USMNT

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

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USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades. In the meantime, players should learn and be taught the game at its highest level.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

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AP

Special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast: What’s wrong with U.S. Soccer?

It's a special edition of the Fire Talk Podcast!

Dan Santaromita, Justin O’Neil, JJ Stankevitz and Tom Cooper try to answer all the questions that surfaced after the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup. What went wrong in qualifying, who was at fault, what can be fixed, will things get better? Has any American soccer fan calmed down even a week after? The four on the panel sure still are plenty fired up.

What’s in the future for the U.S. national team? Perhaps two Fire players

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USA TODAY

What’s in the future for the U.S. national team? Perhaps two Fire players

In the aftermath of the U.S. national team failing to qualify for the World Cup, fans are somewhere in the stages of grief.

Past that is a chance to look ahead to the future. The U.S. men don’t play a competitive game at the senior level until the 2019 Gold Cup. There’s always a long gap after a World Cup, but add another eight months to that by missing out on the World Cup and that becomes a very long time between truly meaningful matches.

What that gap should provide is an opportunity for younger players newer to the national team setup to get more chances in the coming months. Two players that may be given those chances are Fire fullbacks Brandon Vincent, 23, and Matt Polster, 24.

Vincent, the Fire’s second-year left back who has shown notable improvement from his rookie season, has already been capped with the senior national team. He appeared as a substitute against Canada in a friendly in February 2016. He was a part of the annual January camps where a group of mostly MLS players in their offseasons join the national team while the European-based players remain with their clubs while those seasons hit the midway point.

Polster has moved between a central defensive midfield role and right back in his three seasons with the Fire. He was a part of the failed Olympic qualifying team in 2016 and also took part in that same January camp as Vincent, but did not play. Polster was included in the preliminary roster for this summer’s Gold Cup, but was not selected to the final group.

Both have been key to the Fire’s success this year with the Fire’s streak of six losses in seven matches happening when both were out injured.

Vincent’s reaction to the American failure was more from the fan’s perspective than a player's.

“I don’t know if I’m even close to being in the conversation so it’s more of a fan type view for me,” Vincent said. “It’s gonna be weird not watching them.”

Polster related to some of the younger players on the team he has played with.

“I think the biggest thing is it’s just disappointing for all the guys,” Polster said. “They put a lot of effort in and obviously it didn’t go in their favor. To go through the entire hex and not qualify is disappointing, especially for the young guys like (Christian) Pulisic, (Kellyn) Acosta, (Paul) Arriola…. To not get that experience at a young age is disappointing.”

Polster played right back in Olympic qualifying, but was still playing midfield with the Fire at the time. This season, he has moved to right back and looked better at that spot than he did when he played there as a rookie. Fullbacks have always been hard to come by for the U.S. so Polster could at least be in the conversation going forward. He even had his own ambitions for trying to squeeze into this World Cup roster.

“The ultimate goal was that they’d qualify and hopefully I could make January camp and then I could turn some heads,” Polster said. “That was my thought process and I really wanted to give it a go. Hopefully I can do what I can to maybe help and be a part of it one day.”

If Polster has extra value for playing right back, Vincent may get double points for being a left-footed left back. His national team prospects may be greater than Polster’s for that reason.

“I’ll do everything I can to play as well as I can and improve as much as I can, but getting in that group is out of my hands,” Vincent said. “It’s not really my thing to worry about as long as I produce on the field here in Chicago, that’s all I can focus on.”