It’s not everyday you get the chance to chat about the state of U.S. soccer with a former U.S. national team player, MLS Cup Winner and two-time NCAA champion. However, we had the chance to do just that with Nick Garcia recently.
We picked the brain of the former Kansas City, San Jose and Toronto man about what he’s been doing since retiring from the game, as well as the direction the sport in America is headed. With nearly 300 MLS matches under his belt, it’s safe to say Garcia has a unique insight into the domestic game.
What He’s Doing Now
For most athletes, it’s difficult to leave the game when retirement age starts calling. Garcia is no exception. Since he retired in 2010, he’s been spearheading a youth soccer movement in the heart of downtown Kansas City through the Brookside Soccer Club.
While youth soccer clubs in the United States are a dime a dozen, BSC is unique in that it focuses on making soccer accessible and affordable for all, something Garcia believes has opened the sport to inner-city kids who would be unable to participate in soccer programs without BSC.
Rather than unearthing gems for the national team, Garcia and BSC are more focused on simply giving kids a chance to put themselves into a positive environment.
“We’re not trying to create the next Beckham or Messi,” Garcia said. “It’s about helping kids who don’t have access to soccer.”
One of the reasons Garcia contends that BSC is so important to growing soccer in the Kansas City area is that the organization isn’t bogged down by some of the challenges other groups face. For example, the local school system has struggled financially in recent years, making independent entities such as BSC all the more important for the sport’s success in the region.
In 2010, the Kansas City Public School District shuttered 29 of the city’s 61 schools as a result of a skyrocketing $50 million budget deficit.
Over the last decade, BSC has seen substantial growth in the number of kids involved in its various programs. According to Garcia, nearly 2,500 Kansas City-area youths participate in BSC. One of the main catalysts beind the organization’s expansion in recent years has been BSC’s move to Swope Park, an inner-city field complex that Garcia and others have helped revitalize.
However, the sport’s local growth certainly hasn’t been hampered by the fact that Sporting Kansas City has undergone an incredible transformation in recent years, a fact that isn’t lost on Garcia.
A New Era for Sporting KC
Although he played for three MLS clubs, Garcia is best known for his seven-year tenure with Kansas City, in which he played more than 200 MLS matches for the then Wizards.
In his first season (2000) the club won the MLS Cup, and Garcia would be fortunate enough to play in another MLS Cup final in 2004, despite falling short to D.C. United. However, the club’s fortunes slowly declined, but Garcia never lost faith in the team, the fans and most importantly, the ownership.
“They have phenomenal owners,” Garcia said. “They really have put their money where their mouth is.”
In fact, Garcia noted that despite the challenges the Kansas City franchise has faced in recent years, stable ownership has been a constant, allowing the club to rebrand as Sporting Kansas City.
The United States, Latin America and the Battle for Talent
As for where the sport is heading in the United States, Garcia believes the MLS will continue to face stiff competition from other countries when it comes to recruiting talent. However, that battle for top players won’t only be waged on a trans-atlantic front. Rather, the MLS will need to compete with Latin American leagues and clubs as well as European outlets.
In particular, Garcia highlighted the fact that many Latin American markets are already ahead of the curve when it comes to beating out the MLS. Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico, for example, boast well-established leagues that have been around for decades, something the MLS simply can’t match. Also, the notable success of Latino clubs in the Copa Libertadores and the CONCACAF Champions League make them more attractive to many players.
Despite those disadvantages, Garcia points to a non-sporting factor as to why the MLS can out duel the Latin American countries.
"If you're a player, you come here not to springboard your career but to live the American dream," said Garcia.
More competitive salaries, social stability and even anonymity are big draws for talented foreigners, particularly those from South and Central America. One example Garcia pointed to was that of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, a former Boca Juniors legend from Argentina who played for the Columbus Crew for three seasons from 2007 to 2010. A major influence in his extended stay in American was the fact that he could walk around his neighborhood and city without being bombarded by fans. Similar factors attracted a certain Jurgen Klinsmann to sunny California when the German's playing career came to an end.
Simply put, the quality of life is something that the United States can dangle as a carrot that some regions of the world can not. Even so, there is much work to be done.
"The farm system isn't there yet," Garcia asserted as he discussed U.S. Soccer's struggle to develop a talent pipeline. “But ten years from now, we will be amazed at the conversation we will have about talent development.”
From the fledgling MLS academy system to the much maligned American college set up, developing talent in an organized and consistent manner is perhaps the largest task at hand for American soccer leaders.
However, Garcia's story shows that soccer is indeed growing in America, a fact that most people, soccerphiles or not, are starting to realize. In the wake of a successful playing career, Garcia has been able to ease into his post-playing life while staying heavily involved in the sport.
In the past, other American soccer players may not have had such a luxury. Perhaps their only chance to remain in the game was to pick up a college coaching gig or find one of the few punditry jobs available in the country. Garcia's foray into an expanding grassroots soccer organization such as BSC shows that the sport is on the up-and-up in the United States, for players and supporters of all ages.