If you are lucky to live long enough, you get the scary gift of watching the decades go by before your eyes.
Your tastes move from the frenetic sounds of electric guitars being punished by dudes with purple mohawks on to things that you can only describe as “more easily approachable” even without a glass of wine.
You either look at yourself years later and think one of two things, “What the fuck was I thinking?” or “Who the fuck have I become?” And each proposition comes with it’s own frightening existential conclusions.
It is with this realization in mind, that I recently looked at the progression of the US Soccer system I grew up with as a teenager in the 90’s in comparison with what it has evolved into currently today.
You see US Soccer in the 90’s reflected its decade very well. A decade free of war and blessed with opportunity due to record-setting economic prosperity. Think about the things people fought for in the 90’s… Saving whales? Rain forests? The right to wear your sideburns as long as you liked? This was a “Why the fuck not?” generation.
In 1989, Paul Caligiuri scored the goal that sent the US National Team back to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. It was US Soccer’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit Moment.” Perfectly timed.
[Paul goes T&T on T&T..]
No one knew what it meant for the future of soccer in this country, but what you did know was that things would never be the same again.
US Soccer continued down this grungy path all through the 90’s–are you listening Alexi–fueled by a bunch of young kids trying to find a way to make a buck doing what they loved. Many signing with the indie label (US Soccer) touring state-side to stay in shape and attempting to start a movement here at home. Others signed with larger labels (Sheffield Wednesday, Coventry City, Real Betis even) and chose to Tour Europe instead, in hopes of making it big. 90’s soccer was just like college radio, unrefined, directionless and uninhibited. More over it was one of the few sports that was yet to be ruined by corporate greed.
But just like all great scenes, once someone hits it big A&R douchebags start flocking to it to try and see how they can sell it to the masses.
Selling to the masses isn’t a bad thing though. Everyone’s dream for soccer in the 90’s was to get it established and create a league that could be there for decades to come. However the danger with soccer–much like music–is that as a scene starts to gain in popularity the people that finance its success tend not to be people that came up through it.
Thus the direction it takes tends to lose the original message.
And this is where I feel US Soccer has failed in it’s most recent decade.
Everyone knew soccer couldn’t stay grunge. It couldn’t remain like Nirvana drummer and now Foo Fighters’ front man Dave Grohl issuing a big bird salute….wait he did that on the cover of Rolling Stone. Moving on…
Like it’s musical counterpart, it was perfect for it’s short brief encapsulation of a time period that was always going to pass. It was going to have to pull a Madonna, reinvent itself and go a different direction.
It should have gone hip hop.
Instead it went pop.
Soccer, at it’s very core, is an urban language. Something felt in the bones, not fabricated for artificial purposes. America’s best athletes, like the rest of the world’s, often come from poor neighborhoods and kids looking to break free from their natural born environments.
The pay-to-play nature of youth soccer now in America deprives us of the natural free flowing talent that comes from neighborhoods that don’t have the money to play on club teams.
I like to liken it to *NSYNC versus Wu Tang Clan.
*NSYNC was formed by some rich white producer grabbing five young kids and pigeon holing them into roles that would sell (The Shy One, The Bad Boy, The Heart Throb, etc.). You have them rehearse the same moves over and over again and teach them how to sing songs that are written by other people. Yes, it is their voices singing, but what about that sound is personal or unique?
Then you look at a group like Wu Tang Clan that formed in the boroughs of New York, and honed their craft freestyling on the streets. There a group of guys that knew their own voices and personalities and naturally found other guys that had the same skill sets and fascinations. And they honed it. Every day. It’s organic, despite some forcing of martial arts themes…
(BTW, is there a better poaching forward in music than original Wu Tang Clanner Ol’Dirty Bastard? Guy was like the Chicharito of hip-top. Dirty was wanted in what seemed like 40 states and used to run on stage for one song and then buzz off faster than the cops could appear. Smash-and-grab at its finest.)
Brooklyn Zoo!: Ol’ Dirty Bastard in his prime
Whether you like Wun Tang, or not, is not the point. The point is, you can manufacture a thousand *NSYNC’s–and we have–or you can catch lightning in a bottle if you look hard enough for it. And if you do find it, you have something different than everyone else has. You have style, you have bravado, you have a initial skill set to build off of that no one else in your system already has.
When you think about it, a country like Brazil went hip hop decades ago. How are dudes with names like Pele, Ronaldinho, Juninho, Zito, and Bebeto any different than names like RZA, Ad Rock, 2Pac, and Common? It’s an expression of self. One that is woefully lacking in US Soccer.
American soccer doesn’t respect The Hustle.
We tend to identify talent and push it into a cookie cutter mold until it fits. The Hustle is what makes a player unique. Think about how you learned of many of your favorite bands, rappers or singers. In the 80’s or 90’s you probably had a friend pass a mix tape or mix CD your way. And on it was a sound you had never heard before and changed everything about the way you saw music.
Today The Hustle is still there and it’s easier than ever to spread around. YouTube is full of kids trying to get their Hustle on. Dudes from around the world are posting their best freestyle tricks, their sickest nutmegs and their best goals up for the world to take notice. The Hustle is still there, like a dude selling his CD on the street for a dollar outside of a Jay-Z show.
This is the way the world is going.
There will always be a place for natural talent scouting of club teams. It works for a reason. But America’s biggest problem has always been, “How do you scout a country our size?”
We need to find a way to make The Hustle work for us.
If US Soccer doesn’t have one guy getting paid to search the internet everyday for the next big thing, then we are already failing to keep up with a new generation. To quote Too Short, “There’s money in the ghetto.” People may struggle financially in a number of ways, but everyone always seems to have money for a camera phone. And libraries have free internet. You combine those two ingredients with a desire to escape, and you have fuel for a fire. There is a kid with talent right now figuring out how to upload a a video of himself and a soccer ball somewhere in America. I guarantee it.
But are US Soccer’s A&R guys even watching?
I dig role playing games, so let me assume the role of an MLS talent scout. Here is the future: You make your website, Social Media and parents do the work for you. You announce on your team’s official website that you are doing a YouTube Challenge. “We want to see what your kids have to offer.” Tell them to put together their kid’s best mixtape and upload it to YouTube. Then you Tweet out a link to the video with the hashtag #IAmTheFuture (or some stupid shit like that). You tell these kids that you guarantee every video will be reviewed by a scout from your team. Best case scenario, you identify great young prospects for your development academies. Worst case scenario, you just got these kids and their families interested in your club at a young age and tied them to your social media branding. It’s a win win for MLS teams.
Adapt or die. The next generation of great footballers in America won’t be from the suburbs or colleges like those great players from the 90’s. They will be from the streets. But how has US Soccer chosen to access these players? My advice is, “Let the Internet do some of the work for you.”
And to the soccer playing kids of a hip hop generation, I say, “Keep Hustling.”