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Customer Experience and the USA National Soccer Team 

By Paul Peterson

It was a damp and grey Thursday afternoon on June 14, 1990. I convinced a college buddy of mine to join me in rushing to a bar in downtown South Orange as soon as class finished to watch the USA National Soccer team take on heavily favored Italy, in the host country of Italy, no less. Of course, beers would have to be on me. I played soccer my whole childhood, and this was the first time at the age of 19 that I would watch the USA team in a World Cup. American soccer was a mess back then with the collapse of the NASL. The hype and enthusiasm Pele created in the NASL eroded. There wasn’t much to root for with soccer during those days.

Fortunately, a group of hard-working and dreamful USA players led the USA to their first World Cup since 1934. The USA National Team was a huge underdog. The LA Times described the US team as “walking through the valley of the shadow of death,”… that “there may be a blackout in Rome from all the electricity consumed by the Italian side of the scoreboard,”… and that “the situation may be hopeless.” The New York Times headline in its article about the game was “Olympic Stadium or Colosseum?”

John Harkes, one of the leaders on the 1990 USA team, stunned reporters when he was asked how much of a blowout he’d consider to be a good result.

“A tie or a win,” he responded to the press pack.

Silence.

“A tie or a win,” Harkes repeated. “Look, if we do lose, I want to at least show the Italians we can play.”

Huge underdogs, the USA team hung in there and lost only 1-0.

This 1990 Team captured the hearts of people like me. I became a raving fan. One who would live through the ups and downs the USA National Team experienced, especially the gut-wrenching disappointment of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

You see, in USA Men’s National Soccer, there are a lot of fans like me. We are like your top customers. But do we feel that way? Do your goals line up with the expectations we have as your customers? Do they get us excited? Who measures success – you or your customers?

As a raving fan, do you think that the goal of the National Team 32 years later is inspired by this – “We set out with a goal to show the rest of the world how we play soccer, and I think we partially achieved that even though we fell short of our goals,” said Berhalter, as reported by Reuters.

Wasn’t this the same goal of the 1990 World Cup Team? To be fair, Coach Berhalter inherited a National Team that hit rock bottom in 2018. The first team not to qualify since 1990. It was a disaster he was taking over.

This post focuses on not being critical of the coach or players. Instead, I intend to highlight the weaknesses of the USA Men’s National Team as an Entity and as a Business.

Since the disappointment with the loss to the Netherlands, I keep thinking, what would you and I do if we were hired to consult with the USA Men’s National Soccer Team? What if they asked us to help craft a path analogous to a business facing stiff competition? Let’s compare the USA team to a business that has returned to break even. How would we take it forward? What could we do differently to achieve better outcomes?

Wouldn’t we start with what their ultimate goal is?

Berhalter stated what the goal was for 2022- like it was a project. Is there a larger vision somewhere out there that the Fans are unaware of? And if this goal was part of the larger vision – would your top customers be excited?

In their highly successful book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras coined the term BHAG. To put it simply, a Big Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG) is used to get you out of thinking too small.

One of the most notable and iconic BHAGs is President Kennedy’s 1961 famous declaration: “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” The result, of course, was a historic moon landing in 1969.

Granted, the USA Soccer Federation could set a BHAG to win a World Cup by the year X. (Oh wait, they’ve done that before, and we’re past that date.) So, let’s try something different.

What about a Vision/Mission instead? Let’s look at the most valued company in the world, Apple. Apple’s vision is “We believe that we are on the face of this Earth to make great products, and that’s not changing” – Tim Cook, 2019.

The Vision should be one like above. One that rallies and unites your employees and your customers!

So, I will put below two versions from two different USA Sports Federations. Then, I will leave it to you to see what resonates with you most; which is more inspiring? And which sport does that mission belong to – NO GOOGLE ALLOWED 😊.

Mission Statements

  1. USA X sets out to encourage a culture of “X for life,” where whether as players, coaches, officials, or fans of the game, people will be inspired to continue their participation in the game in some way throughout their whole life.
  2. The Federation’s mission statement has been clear and straightforward: to make Y, in all its forms, the preeminent sport in the United States and to continue the development of Y at all recreational and competitive levels.

I’d love your comments – What Vision above do you think leads to Greater Outcomes and Why? 

I hope you find what I contribute to be thought-provoking as we explore ways to offer consultative guidance to the USA Men’s National Team to improve Customer Experience. Perhaps, it’s even therapeutic as we watch other countries play the beautiful game as the World Cup continues, and our dream of seeing the USA play in the round of 4 continues to be just that – a dream.

Paul Peterson, Soccer, USMNT

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