Current U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati was never a high level soccer player or coach. Gulati is an economist by trade and is widely credited with developing the business of American soccer, but he’s also been made a scapegoat for the United States’ failure to develop world class players.
Following the United States men’s national team’s recent failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Gulati is facing a slew of challengers for his presidential seat in February’s forthcoming U.S. Soccer elections. One of them is former USMNT player Kyle Martino, who’s proving to be popular among a large group of soccer fans thanks to his work as an analyst on NBC’s soccer coverage and a story about his candidacy in the New York Times. Martino’s pitch: He’s seen all of American soccer close up, and has hands-on experience that no one else does.
“I’m the entire soccer spectrum,” Martino told SB Nation. “I played travel. I played rec. I played club team. I played state team. I played regional team. I played youth national team. I played high school and went to the state final ... I went down to Bollettieri (the predecessor to the Under-17 residency program at IMG Academy). I went to college. I played professional. I even played semi-pro. I played PDL. I played the full national team. And now I’m on the backside, where I’m playing men’s league and I’m paying for my kid to be in the system. I’ve seen the whole thing, and every level has a role to play in developing players.”
Martino does not believe that he has a magic wand. He is not trying to sell anyone a soccer utopia where pay-to-play academies no longer exist and America’s Lionel Messi emerges from the shadows. But he does have fresh ideas to give more players opportunities to develop into top pros, and to create a soccer culture that gives more kids the tools they need to reach the highest level of the sport at a younger age.
Putting a band-aid on pay-to-play
“You’re not getting rid of pay-to-play, even if you wanted to,” Martino says. “Pay-to-play exists in every other sport, and in every other world, so I’m confused why we think that’s a unique problem in our sport in this country.”
No aspect of American soccer is more derided than “pay-to-play,” which refers to the fact that a majority of youth soccer clubs with quality coaching in the United States cost parents a significant amount of money. Martino doesn’t believe that this system can be eliminated, so he’s focusing on two big things to make it better: Subsidizing some of the cost and making the quality of coaching better.
“This can no longer be a rich kid’s game,” Martino told SB Nation. “The cost of soccer education in this country is too high. But also the cost of a soccer education that some parents are more than willing to pay for, it’s not good enough.”
Martino continued, “One area that I definitely want to focus on is subsidizing the game through some of our surplus with US Soccer, and getting together with our strategic partners, whether it be corporations or professional leagues, to all pony up and make the game more affordable at the youth level, but also to make the coaching the kids are exposed to be of higher quality.”
Could regional training centers make a big difference?
“I think a big mistake we’re making is thinking that because we can’t create 390 of these centers around the country like Germany was able to do,” Martino says, referring to German football association’s massive investment and rebuilding job following the country’s failure at Euro 2000, “that we’re not even going to try. So stopping the residency program for me was a big mistake.”
The USMNT Under-17 residency program at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. shut down in May. Martino spent time with a precursor to the program before it became full-time in January, 1999. Its inaugural full-time class featured five players who would eventually become significant contributors for the senior team — Bobby Convey, Kyle Beckerman, Oguchi Onyewu, DaMarcus Beasley, and Landon Donovan. But no Bradenton class that followed ever lived up to that group’s accomplishments, and many youth soccer experts called its closure long overdue.
Martino disagrees. “Just because you can’t put the grease fire out with a shot glass of water doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t start throwing more water on it,” he says. “Of course you should continue to try solving that problem. We have no panacea.”
According to Martino, U.S. Soccer should have more programs like Bradenton, not fewer. “We have to try and solve the problem of: We are the size of Europe, and that creates a lot of issues with trying to create a sort of central nervous system of youth development,” Martino says. “But we absolutely can do it. We absolutely can make getting soccer education for the elite young player possible here. And for me, US Soccer should be at the forefront of creating that.”
He continues, “One way you do it is by spending the money out of our surplus, and getting together with our partners, to build more free facilities. Call them Centers of Excellence, call them whatever you want, call them training facilities. But they need to be around this country. There needs to be a regionalized effort to have the best possible professional environments for these kids, commensurate with what they can get abroad, because if we can’t offer that we’re going to continue to lose our best talent overseas.”
