A few weeks ago on June 21st the United States Men’s National Soccer Team got beaten pretty handily but the Argentinian National Team in the Copa America. This wasn’t a surprise to me or to anyone who follows soccer.
After the defeat, soccer fans and columnists started the post mortem. My friend, who’s not a big soccer fan, texted me and asked, “why aren’t we very good?” Another friend, who is a big soccer fan, wanted the US Men’s Team coach Jurgen Klinsman to be fired. I read a few articles saying that Klinsman has not been worth the money we’re paying him. Others blamed the team selection.
We can debate this as much as we’d like but the fact is, we’re just not that good and I don’t think we will be in my lifetime.
Two quick things: one, yes I know this is harsh and, two, I’m speaking only of the men’s national team in this article. Our women are and will continue to be a world power, arguably the best, but I’ll get to that later.
Soccer is simply not an American game. There’s no way around that. And, yes, I will be calling it soccer (the official name of the sport is Association Football and “soccer” actually comes from the “soc” in Association) as I am an American and Americans who call Association Football “football” are a little too pretentious for my taste.
Football existed in Europe in many different forms for many centuries. In the book Those Feet, author David Winner describes a centuries old soccer and rugby amalgam game played at Eton College called the Field Game. It consisted of kicking and heading a ball but also dribbling, tackling and something similar to a rugby scrum. It’s only one example of many different kinds of football. Eventually, in the late 1800’s, the rules were codified establishing both Rugby Football and Association Football.
Now, we in America have our football, American football, the one with the gridiron, the helmets, the pads, and the oblong pigskin ball. I can only assume that it comes from the primordial football ooze that predates the codified rules. I’m sure that other footballs like Gaelic Football and Australian Rules Football emerged from that same place, with different countries acting like the islands of Galapagos in football evolution.
My father once related something that he heard from a soccer coach in Rochester. The coach said put a European kid in a gym with a ball, he’ll kick it agains the wall. Put an American in that same gyn and he’ll pick the ball up and shoot baskets. We play our sports with our hands. It’s not a coincidence that the most successful Americans in the Premier League have been goalkeepers.
In the U.S., soccer will always be seen in relation to American football. It will be seen as an import and a weak, boring import at that. There are three things that are hampering us relative to the rest of the world with regards to soccer. It’s our attitude towards the game, our youth development, and our league. I don’t see how we will ever be a world power if we don’t resolve these three things.
Soccer is cute here. It’s a safe, egalitarian game where lots of children get to play. It’s the sport your mom lets you play because she’s too scared you’ll get hurt playing football or hockey. In How Soccer Explains the World, author Franklin Foer said that his parents didn’t care for him playing basketball as it was a little too… urban (wink).
It’s not cute in other countries. Vinnie Jones and Gordon Ramsey, a professional tough guy and a professional asshole, respectively, were soccer players in England and Scotland. In America, I was mocked for playing soccer by the football players, the real men playing the real man’s sport. In England, the soccer players are the bullies. While the soccer player as thug phenomenon may be unique to Great Britain and while we should not aspire to be bullies in order to lend legitimacy to a sport, it speaks volumes about how we perceive the game. In other countries, soccer players haven’t chosen the skillful, thinking man’s sport. They’ve chosen the blood, sweat, and tears sport.
If you doubt the cuteness of the sport here, consider the phenomenon of the soccer mom. There is no such thing as a soccer mom in other countries. In England, if the soccer mom were to exist, she would be the woman who can headbutt the hardest at the local pub. It’s not a woman in a minivan with orange slices.
The other obstacle to Americans embracing soccer is that, culturally, we do not like ambiguity. We’re a can-do people obsessed with rugged individualism. There is no such thing as a problem without a solution. So, if you notice, with our top three sports – football, baseball, and basketball – the viewer knows exactly what is going on at every point in the game. In football, at any given moment, you know what down it is, your exact position on the field. You even keep track of what kind of score you need in the upcoming plays in order to win the game making it easy to anticipate the kind of play that is coming next. In baseball, you know which inning, which batter, how many pitches have been thrown and, among those, how many for balls and how many for strikes. You know the position of the players on the bases and in the field. It is an incredibly stat-heavy game. We eat it up. Basketball, the most fluid American game, is still similar. A team with possession is timed before they have to shoot so they get on with it. You know how long they have to accomplish that because of the shot clock. Each player has a number of points, assists, rebounds, turnovers, and fouls. There is a steady stream of data being fed to the viewers.
This isn’t the case with soccer. There are stats, I guess – shots and shots on goal, percentage of completed passes, or time of possession – but ultimately, you have to watch the game and get a feel for it. And games can end in a draw. In other words, no winner. That is enough to make an American’s head spin.
No, seriously, who won?
So, extra time then?
Because it’s a draw.
Yeah, but… who won? There has to be a winner. Over time. Sudden death over time! Golden goal! Penalty kicks, come on, who won?!
I see this attitude when I watch soccer with my non-soccer watching friends during the World Cup or any major tournament. Americans who don’t watch the game always know “what’s wrong with it” and they know just how to fix it. “Ah, here’s the problem, we need more refs and instant replays for better calls. Also, there should be stiffer penalties for diving. And more timeouts. And what about playoffs? No playoffs? Wow, there’s a lot of work we need to do to fix this game.”
The game doesn’t need to be fixed. The rules are fine. Billions of people play it just as it is. We’re the ones that are out of step. We’re the only country in the world who plays from the end of spring to the beginning of fall. Why do we do that?
Probably because it’s just not an American game.
