The “billion-dollars-plus” Twellman was referring to was likely the revenue—something in the neighborhood of a “billion-dollars-plus”—that Major League Soccer (MLS) now brings in over the course of each four-year World Cup cycle. His complaint, in essence, is that the MLS is an underwhelming generator of domestic soccer talent given how much money it brings in. He also seems to be arguing that the USSF isn’t using its revenues—which in the past few years have typically been in the neighborhood of $100 million annually, mostly from ticket sales, sponsorships, and TV deals—wisely. (The USSF did not respond to a request for comment.)
There is some logic to the idea that money wins games. “When you look at the sort of factors that make countries successful at things like international soccer and at the Olympics, GDP per capita actually is a really, really strong predictor of how well people do,” says Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at College of the Holy Cross (as well as a former MLS referee who says he has himself been on the receiving end of a Taylor Twellman rant, for penalties he’s called). In general, the more money a country puts into its soccer program, the better its training program, the better its team.
Of course, money didn’t do much to help the U.S. team on Tuesday night. “However they spent it, they were horrifically unsuccessful,” Matheson says, adding that he’d be “shocked” if Trinidad and Tobago’s soccer budget exceeded a 10th of the U.S.’s.
There are several possible explanations for the U.S.’s lackluster performance during World Cup qualifying games. One, which will be debated endlessly among fans and officials in the coming months, is the quality of the coaching and leadership. Another is that the current crop of players just happened to be unusually weak, as star players can come in waves.
But another explanation really does come down to money. It’s a problem those on the organizational side of soccer refer to as “pay to play”: Many, including Twellman and Matheson, argue that in the U.S., the cost for young people to play soccer is simply too high, limiting the pipeline of talent to those who can afford the fees and uniforms of their regional club teams. “The idea,” Matheson says, “is that we’ve developed a lot of highly trained but mediocre rich kids while missing out on training lots of potentially fantastic poor kids.” Perhaps the USSF could do more to seek out lower-income players—“probably disproportionately minority players, disproportionately immigrant players,” Matheson says.
But even if the sport were made more economically accessible, what soccer in the U.S. is also lacking is a culture that puts it ahead of all other sports. To be sure, the country has developed a large group of devoted fans and young and professional players. But the fact that America’s biggest sports stars play football and basketball means that those sports absorb a significant number of aspiring athletes who are mediocre point guards or quarterbacks but may have been been brilliant strikers. There may be some extravagant sum of money that could place soccer among football and basketball (and baseball) in the U.S. sports pantheon, but it is surely well beyond current spending levels.