Change Theory and Why Missing the 2018 World Cup is the Best Thing for U.S. Soccer

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How did we get here?  That’s complicated and quite frankly a waste of time, rather let’s talk about how we get to competing for World Cups.  We need massive change, but how does that happen and will it?  “Change theory”, first coined by the sociologist Kurt Lewin is the study of how people, groups, and organizations actually make real impactful change.  It is fascinating and highly relatable to U.S. Soccer.

The Illusion of Dysfunction
How many of you know a couple in a dysfunctional relationship?  They fight all the time, complain about one another, and in general seem miserable.  How about a dysfunctional company?  Maybe one in which stagnation reigns, talent turnover is high, and even simple projects are a total disaster.  There are many organizations with horrible leadership, ill-defined culture, and even ruined finances, yet these entities seemingly operate as if all is well.

Despite what appears from the outside looking in as obvious systemic dysfunction with warning signs of impending failure, change does not happen.  In fact, many times even the willingness to change is absent.  The fighting couple continue to stay together; the poor performing company continues those same policies and procedures that lost money and alienated employees.  Regardless of multiple warning signs, shockingly no action is taken; no leadership change is made, no new ideas, projects, or plans.  Nothing seems to change, and the cycle goes round and round.

To understand why this is (and how is applies to USMNT and the World Cup – don’t worry we’ll get there) we must first begin by looking at what authors Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Garshow, and Marty Linsky in their book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership call “The Illusion of the Broken System”.  Any system (a family, a government, a business, a local pizza shop, or a national soccer federation) functions the way it does because it works for the people (typically the stake holders) in that particular system.

The dysfunctional couple have a relationship that works for them; the poorly run company works for the management team that is getting the large salaries and benefits, etc.  From an outsider’s perspective change needs to happen in order to fix “the broken system” however it isn’t broken for the power players within it.  Moreover, these people will very likely resist any changes (despite how bad something looks to any objective observer) because again the system is functioning very well for them.

Case in point: the aftermath of October 10th, 2017 and USMNT embarrassing loss to Trinidad and Tobago.  Then United States manager Bruce Arena said, “There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing” and “nothing has to change”.  He added, “To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be foolish” and also called missing the 2018 World Cup a “blemish”.  Current U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati was even more out of touch stating, “you don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being two inches wide or two inches in”.

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The system that is U.S. Soccer was working well for Bruce Arena and Sunil Gulati.  The former has now coached the national team on two stints and although it is now somewhat tarnished has the reputation of taking the team farther in a World Cup then anyone.  The latter is one of the most power people in all of soccer.  You see if the important people like the current situation systemic change is unlikely.

Furthermore, change can be very difficult to get from within that particular “dysfunctional” system.  Anyone within the system who addresses the “dysfunction” will instantly be unpopular with said leaders and thus jeopardize their own advancement.  For example, if anyone within U.S. Soccer were to consistently point out to Sunil Gulati and others all the flaws in the federation, do you think they will be rewarded for their deed?

I have posted before about how complicated systems often lead to “normal accidents” and how this applies to the USMNT disaster of missing the World Cup.  Complicated systems are also slow to change and a big reason for that is the dysfunction is functioning for the power players.

The Immovable Object
So when and how do dysfunctional organizations with power players who are comfortable within that system enact change?  It usually takes an extreme event.

The American auto producers, the so called “Big Three” of General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford ignored the warnings of past oil shock crashes, global warming, and impending legacy costs (specifically healthcare) until they were forced to declare bankruptcy.  Many people may forget that Apple nearly went out of business in the 90’s and actually needed a $150-million-dollar investment from Microsoft (a rival) of all people to stay afloat.  Both of these are examples of highly complex organizations whom had been “dysfunctional” for years ignoring signals that the ship was going down.  Instead they allowed the system to work perfectly for them and got the same results over and over again.  All because it functioned for the board, the executives, the middle managers, etc.  It was only once these companies were nearly extinct that change occurred.

What warning signs did the U.S. Soccer Federation miss on the way to this meltdown?  Here are a just a couple:

  • Did not qualify for the 2012 Olympics (U-23)
  • Did not qualify for the 2016 Olympics (U-23)
  • Did not qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup
  • Did not qualify for the 2013 U-17 World Cup
  • Paid Jurgen Klinsmann $6.2 million dollars then had to fire him when we started so poorly in qualifying
  • Had to rely on either 19 year olds or 30 year olds this cycle due lack of talent in players prime years
  • November 18th, 2014 – Lost 4-1 to Ireland (FIFA Rank 32)
  • October 11th, 2016 – Tied 1-1 to New Zealand (FIFA Rank 122)
  • November 11th, 2016 – Lost 2-1 at home to Mexico (FIFA Rank 16)
  • November 15th, 2016 – Lost 4-0 at home to Costa Rica (FIFA Rank 26)
  • January 29th, 2017 – Tied 0-0 to Serbia (FIFA Rank 37)
  • September 1st, 2017 – Lost 2-0 again to Costa Rica (FIFA Rank 26)
  • Currently have only 23 players on European team rosters and lack of the top clubs in the world to consist of Americans

But remember even with these small warnings, the system was working for those in positions of power and leadership.

This is why I believe not qualifying for the world cup is the best thing to happen to U.S. Soccer; it can be our bankruptcy, our big moment to enact change.  You see this isn’t just losing in the Gold Cup or not qualifying for the Olympics or not developing enough good players or even getting beat by lesser opponents.  Missing the 2018 World Cup, in this region, with the size and financial prowess of our country is the shot heard around the world, it is our nuclear bomb.

This is now a failure on the scale to actually make an impact.

We can use this horrible moment in U.S. Soccer history to improve the system.  And it starts with the U.S. Soccer Presidential election in February.  I plan on a full post reviewing the election but let me say that the new president must be someone outside of the current U.S. Soccer Federation, someone who has not functioned well in the current system and one who can actually make real change.

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