When it comes to sports the USA holds a candle to none. We as a country have some, if not the, best athletes in the world. No matter the sport we are usually the best and the Olympics usually proves that, and by the end of the the Rio Olympics we will prove yet again that we are the best. The US is always up there when it comes to medal count no matter if it is winter or summer Olympics. While the above statements are true for just about everything, there is still that sport that is played with your feet that we as Americans seem to be far from figuring out. Some call it football, or fútbol , or voetbal, or Fußball, or knattspyrna, or calcio, but we in the states call it soccer. And not matter how you say it we are terrible at it.
Okay okay okay, we are not terrible, BUT I will say that despite having so much success in so many other sports why does the world’s most powerful nation economically, politically, and athletically struggle so much with soccer. In the following paragraphs I am going to outline why I think the US has not been good and will probably continue to struggle in the near and distant future at trying to become a powerful soccer nation.
First, I would like to give you my credentials so you can at least know that what I am saying makes some degree of sense. I played soccer for over 15 years. My mother signed me up when I was 6 years old, contrary to my screaming and yelling that I did not want to play. From then on I was enamored with the sport and spent every waking moment playing. I started varsity as a freshmen in high school, was all state my senior year and eventually received a scholarship to play in college at a Division I program. I have played at the top amateur level so, not trying to brag, but I know, understand, and can read the game. I also follow my favorite team and listen to a podcast and they often discuss much of the inner workings that go on in professional football across the pond. I am by no means an expert but I know when something is good and I can tell when something is bad.
So what is wrong with the United States Men’s National Team? (I am going to limit this to the men’s team as the women’s has won two World Cups. Women’s sports are different and what works for them will not work for the men’s team.) The question is as broad as it is long and there is no real one fix all that will all of a sudden make the US great.
To start I want to lay down a few ground thoughts and rules. First soccer is a skill sport, in some respects like golf or pitching in baseball. It does not take an overwhelming degree of athleticism, but that does not mean that soccer players are not athletic. They can be both, but having a skillful player that lacks athleticism will not hurt a player. The point I am trying to make is that some people think that the reasons we lose is because we don’t have Lebron James, Dewane Wade, or Calvin Johnson out on the pitch. This is by far the dumbest, most stupidest argument that I have ever, and continue to hear, about why the US is not good or dominate at soccer. This makes no sense whatsoever and I will tell you why.
Explain to me how a bunch of guys who weight north of 230 pounds or more and who are all 6 feet 4 inches or taller are going to give us an advantage in a game where the ball is almost always on the ground, and the average player runs more than 8 miles in a game? Please explain? We would win all the headers. Great point, I am glad you brought that up. So we would dominate a very small, very minute, portion of the game, that makes sense. That is like saying that we put together the best team of free throw shooters the world has ever seen, how can we possible lose, this team would win every basketball game ever, they would never miss a free throw. DUMB!! Don’t get me wrong these individuals are exceptional athletes, but I do not think they would be able to do anything on a soccer field. Their weight alone is working against them. Name one true endurance athlete that weighs more than 200 pounds. Think of how skinny the professional marathon runners are, they have almost no excess weight or body fat. Now tell me of any other top professional soccer player that is above 6 ft 3. I can only think of a handful, Peter Crouch (6ft 7in) comes to mind and while he is good, he is far from an international superstar. Crouch is an English and he has played for his country 42 times scoring 22 goals. While that is solid and noteworthy, I wonder why the English coaches and staff have not sought out other 6ft 7in players to all play on their national team? Maybe it is because there is no advantage to being tall on the football pitch. Zalatan is also another as he is 6’5. He is arguably one of the best strikers in the world, but I would say that he is the exception rather than the rule.
At one time about 3 to four years ago Spain was the most dominate team, and to be honest were one of the best I have ever seen in terms of their midfield and keeping possession. Their midfield consisted of Xavi Alanso (6ft), Xavi (5’7), Andres Insetia (5’7), Pedro (5’5), and Cesc Fabergas (5’9), which is one of the best I have seen in a long time, and some say could be one of the best ever. Again at one time this midfield was the best in the world yet only of those players was 6 ft tall. How can that be, they guys are so short how are they good? Well again height has nothing to do with being good at soccer, it is about skill and these 4 individuals had unparalleled skill, that is why they were so good. So you see having a team of Lebron James would be a terrible idea.
In no particular order some of the best players in the world are Paul Pogba 6’3, Christiano Ronaldo 6’1, Gareth Bale 6’0, Messi 5’7, Neymar 5’9, Thomas Muller 6’1, Luis Suarez 6’0. All of these individuals are about 6 ft tall or shorter. So again I do not think there is any advantage to being tall. The aerial aspect of the game is such a small portion that having all taller players is not a good strategy.
