NEW YORK — Former players, showcased on the world stage during their careers, sat together in midtown Manhattan Thursday afternoon. Now ESPN commentators, they discussed next month’s World Cup in Russia as part of a media roundtable.
There was Mario Kempes, who won the World Cup with Argentina in 1978; former Mexican national team greats Hugo Sanchez and Tato Noriega; Shaka Hislop, who was the goalkeeper for Trinidad & Tobago’s only World Cup appearance in 2006; and Herculez Gomez, who represented the United States at the 2010 World Cup.
They pontificated about the world’s top players and teams heading to Russia, but the conversation later shifted to the team that isn’t going to the World Cup for the first time in 32 years and what improvements are needed for the U.S. national team.
Understandably, Gomez took center stage, with the controversial “pay-to-play” club soccer model taking the brunt of his frustration.
Gomez talked about his story: how the opportunity to play club soccer wouldn’t have been there for him or his brothers if not for a benefactor who cut an annual check for $25,000 for them and a coach who he said drove an extra 45 minutes each way to get him to and from practice.
“It’s very difficult for young immigrant families to pay to play,” Gomez said. “Oftentimes these Latin American kids — it’s not just Mexican-American kids, it’s all walks of life — get overlooked because they don’t have the funds. It’s very much a suburban sport.
“You look at other countries where academies are utilized; they are investing in you, it’s not the other way around.”
ESPN commentator Sebastian Salazar, who moderated the event, told a similar story about a son of a Mexican mother and American father who played youth soccer in the Washington D.C. area.
“I played for the best club team in Virginia and in Maryland, and in both cases on the top four teams I was the only Hispanic kid,” he said. “Do you think I was the best Hispanic kid in the D.C. area? I played Division III soccer. I’m a hack. I’m not even close. Why did I get to play in this world and at those levels? Because my parents were from the suburbs and they could afford it.”
Hislop is experiencing that first-hand with his children currently playing travel soccer.
“It’s expensive. In all honesty, unless you earn a certain amount you just can’t stay in the game,” Hislop said. “That’s a detriment of the wider player pool, and, honestly, I don’t know what the other option is. There are a lot of opportunities in the game, but they come at a cost and as a result, I think a significant portion of the talent pool is being overlooked.”
Salazar also spoke of the need for more hispanic representation, both at the top of the U.S. Soccer Federation and through youth team coaches.
“The reality is that in this country, the people who are playing this sport, who are watching the sport and people who are consuming this sport, that’s where it’s at,” Salazar said.
As for the current leadership, Gomez lamented, “there’s been no clear or transparent future about the direction we’re going in.”
“The fact that the same coaching staff sans Bruce Arena is still in charge of this go around says a lot,” Gomez said. “You have Tab Ramos, who knows the program inside and out with all these kids, who to me right now is a bystander. He’s a spectator and he should be more involved.”
U.S. Soccer would argue they have been transparent about the next steps, laying out the plans to hire a GM and their job responsibility, which would include hiring a new coach. With the potential for additional candidates to emerge following the World Cup and with no games of significance in the near future, it does seem prudent that U.S. Soccer isn’t rushing the process.
Still, Gomez said there is reason to be optimistic, citing Christian Pulisic as the closest to a “world class player” the United States has.
“We need to continue growing the sport,” Gomez said. “We need to have the right people in charge, and with what we’ve done so far, it should come organically.”