players never play for their school – if they even attend a regular school in the first place).

    Funnel the top Junior High and High School players into an advanced AAU program just like we do for Football and Basketball.

    People keep wanting us to do it like the euros. There is no need. Do the same thing we do for all other sports – we know it works. We kick euro ass in basketball.

    If more kids played soccer AND basketball AND baseball each year then we would have better soccer players who choose the sport of their own free will, and you end up with “select teams” which are actually comprised of top talent, instead of just kids whose parents are willing to pay for the chance to brag about their kid.

  13. The in-country salary argument does not hold water. It doesn’t explain Denmark. Our players can play in Germany England Italy or Spain to get those salaries, just as the Danes do. Or those from Trinidad and Tobago. I don’t have an explanation for why we are so bad. But when I watch a team like Denmark play, it truly is a beautiful game. I can’t remember a US Men’s Team that I thought was beautiful.

    • If you pay close attention…the argument isn’t that high salaries are not offered in other parts of the world. It’s that they’re not offered here in the U.S. therefore the desire/incentive/skillset/pipeline are all missing which is required to enable our players to compete at the highest level. Our players for the most part can’t just “play in Germany, Italy or Spain to get those salaries” as you put it….because they’re unable to compete at that level to demand those salaries.

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