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Stop Trying to Be Goliath – Be David Instead

By Paul Peterson

What a Final Game!  As many of us suffer withdrawal from the World Cup, I am hoping that this post with the USA Soccer Federation as our “Lab Study” will help us in our own businesses as we close out 2022 and look to the future.

We can agree that many people believe the best way to succeed in business is to “Get Bigger”.   In some cases, absolutely, economies of scale matter to execute the strategies of companies like Amazon and WalMart.  But, often, as in the case of many of us who compete against much larger companies, adopting the “Get Bigger” strategy may be harmful to achieving success.

Let’s apply “Big” as a comparison of the USA and its population relative to those of the 8 countries below listed largest to least of the World Cup Quarterfinals:

  • Brazil 216 million
  • France 65 million
  • England 56 million
  • Argentina 46 million
  • Morocco 38 million
  • Netherlands 18 million
  • Portugal 10 million
  • Croatia 4 million

Based on above – “Bigger is Better” is not necessarily true for World Cup Success.  Furthermore, could it be a disadvantage?  The USA’s population is 330 million.  You may have heard this said, “How can the USA Men not be better – we can’t find a scorer out of 330 million people?”

Let’s reflect again on the USA Soccer Federation’s mission of wanting to be the #1 sport in the USA.  Is their focus on defining size as success leading them down the wrong path? Is the USA’s reputation (as a Leader throughout the world in many other areas) negatively influencing the US Soccer Federation to act like Goliath, when instead they should act more like David? Please take note I am slanting this discussion to USA Men’s Soccer, as the Women’s USA Soccer team has had incredible success and deserves even more recognition for building the growing soccer base in America.

I absolutely love Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “David and Goliath”.  Let’s reference below a few key points from his book:

  • “Underdogs win all the time. Why, then, are we so shocked every time a David beats a Goliath? Why do we automatically assume that someone who is smaller or poorer or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage?” (Gladwell, 54)
  • “There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources—and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former” (Gladwell, 61).
  • “It is easier and far more satisfying to retreat and compose yourself after every score— and execute perfectly choreographed plays—than to swarm about, arms flailing, and contest every inch of the basketball court. Underdog strategies are hard” (Gladwell, 81).

The USA is a Goliath in terms of population and economy size compared to above, but USA Soccer is still an Underdog and far from a Goliath on the Men’s World Soccer stage.

Gladwell’s reference to the absence of material resources is every bit as equal as having material resources seems to highlight one of USA Soccer’s weaknesses.  As someone who grew up playing soccer, coaching soccer and observing my children in the USA soccer system, I have witnessed the trend towards a system that has become increasingly complex to navigate, costly and highly structured.  Many within the soccer community feel this way too.  Have you recently watched youth practices?  Why do we care how they execute throw-ins and corner kicks over just playing to play?  With as much time our soccer kids have spent on the soccer field trying to master set plays, it’s astonishing our US Men’s Team didn’t execute one successfully during the World Cup, sorry I digress.

Adopting “David-like” qualities will help our players spend less time in choreographed playing and more time playing free, swarming about, as Gladwell suggests.  Maybe less traveling to places not even our GPS’s locate correctly.  What if instead that was time on the ball instead of time wasted in a car or on a plane!

More importantly the system is an inefficient use of the greatest resource we currently don’t have enough of, Time.  This is where there is a HUGE Blindspot!  It’s not just the cost that is a prohibitor.  It’s the fact that one needs a lot of time to meet the needs of a soccer player today.  What do you do if you are a single Mom or Dad and have multiple children.  What if both parents have multiple jobs that have required onsite shifts, on and on we can go.

The fear of being left out of the system has created an enormous market for business focused on soccer in the USA.  Our economic access to resources has created an unfair “pay to play” system that one would argue is a reason for why it’s not translating to success.  I hope this further helps you see why the Soccer Federation’s mission is wrong of wanting to be the preeminent sport in the USA.  The current soccer system in place isn’t equitably accessible to all of the USA’s 330 million people.  It doesn’t work for a large portion of their potential customer base.

Not everyone has the resources, but the USA soccer system is titled to those who do.  The irony is when you look at the success of the 1994 World Cup it was the lack of a formal system that helped build their success, where a nucleus of key players grew up playing together and against each other in local NJ communities.

When you think of David slinging that stone at Goliath, you conjure up a picture in your mind an image of David, an identity.  Successful underdogs have an incredible way of differentiating themselves from the pack.  For David, his identity is one of bravery, of courage.  The only one willing to stand up to take on the massive Goliath.  In a competitive marketplace, we all need to find ways to build an identity.  Same for USA Men’s soccer.  What is their identity?

The USA Soccer Federation wants soccer to be the preeminent sport in the USA, yet why are they not embedding American values into its identity.  Where is the style?  What is the Brand?

Let’s change this misdirected mission to build a truly unique USA Men’s Soccer Brand based on the ideals of American culture:

  • Opportunity – providing access to All should be the absolute number one Value Driver – this is the American Dream after all
    • Apply the concept of Creative Destruction
      • Break the current structure – shift resources from less effective programs to create new ones to produce more productive ones – put an end to the pay to play system
    • Innovation and Risk-taking
      • Experiment with different formations and systems to develop a unique system that others find extremely hard to replicate
    • Build a culture rooted in Creativity
      • Develop an attack-minded system that’s built on open-mindedness and freedom to make mistakes

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to use the USA Soccer Federation as our “Lab Study” to look at ways we can even potentially employ in our own businesses to evolve as we close out 2022.  For those of you who currently have children playing soccer, I hope you soon will see more of your children swarming around and playing the beautiful game freely and creatively.  May it lead to having more players up front trying to score and less players standing around in the back afraid to cross over the midfield line like British Soldiers during the Revolution.  Have they even been taught that the basic premise of soccer is to score more goals than the other team?

Here’s to Winning in 2023 and beyond!

Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Peterson, USMNT, World Cup

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