MLS owners need convincing on the value of investing in their academies
In most countries, national federations have much less to do with developing top footballers than professional clubs do. Most top clubs have operated youth academies for decades and see it as an essential part of their business. But MLS academies are in their infancy, and some clubs have yet to seriously invest in developing their own players from within.
Convincing clubs that youth development is worth investing their money in is a big part of Martino’s platform.
“Some of the academies are doing great,” Martino told SB Nation. “I spoke with Claudio Reyna the other day about what’s going on at NYCFC, and they’re putting a lot of money towards it, the coaching is good, the training is good. But the problem is if everyone’s not doing it to that level, then competition that these kids have is not what it needs to be.”
Martino thinks U.S. Soccer can play a bigger role in getting MLS clubs to step up in this regard. “One thing that needs to happen is like that Germany example. The DFB and the Bundesliga got together and they made a mandate for the first division and second division to not only have academies, but there were strict requirements on what those academies needed to do,” Martino says.
“It’s a hard ask of owners already losing money, but we have to help them see that the quality is the thing that grows the television ratings,” he continues. “The end game here for revenue, for U.S. Soccer, for Major League Soccer, the whole idea of growing the revenue has to be about increasing the ratings, which means increasing the quality on the field. The youth is the way you do that.”
“You have to help these owners see that these academies are essential, because these are your future players. These are your future employees. These are the guys and girls who are going to get on the field and entertain us. So we have to put a lot of money towards that.”
Reforming the DA system
The U.S. Soccer boys’ Development Academy had its inaugural season in 2007, and the girls’ DA got underway this fall. It’s undoubtedly been a good thing for U.S. Soccer, with young USMNT stars like Christian Pulisic, Kellyn Acosta, and Jordan Morris passing through the system.
Still, Martino has ideas for significant changes. “One area I don’t like about it is that it’s a meritocracy based on results and not performance, Martino told SB Nation. “So you can fail out of the academy if you’re not winning enough.”
According to U.S. Soccer, “[reducing] the focus on results” was a “fundamental concept” of the DA’s founding. USMNT Under-20 coach Tab Ramos says that “the DA provided actual opportunities for players to improve not to just win trophies or ridiculous ranking points. It was completely player-centered.” But Martino believes the DA hasn’t yet achieved this goal.
“You can’t disincentivize these coaches from developing players the right way,” Martino says. “Playing out of the back. Taking risks. Trying to be composed. Trying to possess the ball. Trying to get away from that sort of anachronistic do-anything-it-takes-to-win approach that made us a great country for a long time because we have great athletes that fight. But if we have aspirations to be more than that, we have to not lose that quality of our culture, and grow this idea of being risk takers.”
“We convince coaches that they must win, and that’s the way to develop players,” Martino continues. “And it’s not. You watch some of these games, and it’s the big guy up front, lumping it up to him, because if they don’t win, they’re out of the league, and if they’re out of the league they lose their players. I’m not saying it is duplicitous, or in any pejorative way. These coaches are just trying to survive and make sure they keep their academies going.”
Putting more of U.S. Soccer’s money into NWSL
U.S. Soccer is currently investing heavily in the National Women’s Soccer League, with the federation paying the salaries of 23 players in the league. But Martino believes that the federation can and should invest more to ensure that players aren’t retiring at a young age due to financial hardships.
“Absolutely more [players] should be developed in NWSL,” Martino says. “I don’t want to talk to another former excellent Division I women’s soccer player or youth national team player who now is working at a desk because at 24 there’s no path for them forward. I mean, you shouldn’t be retiring at your peak because there’s no opportunity there.”
Martino also talked about the need to continue investing in women’s soccer to ensure that the USWNT remains one of the world’s best. “Women’s soccer is the success of our soccer community,” he says. “And one of my big gripes is, I’m on the phone with current and former players and they’re telling me that they’re frustrated that U.S. Soccer keeps using them as an example of success and why things are going good and we don’t have to change things. If you ask them, they’ll all say that they’re furious with the fact that the other nations are catching up and surpassing [the USWNT] because they are investing in ways that we aren’t.”
“One of the ways we do that is by creating a better domestic league for our women,” Martino says. “There are owners — I sat with [Portland Thorns owner] Merritt Paulsen the other day — who are doing absolutely everything they can to make sure it grows and they need help.”
