Federalism is a word that is sometimes thrown around in political spheres. It is a word that might elicit different feelings for different people. For our purposes, however, we’ll use the definition used by Wikipedia: A “mixed or compound mode of government, combining a general government (the central or ‘federal’ government) with regional governments (provincial, state, cantonal, territorial or other sub-unit governments) in a single political system”.
Hopefully we’re still all on the same page and thinking with a mind willing to hear other ideas.
First, some background.
In the beginning of the United States, as you may already know, the states all unified under a document called the Articles of Confederation. They quickly found this to be an inadequate system for dealing with interstate conflict and a myriad of other issues that arose. In response, the delegates at the Constitutional Convention began drafting what became our U.S. Constitution which set up a stronger central government that would have power to uphold relations between states, but still allowed states to operate freely in the interest of their citizens, according to the over-arching Constitution.
Over time, this function and size of the central Federal government in the US has changed, but the first three words of the Constitution, “We the People”, indicate that the government exists to serve its citizens.
This is not a history lesson and as I continue on, I do so trying not to trigger anyone’s political leanings. This is a soccer administration issue, after all. The main thrust of the background points out that while the framers of the Constitution were trying to fix the problems caused by central government that had almost no power, a form of Federalism was the solution.
In our case, the USSF is a central governing power that has a lot of power over leagues and soccer in this country. This isn’t necessarily a major problem, but the sheer size and diversity of the country makes it incredibly difficult for a relatively small group of people located in Chicago, IL to provide the direction needed to push forward as a soccer nation.
The solution is – you guessed it – Federalism.
The USSF, as the central government, needs to provide an overall framework of vision and accountability to state associations, the regional governments, in order to push United States Soccer towards deeper and more meaningful progress.
Quick! What is your state’s governing body of soccer and what do they do? For me, the governing body is the Illinois State Soccer Association, and without looking it up, I think it provides the framework for leagues and maybe sets up a tournament or something with youth soccer? Maybe you have a better understanding of what your state organization does, and kudos to you for that, but I would venture to say many, if not most, of us don’t know what our state associations do or have the power to do.
Theoretically, these organizations should know their constituents better than anyone else. They should know the general cultures that make up their state and therefore, leverage that knowledge to know how to tailor development strategies that will be most successful to their youth players. For example, soccer in Kansas City is going to look a bit different than soccer in Los Angeles. Rather than trying to flatten those differences, the USSF should embrace them allowing the states some level of autonomy with which to better provide their youth and adult players with what they need.
What flows out of state associations having more control and responsibility over the development of players and clubs within their jurisdiction? Diversity of playing styles, manageable numbers to work with, and more investment.
Diversity of Players
The result is a pool of players that is diverse and deep. Perhaps Illinois becomes known for producing hard-working, intelligent center-backs, California starts producing more playmaking type midfielders, and Texas tends to churn out holding midfielders. Who knows? Replace those examples with whatever you want. A North Dakota kid could develop and grow in an environment that suits them rather than almost requiring them to move to Seattle and adjust to a totally different culture and environment. The idea is that states would do a better job of allowing players to develop and grow into the best player they can be, not simply provide a mold for the player the USMNT or USWNT coach at the time wants. They could do this because the player to Association head ratio is much smaller.
Consider the fact that the population of Germany, Spain, and France combined is roughly 194 million people. The United States, alone, has a population of around 323 million. I don’t have actual numbers to compare, but I doubt the USSF employs 1.7 times more scouts than Spain, Germany, and France combined. There is simply too much ground to cover and not enough time.
Therefore, despite what Bruce Arena thinks, there are almost certainly players slipping through the cracks of the current system. Statistically, there has to be. The cream rises to the top, but how can we be sure we are getting the best cream when there are untapped cows in Montana!
Now let me be clear, the main focus is largely on getting the most out of players rather than just finding them. Giving the responsibility to the states, however, helps in this by the player/association ratio. According to US Youth Soccer, there were 3,055,148 registered players in 2014. This obviously doesn’t include players who couldn’t afford to play or even get to games or practices, so the number of actual players is even higher.
Assuming 3 million is the number and dividing that by 50 US States, we get 60,000 kids per state. 60,000 is much more manageable than 3 million and obviously some states will require more and some less, but the overarching theme is that the player pool is broken down into much more manageable chunks that each state will better know where and how to scout and develop.
So now there are 50 sovereign state associations that are held accountable to a standard set of guidelines by the United States Soccer Federation. Each state takes responsibility for the players it produces and the USSF makes sure the states are operating ethically and is in charge or settling disputes and choosing the National Teams. Imagine now a 50 state tournament that pits state association team against state association team as a national showcase of players. These happen already in some form, but with a state name attached, there will be a little more pride at stake. Facilitated by US Soccer, the 50 State Tournament could be a showcase of developing players for professional careers or even a mini-World Cup type of event that professionals could be involved in. There are many possibilities. Similar to the way college sports engenders a certain type of atmosphere and state pride, stronger state associations could provide a platform for soccer to gain traction in the Unites States sports landscape.
This is admittedly the most hypothetical of the benefits, but it makes sense that a more localized focus from the powers that be in soccer would help with buy-in. Local, small businesses might be more willing to invest in sponsorships and Clubs could grow deeper local roots in non-traditional areas, such as rural Central Illinois, if local kids are involved or potentially could be involved in such a tournament. High School and College sports are a good example of local connection being a big boost to investment.
In an interview with the Total Soccer Show, Eric Wynalda, who you may have heard is running for USSF President, lays out almost exactly the type of thing I’m talking about. (Give the whole thing a listen but the part I’m talking about is at about the 33 minute mark.) Understand I am not trying to endorse Wynalda as much as I am just trying to give another voice to this idea. I don’t know the exact plan Eric Wynalda has for US Soccer, but he is certainly espousing ideas that make a lot of sense to me. Hopefully, he or whoever wins the USSF Presidency will continue in that line of thinking. By giving more responsibility and accountability to the states for developing and growing soccer players in their own backyards, we can collectively progress the United States forward as a soccer nation.