John Kowalski: US soccer is lagging behind the marketing machine of MLS

John Kowalski: US soccer is lagging behind the marketing machine of MLS

John Kowalski on the training ground at Robert Morris University © J. Kowalski

Stubbornness and lack of talent. These were the factors that doomed USA’s World Cup qualification bid according to the watching international press, as news of one of the most devastating nights in the history of US soccer, reverberated around the globe.

The USMNT will not be going to Russia next summer after a shock 2-1 defeat to lowly Trinidad & Tobago saw them finish fifth in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. It is a result that will have grave repercussions for soccer in the short-term.

As a former coach of Tampa Bay Mutiny (Major League Soccer), Pittsburgh Riverhounds (NASL) and Pittsburgh Spirit (MISL), John Kowalski has seen it all before of course, in a period of incredible growth, and numerous false dawns for US soccer.

Kowalski also briefly managed the United States national team in 1991. The Polish-born coach currently splits his time between his role as coach of the Robert Morris University women’s soccer team, work with the US Soccer Federation (USSF) and with Prep4Pro, a recruitment initiative launched to provide a pathway to European professional clubs for US players, and vice versa.

The 65-year-old is in no doubt the result that saw the USMNT fail to qualify for Russia, has sent a seismic shock through the American soccer community.

America is struggling to process the situation and Kowalski says: “It is amazing. There’s no doubt that this team played below its natural level, without passion, without intensity, enthusiasm or commitment.”

He says: “You can talk about lack of personal pride and not playing for the jersey, but the result and the performance were also atypical. Sometimes these things happen in this game. That’s football.”

Results and performances must be contextualised, but Kowalski says there can be no excuses after a qualifying cycle where the USMNT consistently teetered on the brink of disaster before that final World Cup Qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago.

“The collapse was indicative of a roller-coaster qualifying cycle,” Kowalski says “where good results followed bad and bad followed good, often without rhyme or reason.”

But more disturbing is the fact that there should have been no surprises given the familiarity of their CONCACAF qualifying group opponents: “We can call on similar types of players as the Central American nations and indeed many of them play their club football in the MLS.’

“But when they pull on their own national jerseys they raise their game to a higher level in terms of their individual play, their physical commitment and their appreciation of team dynamics – what it takes to compete at a high level, under pressure.”

What is missing for the US is a function of football education. Learning, that becomes second nature through repetition. “The good players learn game intelligence that allows them to impose their ability. When and where to knock the ball about, where to counter attack, when to run and when to pass, when to apply pressure, when to drop and recover the team’s defensive shape.”

Kowalski says: “The national team players have shown evidence of that understanding at times, under Klinsmann and Arena. What they haven’t done is shown it under pressure and consistently enough.”

Kowalski says that the footage shows a team that cracked under pressure. But also a team that were very predictable, easy to defend against and unable to build up attacks or retain possession with combination play.

He says: “A lot of them were afraid to take the ball. Specifically the central defenders. The style was not effective and the mentality not strong enough.”

In the scramble to apportion blame, commentators and those with an intimate knowledge of the US national team set-up have effectively declared a state of national mourning.

The 112-times USMNT capped midfielder Claudio Reyna, formerly of Bayer Leverkusen, Rangers, Sunderland, Man City and New York Red Bulls, is Director of Football at Patrick Vieira’s NYCFC.

Reyna believes that gains made off the field in terms of profile, commercial deals and participation have merely masked the underlying realities. There is a gulf in perception between what is required of elite level players and coaches in the global game, and what is being passed off as good practice locally.

Reyna told “Until we realise that, that we’re not as good as we think we are at all levels, then I think we’re going to continue being what we are, which is mediocre.”

And it is a theme, warmed to by John Kowalski. He says: “Participation, people playing and watching the game, has taken off. However, advances off the field haven’t been supported by on field improvement.”

It is the classic corporate mistake. Numbers, investment, expansion, growth, will only take you so far if the underlying product isn’t operating on the same level of professionalism as the marketing machine.

The former USMNT boss Jurgen Klinsmann, for one, may well be enjoying his moment of Schadenfreude.

Having long advocated early exposure to the hard knocks school of European competition as a means to bridge the gap between US athleticism and European professionalism, Klinsmann will feel that the US team is now paying the price for not heeding his concerns.

Klinsmann alienated fans and the US Soccer community by omitting Landon Donovan from the 2014 World Cup squad and for bypassing domestic players in favour of German-born players with dual U.S. passports. The boss’ criticism of Major League Soccer, its coaching, its level of competition and its organisation, which produced half of Klinsmann’s World Cup squad, was viewed as an act of war.

John Kowalski though, considers it an opportunity missed. “Klinsmann’s understanding of what is required to foster a winning mentality and a style of play was good. What let him down was how he conveyed the message. He was very negative, criticising the MLS and the players. He lost the locker room and when that happens there is no way back.”

Kowalski believes that US soccer’s problems are broadly structural and embedded in the dominant culture of American soccer.

An isolationist mentality, ‘that America knows best’ amongst the coaches on the ground, has left the US lagging behind the rest of the developed football world. It is stuck in a cycle of predictable, direct soccer played by teams comprised of athletic, ‘individuals’ working their own agendas in pursuit of their slice of the pie. As a consequence there is no sense of the nuanced tactical cohesion you’d find in underage European teams where paid players are embedded in professional clubs, progressing through the ranks together, from an early age.