The NWSL is undergoing a huge transition this offseason, with FC Kansas City dissolving and its players moving to a much more ambitious RSL ownership group. The league is also helping to engineer the sale of the financially conservative Boston Breakers to an ownership group with deeper pockets.
While emphasizing the need for a stronger NWSL, Martino makes sure to keep his focus on youth development. “We absolutely have to grow [NWSL], but again, we can’t focus on the top of the pyramid. We have to start at the youth level, because that is where all these players will come from. On the women’s side, though, it’s more important that we focus on their league, so we are sure that if we get the youth problem fixed, they have a place to go.”
Can America develop a new soccer culture?
The most important aspect of Martino’s candidacy for U.S. Soccer president might not be any of his proposals for the professional game, national teams, or DA system. A big part of his pitch is the need to build a new soccer culture. This is admittedly an abstract concept, but Martino believes he has actionable solutions, derived from both his personal experiences and conversations with soccer development experts.
“Everyone is getting stuck on, is the [DA] the right way to go? Was the residency program working? All of these elite soccer questions,” Martino told SB Nation. “Do you know one area that I for the past 20 years have highlighted, an area that has contributed to my game the most? It was paying $5 on a Tuesday night and $5 on a Saturday night to play indoor with Hispanic adults and indoor with Jamaican adults. For me that was one of the best parts of my soccer education, playing with people that were bigger and faster than I was, but also playing with people who come from different cultures with different approaches to the game. People who bring a certain pizazz, a certain flair, and that is part of the reason I became the player that I became.”
In addition to encouraging more participation in adult soccer leagues, Martino is a huge proponent of investing money in getting good soccer facilities into as many schools and public parks as possible.
“I was on the phone with Ed Foster-Simeon, who is running the U.S. Soccer Foundation,” Martino says. “NYCFC and LAFC have joined together with the foundation and other strategic partners to help build fields in the inner city. Because the big thing that keeps kids out of the game in the inner city, the big thing that makes it more likely for them to play basketball instead of soccer, is because it’s more affordable, and more importantly, they have better access.”
Martino continued, “Ed said that their whole mission statement is ‘low cost, big impact.’ How can you find a way to grow the game in these inner cities? And one of the ways that they’re trying to do that is by changing the paradigm. By right down the street, there will be a field for a kid to play on so that after school, they’re not either getting into things that they shouldn’t be getting into or desperately trying to find an athletic community to be a part of. They’re doing great work to do that, but they need help from the top of the pyramid.”
“I keep hearing that access to the game is a problem,” Martino says. “When we fly around the world for this game, in South America and Europe, you see a basketball court, what’s underneath every single hoop? There’s a soccer goal. We have all of these facilities already. They’re there. So of course we should try to build futsal courts, of course we should try to build soccer-specific fields. But we have basketball courts all over these inner cities. They’re soccer fields without goals. Just put a goal under the hoop.”
He went on: “This is something that Ed said to me that I hadn’t thought about. Every school when they talk municipally about building a new school, it’s just assumed that there will be a basketball court on the blacktop. That’s not even a discussion. That’s just part of the schematics. When they’re showing you where the playground is and the cafeteria is, the basketball hoop is already there in the design.” Martino is hoping that soccer goals and futsal courts can get included into that conversation.
More than any other idea that Martino has to improve American soccer, this is his real passion project, and the thing that he thinks can make the biggest long-term difference in the development of American soccer. “I’ve created a project called Over/Under,” referring to placing soccer goals under basketball hoops, “and I’m meeting with brands and corporate sponsors to see if they’ll get behind this project, and we can see if we can piggyback the great work the U.S. Soccer Foundation is already doing,” he says.
“But we need to create a nationwide initiative to grow more fields. Mia Hamm is someone who told me she would like to get involved with it. I’m flying to Europe to meet with Cristiano Ronaldo’s people and just finding the people who believe in growing this game in this country but growing it for certain demographics that are being locked out. The Ballon d’Or list every year is made up of kids that are missing out in our country. That’s made up of kids that played in the favelas of Brazil and grew up on street soccer. We need to shift the paradigm and create a street soccer community here.”
Martino finishes with a succinct summary of why he’s running for U.S. Soccer president and what he believes in.
“We need to help our communities see that soccer is a part of our culture.”