Union's Jim Curtin calls American youth soccer 'a privileged sport'

Union manager Jim Curtin knows full well that there are, as he put it Wednesday, “a million different hot takes” on what has gone wrong for the U.S. men’s soccer team, and on what has to go right to fix those problems.

Curtin also knows that he probably isn’t at the top of most lists of people whose opinions the most-sought.

After all, he isn’t Sporting Kansas City’s Peter Vermes, the Delran native whose fiery ethos and bountiful trophy cabinet have long made him one of the top candidates to lead the national team in the future.

Curtin hasn’t got the youth development wizardry of FC Dallas’ Oscar Pareja, or the global gravitas of New York City FC’s Patrick Vieira and Atlanta United’s Tata Martino. He’s never had the star power of the Portland Timbers’ Caleb Porter, whose star fell when the U.S. under-23 team failed to qualify for the 2010 Olympics, then rose again upon winning MLS Cup in 2015.

Here’s what Curtin is: A product of the American soccer system, from youth clubs to high school to college to the pros. After he stopped playing, he had a key role in building the team’s youth academy at YSC Sports in Wayne. He joined the Union’s coaching staff as an assistant in 2012, then became the head coach in 2014.

In other words, he has waded through almost every swamp that exists on the American soccer landscape.

As momentum builds to enact long-needed sweeping changes to the sport in this country, Curtin offered a few polite suggestions of his own on what needs to happen. And a few impolite ones too.

Here are transcripts of his remarks:

On the flaws of America’s youth soccer culture, and the inability of the many factions within it to put the game’s greater development above individual interests:

“In a lot of cases with youth soccer, we can be our own worst enemy. It’s big business, to be honest. Whether you go out to the suburbs of Philadelphia, whether you go to suburbs of [cities in] California. There’s a lot of people that are involved [and] the reason is to make a living. I understand that and I respect that, but sometimes it does get in the way of what’s best for kids. And right now, we are failing kids — not just in soccer, across all sports — with crazy parents.

I think it’s a big issue and a long discussion, and it would probably be one that we’d have to sit down for hours for and talk over. But I think the motive sometimes isn’t always for the kids to be in the best environment, whether that be an MLS environment, whether that be a professional environment overseas in Germany, whether that be for the U.S. national team. Sometimes it gets bigger, about people’s livelihoods.

And you understand that, and the business side of it. But youth soccer is an incredibly huge, huge business right now. And again, it’s tough to keep everyone on the same page in a lot of different wars.”

[…]

“We’re probably one of the few countries in the world where soccer is a privileged sport. And if people want to argue that, they’re crazy. It’s a privileged sport in this country, across the board.

Do I have the answer of how you change that? I don’t. I don’t have it right now. I wish I did. But there is enough resources. We do have enough, obviously, facilities in the United States of America to do a better job of getting the best kids involved, regardless of whether they’re rich kids, regardless of whether they’re middle-class, regardless of whether they have nothing.

And I’m saying this not just for soccer. This is for all sports. There are still kids that are squeezed out of kids in different opportunities as well. There has to be an improvement in that regard, because we can’t really — I think we’re out of excuses, to be honest. I can’t really come up with one reason why we can’t be a little bit better.”

On the inability of the soccer community as a whole to work together:

“I’ve been in rooms with millionaires and billionaires, and I’ve been in rooms with the local youth coach, for soccer conversations. The one thing that remains true: Every time you get in a room with, I’d say, seven or more people involved in soccer in our country, everyone has to show that they’re the smartest guy in the room, and nobody will listen.

That’s probably a microcosm of the big problems that happen. I think we need to listen more to each other and find solutions, rather than guarding what’s our own. I’ll put it that way.”

On Major League Soccer’s role in developing American players:

“I’m a believer that the domestic league has to be a resource in developing American players. It really has to be. You look at different countries and the way they do it and support, some are successful in doing it, some not so successful in keeping those countries’ players going. And right now, there’s big decisions that have to happen, obviously, at the league, at U.S. Soccer.

It is critical, because you do see the direction our league is going in, and it probably wouldn’t be one that would favor the American player, to be honest, right now with the different ways money is coming into it.

So it’s an important time. We still have very good young American players in our league that are getting better each and every day, and developing. But you do want to see more of it. You look at some of our youth national teams and they’ve had some success, but I feel like we’ve all said that in the past.

And we do want to see it, obviously, at the top end. That’s the ultimate goal for our national team: to be good. I’ve said a million times to you guys that if our national team fails, soccer is going to fail in this country. It’s going to be really tough to get the eyes necessary on the game to really grow the game.

It’s a really devastating blow, everything that happened, and I hope that we can move forward as a soccer community.”

On what the next course of action should be, including whether the United States should follow the model Germany pursued when it turned failure at the 2000 European Championships into World Cup semifinals in 2006 and 2010, and the title in 2014:

“People will point to the fact that it’s not just the 90 minutes [at Trinidad] that led to this collapse. You recognize that, and that probably is true. And you’ve seen every different take in the past day, and various experts come out, and everyone has their reasoning behind it.

Is it grassroots? Is it not getting enough city kids involved in soccer? The urban player, the academies letting us down, the coaches in our country letting us down, the player pool not being good enough. It was an omen that we haven’t qualified for the Olympics in two cycles now.

It’s a little bit of all those things. There’s no one answer that’s right. It does prove that we have to step back and evaluate things, and get better for it.

Listen, our country right now, we are the best at basketball, we are the best at American football, we are the best at baseball. We’re not the best at soccer. And sometimes, maybe we feel like we’re taking big steps forward, but the reality is it’s still newer in this country.

We have to improve, we have to get better, and moments like these get people talking for sure. It gets everyone going, and coming up with new ideas, and it’s probably necessary at this moment.

[…]

“You see different comparisons all over. People are saying, ‘Oh, we have to blow it up just like Germany did.’ And that sounds like a really smart thing at first. But then, when you peel back the layers of that, Germany had been world champion before they did their reboot of things. We never have. We’ve never been close.

Sometimes I think the comparisons get a little out of hand. Germany also had a pretty good player pool, a pretty good coach development system that they had there, coaching education. They’ve been doing it for quite a longer time. So that is maybe one of the five million takes I’ve seen that I would probably — at first, I thought I agreed with it, but then I said, “That’s actually insane.”

We’re all kind of doing that and self-evaluating right now, in ways to make things better. Journalists are involved, players are involved, coaches need to get better, across the board. It’s an eye-opener.”