Therein lies another problem that Americans have, and that is what I call the “American mindset” when it comes to sports. This mindset works for almost all other sports, which is why it is engrained in our brains. Always thinking that we just need to be bigger, faster, and stronger, then we will win, that is the American way, that is what we have always done. We just need better athletes. Well as I said soccer is not about athleticism, it is about skill. In basketball and football, and in certain positions baseball, athleticism is king. Having the best athletes certainly, can no doubt increase your chances of having a great team and winning. Even when you lack a bit of skill just out athlete them, this happens a lot in basketball and to an extent football. But this is near impossible to do in soccer. I have never ever seen a team out athlete a better more skillful team at the professional level. Now upsets do happen, but this can be mostly attributed to tactics or the more skillful team playing poorly. It is very rare, if not extremely rare for a team to out athlete another better most skillful soccer team.
We have already established that soccer is a skill sport and to me the first and most important thing I see is the overall skill level when you compare players from other countries to ours, and that gap is enormous. When you compare Ronaldo and Messi to Bradley or Dempsy there is such a discrepancy in skill that it is almost laughable. Recently I watched the US play Argentina in the Copa America Centenario. I predicted a 4-0 loss, and that is exactly what we lost by. Don’t get me wrong Argentina is one of the best teams in the world so I think the score line is about right. Sometimes when teams, especially in soccer, beat another team I ask, were they 2 or 3 goals better than we were? In this case YES, Argentina was 4 goals better than we were, and it could have easily been more.
So what makes them that much better? Well as I mentioned it is their skill. One way to see how much more skill another player has is by their first touch. While watching the US Argentina game I noticed that our players were taking two and three sometimes four touches to control a pass. This is detrimental to any sort of tactics that the US was trying to levy. Taking that many touches to control a pass makes it much harder if not impossible to maintain possession and build an attack. While our players were trying string a few passes together Argentina midfielders found it easy to come in and win a tackle or simply push us off the ball while we were trying to control it. Our lack of skill as an entire team is one of the main reasons the USMNT has not been able to have success on the world level.
Another problem I see is that soccer in America is an elitist sport for the most part, but I think this is somewhat changing. I have not been involved in youth soccer for some time so it is hard to say either way. What I do know is that when I played on my traveling team my family was a middle class working family, pretty normal certainly not the 1%. I would not classify myself as rich, but I was not poor either. However, those that I played with were certainly on the upper side of the middle class and some could even be considered rich. There were 18 and 19 year old kids that would drive their new Volvos, BMW’s or Mercedes to practice. Also another thing that I am sure is mostly the norm everywhere is that they all went to private schools. These schools also happened to be the most expensive in the state. This was the same for the other traveling teams in the city as well, that is why I say that soccer in the US is an elitist sport. Yes some of these traveling teams try to find the immigrants in the city and get them to play, but for the most part the average player on these teams were rich kids who all went to private schools.
Now think of the contrast between that and how major universities find division I football and basketball players. Some not all of these top top athletes come from extremely poor athletes and coaches and scouts always seem to find these guys. Now again we are taking about two different types of athletes. Finding the next 6’6 320 pound defensive end is not necessary what a soccer scout is looking for. Some of this also comes down to money. Football and Basketball programs have a lot more money to spend on recruiting. They can host any number of camps and fly across the country to see a kid they heard about or what have you. I would imagine that and soccer program has about 1/10th the resources the football program has at a university. So coaches have to maximize their scouting to regional and national tournaments where they can see many traveling teams and players at once. And as I mentioned above who is one these teams, rich private schooled kids for the most part.
I will say that football and basketball traveling teams have done a much better job and finding the poorer or less financially stable athletes and developing them into big time players. I think soccer needs to do this as well. Finding the inner city immigrants is a good place to start as they already have a passion for the game as it is engrained into their culture. The problem with this is that it is easier to develop a 6’8 guy to play basketball even if he has never played before, than it is to take a 10 year old kid and develop them into a soccer star. Again it is hard to teach and develop these skills in a player as they get older.
Lastly I will also say that our amateur system that we have set up has also hurt our progress. Every other country that is successful at soccer has a very intricate and lucrative professional system set up. It is somewhat equivalent to the baseball farm system that is in place with the MLB, AAA, and AA teams. There is no shortage of players that the top professional teams can pick from. There is not a system like this in place for soccer. But I will say that there are more and more minor league teams popping up and it is becoming more popular, which is can only help things. Money is the key here, if these minor league teams can become more and more successful, then that could result in money in the system which could help produce better players for the national team.
So there you have it, these are the reasons I think the USMNT is not very good at the game of soccer. I could offer my solutions but that is a mess that I really do not have a viable solution to. There are simply too many problems to combat, and frankly I think that there is a good argument that for other reasons as well as the ones listed above we will never be an elite soccer country. Which is on swift kick…right in the crotch.