There are pockets of passionate soccer fandom in the United States. This is true. Unfortunately, though, if you’re a soccer fan in the U.S. there is probably one of two explanations. You are either an upper middle class white person or you are only a generation or two removed from Africa, Europe, or South America. I, for example, am both. I’m a middle class white guy with a British father. When I was a kid, I enjoyed the skill of soccer and, if I’m really honest with myself, the subtle snobbery of it. Yes. I follow English soccer. It’s hard to get here, not a lot of people know about it. My team? It’s Tottenham Hotspur. No, not Tot-en-HAM, it’s pronounced more like TOT-num. You’ve only heard of Manchester United? Well, Tottenham is a storied club…
You get the idea.
Our Youth Program
In a recent CNN article, Jurgen Klinsmann said “The foundation in the United States is still fragile and disconnected compared to other countries,” he said. “The youth leagues do their own thing, the professional system is not really connected to the amateur system, and that’s not really connected to the college system.”
In another article that asks Why Can’t The U.S. Soccer Have Its Own LeBron James? we see how out of step we are with the rest of the world. In the United States, with our sports, college plays a pivotal role. Whether it’s Ohio State football or Duke Basketball, there are elite programs that athletes want to get into in order to get drafted. Our collegiate sports are a de facto minor league. So, it only makes sense that we would want our soccer to be in a similar mode.
There’s only one problem. In Europe there are youth academies for professional soccer clubs. Kids are scouted at 10, 11, 12 years old. (This certainly has its downside but that’s a topic for another conversation.) There’s even the possibility of playing professional, first team soccer as early as 16. The college model works well with our other sports but a even a soccer player attending an elite program like UVA is years behind his counterparts in the rest of the world.
When I was in high school, six kids from Ukraine moved to my city. They were all in the youth development program of Dynamo Kiev. Four of them played on one high school’s team and they won the championship.
The above article talks about how our most promising young star, Christian, Pulisic, moved to Germany at 15 to further his soccer career. The fact the he moved to Europe at that age and the fact that he is our most promising star is not a coincidence.
I keep hearing the idea that since we have such a huge amount of children playing the game that we will eventually be a great team. The problem is not that we play the game, it’s how we play the game. Young children chasing the ball in what looks like a little scrum isn’t going to create world class players. In the Netherlands they don’t let children play eleven on eleven games, it’s pointless. They focus on skill building.
Unless we change the attitude towards the sport that I spoke about above, the number of children playing the game is irrelevant. Uruguay has won the world cup twice. (Yes, they won it in 1930 and 1950 but it’s twice more than our men ever have.) That’s a country of three million people. That’s Chicago. Recently, a nation smaller than Brooklyn – Iceland – beat the country that arguably invented the game – England. It’s not quantity, it’s quality. And how do we get quality? Frankly, kids have to want it. They have to see it as their ticket to a career, to glory, to making something of himself (if it’s herself, it would appear she already sees it that way but we’ll get to that later).
To return to the CNN article again: “Klinsmann talks often about self-motivation and how he wishes American players could do more on their own to improve their games — something he senses is in abundance when it comes to basketball, with widespread hunger for success in the game. That inner drive, he says, is the key to success for top soccer players everywhere in the world.” Of the best players in the world, Klinsmann says, “They were absolutely driven to become the best players at every level along the way, and were never satisfied. I’m not sure if the United States has developed that mindset yet.”
Also, as this Guardian piece shows, it’s still a rich white kid sport. The middle class is not where great athletes are born. Maradona, Zidane, Ronaldo (both of them), Messi, they were playing soccer as their ticket out. Until we have kids playing soccer as their ticket out, we won’t be seriously competitive.
I think that drive would come if we had a world class league. Kids could choose soccer as a sport to pursue the way they might choose football or basketball or baseball. I think that, right now, a promising young athlete doesn’t see that path as clearly.
The amount of hype around the NFL, the NBA, and MLB is what drives our kids to work hard to compete at the highest level. The McDonald’s All-American Game, The Final Four, all of those damn Bowl games that I never watch, the drafts, it all funnels up to the ultimate goal of playing in the big leagues, going to the show. The MLS doesn’t have that and, currently, our best soccer players don’t play for the highest powers in the biggest leagues in the world. So, for the average American kid, how enticing is it to be told that, should he play his cards right, he might one day find himself in the Belgian first division playing for Anderlecht, much like Dutch legend Rob Rensenbrink!
Call it the laissez faire capitalism theory of sports but competition will breed the best athletes. The average kid in Great Britain will work tirelessly to be the next star of Manchester United just as a kid here will work tirelessly to be the next LeBron James.
And, unfortunately, the MLS is still a retirement home for aging European stars. David Villa, Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo may pay lip service to the MLS being a great league but none of them would have player here in their prime.
It’s a paradox. We need our league to be world class in order to get kids excited about soccer but we won’t ever have a world class league without our players becoming world class by playing in Europe. That’s Jurgen Klinsmann’s philosophy and I agree, though, that attitude is the reason Abby Wambach want’s him fired.
And speaking of Abby Wambach…
Here I am talking about America and why our culture is so ill-equipped for soccer and yet, our women are the best in the world. Why is that? First, as the LeBron James article mentions, the rest of the world isn’t as developed in the women’s game. But, more importantly, I think it’s because women don’t play American football. Soccer is the most aggressive team sport available to women (no offense to the WNBA) so it attracts athletes who play with passion, who have that necessary drive. Our women’s national team gives us a glimpse into that oft wondered scenario “what if all of our best athletes played soccer?”
I don’t think our men’s team will be seriously competitive in my lifetime. A lot needs to change. Perhaps concussions and injuries will hasten the decline of American Football. Maybe that would be a prime time for soccer to take over. It’s possible but I’m not holding my breath.