*This is a longer post. If you aren’t that interested in the study of how and why complex organizations/systems fail or my opinion of how that pertains to the current U.S. Soccer environment, this may not be your cup of tea…
Failures of Complex Systems
March 28, 1979 not far from where I currently live, reactor number 2 off the coast of the Three Mile Island Power Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania began leaking radioactive gas and iodine into the atmosphere. Media coverage of the event dominated the news and captivated the general conscious of Americans. What began that day was in fact a disastrous nuclear meltdown which would go on to be the biggest energy accident in modern United States history. The aftermath and cleanup took a total of 14 years and cost an estimated $14 billion dollars and some experts believe it still impacts the perception and growth of the nuclear energy industry today.
The leak was a result of multiple failures of multiple complex systems including: malfunctioned relief valves that allowed coolant to escape, operators who failed to recognize the magnitude of the problem in time, poor training, a litany of safety backup malfunctions, and issues with human to technology interactions. This event in human history has been studied on multiple fronts across academia. Ultimately, it boils down to failure of people to navigate and operate in an extremely intricate and tedious environment.
Nuclear power plants are about as complicated a structure as you can find. They are comprised of many highly trained, highly educated scientists responsible for operating different processes in a coordinated effort. There are multiple controls (and components to those controls) used to run every aspect of the reactors. Moreover, there are also several layers of safety mechanisms and procedures in place to prevent errors within each individual control. On the day of the reactor meltdown it is reported that four of these safety systems failed in the initial 13 seconds of the leak. Below is an actual image of the one of the panels of the control room of Three Mile Island.
As nuclear material spewed into central Pennsylvania, leaders at the plant scrambled to stabilize the core and were ill-equipped to operate in such a complex system that had failed on such a massive front. The event took on national news, terrifying people and prompting political leaders and energy advocates to begin asking questions about how such an accident could occur.
On October 10th, 2017 in Couva, Trinidad the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) lost 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the first one the Americans would miss since 1986. It was the culmination of years of warning signs, near misses, poor player development, poor vision, poor leadership, and ultimately the inability to navigate the complicated and fragmented landscape that is U.S. Soccer. Against overwhelming odds of moving onto Russia a complex system once again failed and the USMNT and the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) are again left wondering why a nation with enormous soccer resources, budget, and players continues to be a relatively subpar futbol product.
Charles Parrow is a professor of sociology at Yale University and specializes in the study of complex systems, in fact the Three Mile Island event prompted him to develop what has now become known in the literature as “Normal Accident Theory”. This states that failures in complex organizations are “normal” and “unavoidable”. Inherent within a complicated and confusing system are multiple smaller, less obvious failures that will then interact with one another. Each individual failure can seem less important even trivial but when totaled up and taken into context with one another it becomes a larger problem which can then surface to a more dramatic event (like a Nuclear meltdown or a Soccer Meltdown).
In addition, the more a complex system is “tightly coupled” the more likely it is to fail. In computer science, a tightly coupled system is one in which multiple parts (for example hardware and software) are not only linked together but are also highly dependant upon each other for a certain outcome. This becomes further problematic when the specific parts do not communicate well with each other.
Structure of US Soccer circa 2017
U.S. Soccer has complexity issues of its own. Right now it is “governed by Bylaws and Policies adapted by a Board of Directors and the National Council”. The board of directors is a collection of ten people/factions including the President (Sunil Gilati), Executive Vice President (Carlos Cordeiro), Athlete Representatives, Pro Council Representatives, Adult Council Representatives, Youth Council Representatives, Independent Directors (whatever that is), and the CEO (Dan Flynn). There are at least 17 committees and task forces underneath the Board of Directors, including the Appeals Committee, Budget Committee, Credentials Committee, Diversity Task Force, Medical Advisory Committee just to name a few.
The U.S. Soccer academy structure is comprised of 197 clubs across six age groups (U-12 to U19). U.S. Youth Soccer (which is another separate organization) runs the Olympic Development Program (ODP) which is supposed to “identify players of the highest caliber on a continuing and consistent basis, which will lead to increased success for the U.S. National Teams in the international arena”. Moreover, there is the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) which claims to have over 50,000 teams nationwide. There are literally thousands of coaches, and millions of kids playing soccer. Furthermore, U.S. Youth Soccer estimates over 3 million members and more than 300,000 coaches within their organization with “the majority of which are volunteers”. This of course does not include high school and college programs.
Lastly, we come to the structure of the home professional leagues; the often called “U.S. Soccer Pyramid”.
Now this is really not a true soccer “pyramid” because teams do not move up and down (promotion/relegation) based on records of the previous year. A brief history of how this came to be is not terribly important (nor really relevant to the point of this article), just know that there was a ton of infighting between team owners within leagues, starting up of leagues without real idea of structure, and basically no governing body (hello U.S. Soccer) to oversee the overall Soccer product. This has now led to the North American Soccer League (NASL) suing U.S. Soccer.
What am I getting at? U.S. Soccer is a complicated system and does not coordinate together for the goal of winning a world cup, this very different than how other countries organize their soccer federations. Many people have pointed out all of the problems (pay to play, promotion/relegation, youth development, coaching development) and even offered solutions. However, if the system isn’t simplified the results of mediocrity will likely continue. In a nation of this many people, this passionate about soccer it is criminal that we cannot field a team of world class players and I believe it is because of this complex system.
What investigators found in the Three Mile Island Nuclear leak was a series of smaller failures, navigated by smart people within a very complicated and highly coupled system that ultimately all came together in disastrous harmony that day in late March 1979. Last month USMNT and USSF had a meltdown of their own. What I hope U.S. Soccer leaders will do is simplify a complex hierarchical system that works together for the goal of winning a world cup.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission – Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident https://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/3mile-isle.html
“14-Year Cleanup at Three Mile Island Concludes”. New York Times. August 15, 1993.
Minutes to Meltdown: Three Mile Island – National Geographic
U.S. men’s national soccer team fails to qualify for 2018 World Cup
U.S. Soccer “Governance”. https://www.ussoccer.com/about/governance
U.S. Soccer “Board of Directors”. https://www.ussoccer.com/about/governance/board-of-directors
U.S. Soccer Development Academy Structure. http://www.ussoccerda.com/overview-academy-structure
“Answers to 5 Key Questions in NASL’s Lawsuit vs U.S. Soccer. https://www.si.com/soccer/2017/09/25/nasl-us-soccer-lawsuit-questions-fifa-kessler