Essentially, U.S. Soccer’s Project 2010 is one of those 1950s science fiction movies, looking off into a far distant 21st Century of flying cars and shiny suits.
The problem, of course, is that when we got to the 21st Century, cars were still firmly hugging the road and shiny suits were still, well, ugly.
Still, it wasn’t, necessarily, the vision that was off. It was the timing.
At least that’s how those who study soccer in this country see Project 2010, now that we’re in the midst of the 2010 World Cup. (The United States plays Ghana in the second-round on Saturday.) For those unfamiliar with the audacious plan, this is the World Cup we’re supposed to win, if the 1998 “Project” has been a success.
“Honestly, we weren’t really clearing off shelf space at headquarters to make room for the trophy,” noted U.S. Soccer’s Neil Buethe. “I know, the original intent was to win the cup by 2010. But, realistically, what else should we have identified as our goal?”
Which is a good point. When America’s greatest soccer minds called in Portugal’s great soccer mind, Carlos Queiroz, to draft a plan, this is essentially what he came up with: There is no reason the United States can’t be a world soccer power. Except for a lack of high quality coaching. And a youth development structure. And a deeper pool of players. And better players. And a support structure. And… Well, you get the picture.
“We had deficiencies, in how we were running the sport, recruiting kids into soccer, coaching our players,” Buethe said. “We needed a long term plan.”
Project 2010 was a blueprint, and better yet for publicity purposes, it was a blueprint with a deadline.
What happened with that blueprint? One concrete advance: the Bradenton residency program for young players, which at first brought in 20 young players for two years of intensive training in Florida, and spat out Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu and Michael Bradley, all featured pieces of the U.S. national team effort in South Africa.
The Bradenton (at the IMG Soccer Academy) plan was modeled off the French Clairefontaine National Technical Center that opened in 1988, often credited with the success of the French national team in winning the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Cup, and widely noted as a cradle of top coaches.
Another concrete product was the expansion of Project 40, which has changed its name to Generation Adidas. This was a plan to get young players into a professional environment, meaning Major League Soccer. It’s a program that allows clubs such as the Wizards to keep promising youngsters around without counting against their roster numbers, and a program that pays a bit more than the very minimal minimum wages of the league. The results of this, for example, include Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, three more hoped to be stalwarts of the coming cup.
While not quite flying cars, the players have gotten the U.S. team off the ground.
Peter Vermes, now the Wizards coach, and formerly a striker and defender for the United States (not at the same time), notes that one obvious difference between the team before and since the plan is the depth of the American player pool. It’s deeper now. Much deeper.
And he has proof.
Vermes today is coaching a Major League Soccer team that pressures the ball from the opening whistle of the game until the referee signals it’s over. It’s a popular style of play around the planet, especially among the better leagues in Europe.
“To make this high intensity attacking style work, we need high level athletes, we need those athletes to have a high level soccer intellect,” Vermes said. “Fifteen years ago, we never could have put enough players on a single team roster to pull off what we’re trying to do. Players are arriving at MLS much more prepared to play the game at a high level.”
In fact, he said, that’s despite the fact that the league has expanded rather rapidly, and will continue to expand, diluting the talent pool. And, he noted, that’s despite the explosion in the number of American players now making a living playing outside the United States, in leagues in Mexico, England, Germany, Italy, France, etc.
Now, it’s hard to know exactly how much Project 2010 had to do with the talent explosion in this country. Vermes thinks that the forming and success of MLS is a bigger factor. More and more of the top young athletes who formerly dreamed of professional careers only in football, basketball and baseball are now picking soccer as their sport. They’re growing up watching local professional teams. At the same time, the degree to which the sport is televised has expanded at least as rapidly, so they also grow up watching the world’s best players in the world’s most popular sport.
But Vermes also wants it know that he’s played for Queiroz, that he knows the intellect behind this idea, “and the man is a genius.” Vermes noted that Queiroz, who is one of those soccer nomads who wander from place to place spreading their wisdom, “had incredible vision, and really did believe that the United States could become a world soccer power. He knew it wasn’t about mimicking what others do, it was about creating our own style, of training and recruiting and playing. He knew that matching a style of play to our culture was what would make us great, and Project 2010 helped us at least start on that path.”
Now, if someone could only come up with some decent shiny suits.