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When Will American Soccer Succeed? Mu.

Written by on March 31, 2011 | 14 Comments »
Posted in The Training Ground

“The Training Ground” is a feature where first time writers or readers who want to express a thought or opinion can submit articles for consideration.

This article has been written by Jonathan Willmoth who is Owner/Attorney of Willmoth Immigration Law, LLC in Kansas City, Missouri.

The old Buddhist koan* suggests that sometimes the question asked is the problem.

Or, as data processors would say: crap in equals crap out.

People often ask when Soccer will be successful in the United States, or when the U.S. men’s national team will be successful.

In a way both those answers are the same. They are both successful, and perhaps neither will ever be successful, depending on how you define that term.

If you think that the U.S. men’s national team needs to win the Fifa World Cup in order to be successful, then you simply don’t understand the fact that in the history of the World Cup only 8 teams, out of roughly 200 currently ranked teams have won it.

That means teams such as the Netherlands, Mexico, and Portugal are unsuccessful. So maybe a “deep run,” such as to the Semis (since the U.S. Made it to the Quarterfinals in 2002) would make the U.S. successful.

Again, out of the 32 teams who make the tournament each year, only 4 make the Semis, and the U.S. has not done so since the very first world cup in 1930.

Now you could argue that it’s the winning of lesser tournaments (European Cup – Greece, Russia, and The Netherlands) or “good showings” in the World Cup that can result in a team being successful, but quantifying those results can be difficult.

The U.S. may never win the World Cup, or may not do so for a very long time. So what lesser tournaments can/does the U.S. Compete for? The Gold Cup (which is now regularly hosted by the U.S., and which the U.S. has won 4 times); the Copa America (U.S. has only been invited three times, but did manage a fourth place finish in 1995); and the Confederations Cup (U.S. were runner’s up in 2009, and finished third in 1999 and 1992).

The U.S. should be considered a successful program if it continues to perform well at the Confederations Cup, begins to perform well at Copa America (should it be regularly invited to attend), and consistently make it out of their group stage at the World Cup.

Similarly, MLS may never be a top 4 league in the U.S., or maybe it already is , but even if so, it will never overtake Baseball or the NFL.

Some commentators seem to believe that in order for MLS to be successful, it has to compete with Baseball or the NFL.

This is complete nonsense – it isn’t just opinion polls of U.S. sports fans, or television ratings, or even attendance that determines MLS ultimate success.

Defining success so narrowly determines the outcome. MLS simply needs to have a growing following where they can continue to bring in good revenue streams from attendance and television viewership, and not allow their expenses to so dwarf income as to destroy the league.

Whether they are the top or top four events in their market is not the issue, success needs to be defined more openly. What is MLS trying to do: bring in better foreign talent, develop better U.S. talent, and to compete internationally. To the extent MLS has enough income to continue their efforts in those regards they are being successful.

MLS doesn’t have to be a top-four league in the U.S., though it arguably is or is close to becoming one, and the U.S. men’s national team doesn’t have to win the World Cup, for either to be successful.

By defining success in this way, fans and commentators are really setting both entities up for failure, and they are simply asking a wrong-headed question.

* The first koan most Zen Buddhists learn is called “Mu”. It goes like this: A young monk asks an older monk, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” The older monk answered simply, “mu.” “Mu” doesn’t mean yes or no, instead it means something along the lines of “it is not.”

The idea being that the question was wrong, a thing doesn’t have Buddha nature or not have Buddha nature, if one truly understands the nature of Buddhist existence, one would understand that all things are part of the great expanse of the universe, so a Dog, a tree, me, you, this computer are all part of that impersonal vastness.

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14 responses to “When Will American Soccer Succeed? Mu.”

  1. Gus Keri says:

    Thank you Jonathan.

    One of the best articles I have ever read, not only about American soccer, but also about sports in general.

  2. Soccerlogical says:

    Isn’t it more logical to simply define the kind of “SUCCESS” to which you are referring? Financial, popular, player dev… what?

    Wait, are you saying that winning the Gold Cup numerous times doesn’t put us in the same tier as other tournament winners like Brazil, France, Spain, Holland etc…. no way… say it isn’t so Joe!

    What’s the Buddhist saying for “Netherlands won The European Championship in 1988”?

  3. AntonioSaucedo says:

    I agree. Soccer doesn’t have to be as big as football to be healthy and growing at home and competitive internationally. The US population is so large that even if just a small percentage of Americans enjoy, understand, play, and follow the game, numerically the US can be doing better than Uruguay or even the Netherlands, two semifinalists in the 2010 WC. The future of soccer in this country looks promising.

  4. SL – I don’t know what Buddha says about it but the article says Netherlands won the European Championship.

  5. soccerlogical says:

    So winning the Euros which is regarded by many pundits as a more difficult tournament than the WC is a grey area of success? Not to mention reaching the finals of the WC… clearly I am missing the gist of this piece!

