Lessons for Managers and Organizations from the US Men’s National Soccer Team

There are a number of lessons for managers and organizations can take away from the United States Men’s National Team’s appalling defeat to Trinidad and Tobago, a loss that means the US will not qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

The US Men’s National Team faced two critical games in a week, one against Panama in Orlando and the second against Trinidad and Tobago in a town called Couva in T&T. Both teams were below the US in the standings going into the games, and well below the US in the world rankings. The US had to win one game and tie one game to be virtually assured of advancing to the World Cup in Russia in 2018. The US easily beat Panama at home, but lost to Trinidad and Tobago at their stadium. The conditions in the US were ideal — the field was perfect, the stadium was full of vocal US fans, and the facilities were new and top-notch. The conditions in Trinidad and Tobago were less than ideal. The field was too flooded to practice on the day before the game, on the day of the game the field was soggy and uneven, and the small stadium had a small crowd that was mostly rooting for the home side.

Three lessons managers and organizations can learn from loss are:

Plan for every contingency.

In the lead up to the must-win home game against Panama, US coach Bruce Arena said that he was focusing exclusively on the game at hand and not giving any thought to the next game against Trinidad and Tobago. That sounded like traditional sports-speak (“we have a lot of respect for…that’s why you play the game…not taking anything for granted…”). Turns out it was true. It was clear from the start that Arena was using the same players and plan in the second game that he used in the first in spite of the fact they were playing a different team in a different country. Good managers are able to focus on the critical issue at hand — this proposal, this pitch, this launch — while simultaneously planning for the next proposal, pitch and launch. The best managers also think about the next event based on potential outcomes of this event — what if the US had tied Panama at home? How does that change the approach to Trinidad and Tobago? If you lose this project does that affect how you staff the next one? If you win all three proposals you have out, how will you absorb the new work and deliver a top notch product?

Organized and committed beats talented and casual.

Man for man and statistic for statistic (to say nothing of salary for salary) the US players are more highly rated than the players for Trinidad and Tobago. The US players start for teams in England, Germany, Mexico, and the US. T&T’s players play in local leagues and in top and second tier American leagues. I would wager that Christian Pulisic, a 19 year old American who stars for a top team in Germany, makes more money than the entire T&T team combined. But T&T pushed the US around the field all night. T&T’s players played as a unit, worked for each other, and showed a relentless desire from the first whistle to the last. The US players were casual — T&T’s first goal was scored by an American defender who was simply lazy, and their second goal was a screamer of a shot without a US player in sight. The US was slow and sloppy in the attack, and slow and sloppy in defense. The US deserved to lose because they played as if statistical superiority mattered. Credentials are proxies for chances of success, but credentials themselves are not victories. The best managers find the most committed staff who can get the job done and organize them in ways that take advantage of their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. The best staff stick to the plan, work hard for each other, and know that success is about what the unit accomplishes together on the project at hand, not about what any one of them has done elsewhere in the past or might do elsewhere in the future. Reputations and resumes don’t win, teams do.

Adapt to your conditions.

The conditions for the US in Florida were perfect. The conditions in Couvo were not. But as former US men’s national team player and current TV commentator Taylor Twellman put it, “Belgium played Bosnia on a cow pasture but we can’t beat Trinidad with water on the field?” If the field is uneven, don’t try to dribble around people or send long passes on the ground — use quick passes in the air to move the ball. If the field is slippery, put on shoes that grip mud, and assume you will be slower than usual and that the ball will skip. In old stadiums the locker rooms may be small and the opposition fans loud. The best teams and players adjust and win. The US did not adjust, and they lost. The best managers and staff similarly adjust or fail. Sometimes the internet goes down and printers jam. Your cubical might be loud and the air conditioning isn’t always on. Flights are delayed and deadlines change. So work offline, fix the printer or edit on your computer, put in ear plugs, loosen your tie, and adjust.

There are many more lessons to be taken from the US failure to qualify for Russia 2018, from owning responsibility, to creating systems that foster long-term success, to players holding themselves and each other accountable. Look for those (and other) lessons for managers and organizations from soccer in the coming months here. And pick up Soccer Thinking for Management Success when it comes out next summer (you can read it while you’re not watching the US play); the book brings together insights from players ranging from a World Cup winner and the first American to score for Arsenal, to rec league and pick-up players who use soccer thinking to help them succeed off the field.

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