“What are we doing?!” former U.S. Men’s National Team forward Taylor Twellman shouted at the camera.
Twellman’s rant the night of October 10, 2017, on ESPN’s SportsCenter, followed arguably the most embarrassing defeat in the team’s history. Needing a draw to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the United States had fallen to the 99th ranked team in the world, Trinidad and Tobago, 2-1.
Twellman’s anger was not directed merely at the team’s performance that night. Arrogance, he said, pervaded American soccer at every level. Billions of dollars were being pumped into Major League Soccer and youth development, and some were complaining that the U.S. would miss its first World Cup since 1990 because of poor refereeing or the soggy pitch in Couva, Trinidad.
In Switching Fields: Inside the Fight to Remake Men’s Soccer in the United States, Pulitzer Prize-winner George Dohrmann ’95, a managing editor of investigations and enterprise for The Athletic, explores how the American soccer establishment has long managed to squander a demographic gold mine.
When the U.S. lost in Couva, he notes, about 7 million of America’s kids ages 6 to 17 were playing soccer.
Trinidad and Tobago’s total population was 1.3 million.
Countries like Uruguay, a nation of under 3.5 million people, routinely make the World Cup. La Celeste have made it to four straight, including a semifinal appearance in 2010, thanks to its steady supply of world class players like Edinson Cavani, Luis Suárez and Diego Godin.
On the size of its potential talent pool alone, the USMNT should be contending for World Cups. (The U.S. women, despite their surprising loss in the Round of 16 at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in July, remain a global superpower.) Why then, Dohrmann asks, are the U.S. men struggling to qualify?
Start with racism and greed, he argues, coupled with complacency and stubbornness.
The late, great sports journalist Grant Wahl called Dohrmann “one of the most perceptive chroniclers of youth sports” — now a $19 billion industry — “in the United States.” Many forces, Dohrmann writes, have succeeded at making American youth soccer a highly profitable business.
Developing a system successful in the “business of winning?” Not so much.
During his rant on SportsCenter, Twellman cited Germany. When Die Mannschaft laid an egg at the 2000 European Championships, the national federation overhauled its system of player development at the grassroots level. In 2011, a report commissioned by the country’s top league said German football had “stared disaster in the face” at the turn of the millennium. Three years after the report, Germany won its fourth World Cup.
After the loss to Trinidad, Dohrmann dug up a report that called for a similar overhaul in America. After a disappointing performance at the 1998 World Cup, U.S. Soccer commissioned top-level coach Carlos Queiroz (who, ironically, would lead Iran against the U.S. at the 2022 World Cup) to outline how to make the U.S. men a genuine soccer superpower by 2010.
Queiroz’s advice largely went unheeded. Among his report’s main critiques: In the United States, “soccer is a white, middle-class sport. In the rest of the world, it is a people’s sport.”
Why has the national talent pool largely shut out Black and Latino Americans? Dohrmann explains this as part historical accident, part design. The American Youth Soccer Organization, founded in Southern California in the mid-1960s, was unquestionably a “net-positive,” introducing the sport to thousands of kids across the country. However, its focus on the suburbs limited American soccer’s potential.
This problem was exacerbated by the rise of pay-to-play, a buzzword in American soccer circles. When ambitious parents sought better coaching and better competition for their children, private clubs — many raking in millions of dollars in revenue per year as registered nonprofits — met the demand.
So, when a master’s student at the University of California San Diego started studying the city’s youth soccer landscape in 2012 and visited its most successful club, he found mostly white kids popping out of BMW sedans and luxury SUVs for practice. Then he attended the practices of Aztecs FC, a club consisting of about 90 percent Latino players and coaches. Many parents struggled to pay the base fee of $10 a week. During one practice, the field’s lights inexplicably turned off. The club’s coaches were knowledgeable, but they lacked connections with college and professional coaches. In this “two-class system,” Dohrmann writes, Latino and Black players inevitably slip through the cracks.
Diverse coaching philosophies have been ignored, too. When pay-to-play clubs started looking abroad for coaches, they typically found white ones, many of them from Great Britain. (For many soccer parents, Dohrmann notes, “a British accent automatically equals expertise.”)
These coaches — some qualified, some not — started arriving en masse in the 1980s, teaching the “bang and bruise” game employed in English football at the time. Predictably, the U.S. has since produced athletic, industrious and physical players.
It’s had less success developing creative players with the technical savvy to unlock a defense. A Lionel Messi, whose triumph with Argentina at the 2022 World Cup cemented his case as one of the greatest players of all time? An Andrés Iniesta, Messi’s longtime teammate at F.C. Barcelona who scored to give Spain its first World Cup in 2010? Again, not so much.
As extensively as Dohrmann defines the scope of American soccer’s problems, he spends most of Switching Fields searching for solutions.
The journey takes him to Washington D.C., where a young coach brought “Brazilian soccer” to primarily Black, low-income children and started pumping out college talent. He meets Tom Byer, an American whose similar philosophy for introducing young kids to the game made him a celebrity during the ‘90s in Japan, which soon developed a reputation for exporting technically gifted players. (U.S. Soccer, Dohrmann notes, largely remained unimpressed.)
Dohrmann also takes readers to Casa Grande, Arizona, where a school akin to Europe and South America’s elite academies has thrived. To Omaha, to illustrate how America’s vastness can be an advantage, not a missed opportunity. To an office under San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, where two men strive to ensure colleges and professional clubs are not passing on elite Latino talent.
Importantly, Dohrmann addresses what has gone right on the women’s side, where the U.S. is the standard-bearer. As the rest of the world catches up, he notes that American colleges no longer hold a monopoly on elite talent development. (Notre Dame fans need look no further for an example than Korbin Albert, who signed with French giant Paris Saint-Germain after starring for the Irish the past two seasons.)
Finally, Dohrmann presents Matt Carver ’94, a parent, lawyer and youth soccer coach gradually exposed to the inequities holding American soccer back and the forces willing to battle and blackball him to preserve the status quo. His story, from Harlem to Germany to the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, is embedded at various stages throughout Dohrmann’s diagnosis and prescription for the issues ailing American youth soccer.
Switching Fields was published days before the start of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where the U.S. fielded a young, talented and diverse squad that many hoped would signal how American soccer is changing. The Americans exited in the Round of 16 after a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands, a country of about 17.5 million people long considered a paragon of youth development.
If the U.S. wants to compete during the 2026 World Cup on its home soil and beyond, it has work to do. There’s no lack of impetus and investment to convert America into a men’s soccer superpower, but Switching Fields suggests that can only happen if more cities, towns and neighborhoods find their own Matt Carvers.
In Ashland, Oregon, youth soccer club president George Dohrmann hopes he can come close enough.
Greg McKenna, a former editor-in-chief of Scholastic, studied history, economics and journalism at Notre Dame. An intern at The Dallas Morning News, he’s also worked for The Boston Globe, Tampa Bay Times and South Bend Tribune.