    I am Chik Young to your Walter Smith… 🙂

  6. SL – you have lost me between your first and second comments I am afraid.

  7. Gbenga says:


    The problem with US soccer is they keep trying to run the game from a corporate standpoint. Similar to how they used finance and business to promote their WC 2022 bid, it’s the same thing they are doing with the game as a whole. To many people who know nothing about the game are the ones making decisions, because the checkbook and cash flow belongs to them. It’s interesting that since after WC’94, there is not one legacy they could point to and use it to elevate the game to the next level. It’s all about money all the time.

  8. Soccerlogical says:

    Bobby – I just don’t understand what this piece is trying to get across with all the devil’s advocating and answering of one’s own rhetorical questions.

    It states that NOT winning the WC would put the Dutch (in some eyes) outside the “successful” tier and then plays devil’s advocate acknowledging they won the Euros (“a lesser tournie”?)… considered just as difficult to win as the WC by many top pundits.

    Not to mention that the word “success” gets thrown around with no clear definition… is that the point?

    Wouldn’t it help to start with a clear definition of the word “success” or state from the onset that many define success differently? And to play devil’s advocate by citing the likes of Portugal (Eusebio to Ronaldo) and Holland (Cruyff to Van Basten/Sneijder) in the same context as the USA (Ramos to Donovan?)… I mean come on.

    Again, I am the Chick Young to your Walter Smith!

  9. Russell Berrisford says:

    I think this article gets it about right in defining what “success” actually would be for MLS and the USMNT.

  10. Soccerlogical says:

    So Russell,

    How does it define “success” for a country like Canada or USA?

    1) Would a few “deep runs” at a top tournament like the WC or Copa America while waning in popularity with lower profit margins be unsuccessful?

    2) Is gaining popularity and breaking the into the top sport ads/broadcasting market while winning a worthless tournie like the Gold Cup or training tournie for top clubs like the Confed Cup be considered successful?

    3) Would you ever use the words “unsuccessful” and “Holland” in the same sentence or put the Euros and Gold cup in the same tier and label them “lesser tournaments”?

    4) Shouldn’t constant interest and acceptance to play at a MAJOR TOURNIE like Copa America be of utmost importance in development and success?

    Enlighten me… lead me to zen!


  11. Russell Berrisford says:

    SL- the paragraph that begins

    “The U.S. should be considered a successful program if…” is the one that gives the definition of what would be success for U.S soccer.

    The Euros are a “lesser” tournament than the World Cup. You can argue about the quality of play but any player would pick winning the World Cup over winning the Euros.

    I don’t think that Jonathan is saying that the Gold Cup and the Euros are in the same tier, but the Gold Cup is one of the “lesser” trophies that the US has the chance to win (it is very unlikely that they will ever win the Euros).

    The point about the Netherlands is that they can be viewed as both unsuccessful and successful depending on how you define the terms (as can any team, including the US).

    Not sure if this will bring you Zen but a one handed round of applause would be nice!

  12. Soccerlogical says:

    In terms of prestige and level of competition:

    Euros & Copa America
    African Cup of Nations & Asian Cup



    Gold Cup & the likes of Confederations Cup

    PS The USA constantly dominate and win the joke which is The Gold Cup and will probably NOT win the Copa America in our lifetime as that is why they are afraid to participate or have not accepted several invitations as to avoid being skooled by the likes of Chile, Columbia, Paraguay, Uruguay, etc.

    As for any disingenuous or sophomoric attempt to even insinuate the Dutch as not a successful outfit….. a telltale sign of ignorance about the world game if you ask me.

  13. Bobby says:

    To say that MLS is close to overtaking the NHL based avg. attendence per game, like the linked article “or maybe it already is”, is absurd. The Blackhawks avg. 21,000 per game beacause thats all the arena will hold + they have 41 home games per year. Yes, the Seattle Sounders avg 36,000 per game, but it was there inaugeral season. Let them struggle for a few seasons and then see what there attendance is. Plus Seattle only has 2 of the major 4 sports. I am a fan of MLS and I hope it does surpass hockey, but as I watch the New England Revs play in a near empty foxboro stadium, I have a hard time believing that article.

    Final Point, the MLS salary cap is 2.6 million, the NHL’s 59.4 million.
    How could you even compare or say that the MLS has passed the NHL.

    I would say the MLS is doing great considering there 2.6 cap, but come on. REALLY???

    Was that article serious….REALLY???

  14. Brian W says:

    There are several combined factors that define what success means for American soccer.
    1. Overall attendance at games. If the league can find and maintain fan base around the country and not in a few markets here and there, that would be a step in the right direction to success.
    2. TV coverage and ratings.
    3. Ability to attract more and more top players from around the globe. Not just a retirement house for past legends but a destination for mainstream players.
    4. Reach the semifinals or final game at the World Cup.
    5. Sound financial standing and profitability of MLS clubs.

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