So what you get, according to the veteran boss, is a generation of players that play like a collection of individuals: “The movement isn’t there. The ball doesn’t circulate quickly enough in the build up. They don’t counter attack with penetration.”

Kowalski believes that American players need to learn a different set of skills: working collectively as a unit, playing out from the back, situation recognition and resolution, game intelligence.

“There’s collective movement that is required – with and without the ball. In a game where each player gets maybe 50 touches per game at, just 90 seconds on the ball, the only way to make it count is as a unit. The play has to be choreographed better, with room for spontaneity, instinct and fast mental processing.”

But the status quo – either in the college system or the youth phase – doesn’t promote the conditions that create dynamic, competition-ready teams.

America’s fee for service model of youth development provides a pathway solely for those individuals who are prepared and able to ‘pay to play’. This means that the US draws from a narrow pool of predominately affluent, athletic middle class kids. This is detrimental to the talented players, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose economic circumstances ensure they’ll fall through the net. America’s search for a fix has to begin by answering two questions, “How do we draw our talent and how do we develop it?”

The former Tampa Bay Mutiny coach says “There needs to be integration of all the disparate levels of the US game and a recognised pathway to the national team that begins, not with soccer as a form of expensive exercise, but as a professional endeavour.”

“It comes down to style of play and mentality. Speed of recognition and execution, skill under pressure and confidence with and without the ball. Quality equal to physical effort.”

Kowalski says; “Often it is just a case of little adjustments. It is learning to win a game but we also have to take spectators with us. They have limited exposure to European football here and so their expectations in terms of what’s required needs developed. The style of trying to win games through effort and energy can only take you so far. And the biggest culture shock for US players is when they come up against opponents that can match them physically and then impose their superior tactical and technical ability on top of that.”

While there are MLS coaches that are steeped in the European tradition, Patrick Vieira at NYCFC being one of them, there’s too often a temptation to fall into familiar habits in pursuit of the short-term gains of a result.

Kowalski says: “You see it specifically in say a play-off game, when there’s a prize at stake. It becomes a one-dimensional solution: look to impose yourself physically, bully the opponent, win your headers and tackles. And it can be effective in domestic football, but strength and stamina isn’t enough at the elite level where strength and effort needs to be backed up with quality soccer.”

Akil Watts in action v England U17 at the U17 World Cup in India, October 2017 © US Soccer

He says that despite the setback of the US U17s being well beaten by a dynamic, mobile England side in India, there is some hope. “There are some terrific individuals at the youth level and the challenge is to get them to play with a recognisable style of play and identity.”

“But of course,’ he says, “Everything will depend on results. And positive results and positive performances can wipe away the memories of the World Cup campaign.”

Kowalski says that the good housekeeping associated with MLS is ironically an impediment to instilling the hunger and urge for self-improvement that is second nature to top players. With contracts assured, a salary cap and the lack of an obvious career progression based on football and financial objectives in US soccer, it is seductive for well-rewarded players to languish within their comfort zone.

“In every other league there is a hierarchy of clubs that progressively reward their players with better standards, increased competition and higher earning potential. From the non-league game all the way up to the top tier of the Champions League. In MLS the equality between the clubs means that there just isn’t that same progression to aspire to.”

If America is serious about bouncing back and learning the lessons from the first team and U17 World Cup setbacks then they have two options.

Either, the best players need to get to Europe as early as possible as young professionals or, says Kowalski, they need to introduce performance-related bonuses.

He says: “The direct relationship between results and earnings can’t be understated. For example, the boys at Ajax in Amsterdam can literally double their wages with performance incentives and of course, they also have the eyes of scouts at all the major European clubs watching them.”

The veteran manager believes that the onus is on MLS and the USSF to build a system along European lines if they are serious about competing internationally. “The college system has its place but really no more than 3-4 college players per season should be being drafted by MLS. College players should not be providing a significant part of the national team because their development occurs on a different track, at a point where what is required is game time in professional leagues and teams.”

Over the piece though, Kowalski says that the US should embrace October’s setbacks for the first team and U17 World Cup sides, not as a catastrophe but as an opportunity.

“Let’s not panic. The underlying problems exist but these were atypical results and there is a clear sign of talent underneath at younger age groups. With the right support, a new generation can be given a chance to fulfil their potential. This can change our mentality, speed up things that are already filtering through our system and crystallise what needs to be done for the good people in our game that can take things forwards.”

He says: “It feels painful now but I think in the future we will look back on these two big results against us as a blessing in disguise. They’re a wake up call but they are also the beginning of a great opportunity to get our game up to speed with how it is played in the rest of the world.”

John Kowalski was speaking to How To Watch Football in his role as a coach with Prep4Pro. On May 31, 2018 Prep4Pro will be hosting their inaugural soccer program in Williamsburg, VA. Unlike other professional camps and combines, Prep4Pro’s 10 day residential training program will fully immerse players from the U.S. and Europe in the day-to-day routine of a professional player, preparing them, if good enough, to step up to a professional contract.

For more information about Prep4Pro and how to apply to the May 31, 2018 training program visit the Prep4Pro website, email or follow them on FacebookInstagramTwitter and LinkedIn.