American Observation: Why Aren’t We Better at Men’s Soccer?

Sports and competitiveness are as American as it gets. We invented major sports and excel in most. We’re the best in the world at basketball, football (American style), baseball (barely), golf and several Olympic sports. Thanks to our neighbors to the North, we’re a close second in hockey, but that hasn’t stopped us from having the greatest hockey league in the world. So why does a country of 300+ million, one with unrivaled financial resources and dominant in so many sports, fall short in soccer, the world’s most popular sport? For many countries, being a Top 25 team would be an honor. But we are not most countries, dammit, we are America and we’ve never won the World Cup! We didn’t even qualify this year. Our best professional league is where washed up international players go to get paid for the final years of their career (aka, the Washington Redskins of professional soccer leagues). How is this possible? Many point the finger at the culture of the game. There are too many draws. Not enough scoring. Acting that would make William Shakespeare himself proud after average physical contact to the torso. Though those are interesting points, they are lazy explanations for a somewhat complex issue. Let’s examine.

1) Who the hell is that? Young American boys do not have an iconic American soccer athlete to emulate. That’s how all major sports gained their sustainable momentum in this country. It takes the right person, a once in a lifetime talent like Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. We have yet to see that larger than life athlete in American soccer. I’m not talking Landon freaking Donovan. I’m talking Pele, Maradona, Messi, Beckham, Ronaldo. Until we see our version of these greats, corporate sponsorship and television dollars will continue to merely drip into the sport. As a result, interest will only peak every fourth summer. Why have we not yet seen these American born superstars on “the pitch?” I have no evidence of my stance (relax it’s a blog), but my sense is that the answer falls within my final two points.  

2) America, we have grooming issues. There are college and minor league baseball teams that can beat some of the best international players in the world. They start young, gain the attention of thousands of amateur and professional scouts, and are groomed to succeed at the professional level. Major League Baseball teams dump millions into their farm systems to filter out the good and promote the great. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) has been around for 130+ years and is the pinnacle of development for young athletes in many sports. Click on AAU’s website and soccer doesn’t even have its own header on the home page (martial arts, volleyball and wresting made the cut).  We have an excellent youth soccer footprint in America. It’s one of, if not the most popular organized sport amongst children. But it falls flat at the amateur level. It requires strategic vision and investment equal to or greater than that of other major sports, which brings me to my final point.

3) Options, options and more options. As I’ve said, sports and competitiveness are as American as it gets, sometimes to our detriment (Google Penn State, Lance Armstrong or Steroids in Baseball). But if sport is a fast food restaurant, baseball, football and basketball are the burgers, fries and chicken nuggets, while soccer is the fish sandwich. Basketball shares the most similarities with soccer and is also its greatest competition for young male athletes in America. Both require tremendous athleticism, endurance and skill to play both sides of the ball, constant movement, length and a level of cohesion with teammates that is more prevalent than in many other sports. It’s also incredibly easy to pick up a ball and dribble around with your friends for the hell of it. If somehow soccer can tap into the talent pool of young American basketball players, there would be a higher probability of finding the next (or first) great American soccer superstar. Imagine for a moment Kevin Love as Goalkeeper, Russell Westbook and Kyrie Irving as Forwards, and LeBron James heading the ball towards the net. United States 6, Iceland 0. Until the day comes, we’ll have to settle for Top 25 in the world. What an American problem to have.

Disclaimer: The women’s national team is about as good as it gets.

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