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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Panama Beats U.S. 2-1 in Soccer; They Must Have a Half Dozen Soccer Equivalents of Mariano Rivera, Don't They?

Read about the one step forward, two-plus step backwards approach that U.S.A. Soccer seems to be taking here. And then ask yourself the question: why is this sport so frustrating for a nation of 310 million people that has citizens who can solve many complex problems and that mustered the ingenuity, among other things, to build one big ship a day during WWII (courtesy of Henry Kaiser)?

Is soccer big in your area? Many kids play it, because at a young age it doesn't involve the investment in football equipment or the potential for bad injuries. It doesn't involve the hand-eye coordination of baseball, and at a young age when kids pitch either they stand around and get walked or cannot get the bat off their shoulders when facing the best kid. So, they get bored. Lacrosse and ice hockey are expensive, too, the former in terms of equipment and the latter in terms of paying for both equipment and ice time. Basketball, to me, is a winner, because the kids at the youngest ages get equal playing time and get to run around. Soccer, then, is similar.

A one-time U.S. coach offered that the training in the U.S. is so regimented that the country is "a nation of midfielders." What's clear is that the country has had significant problems developing strikers, and there appears to be a dearth of talent at the highest levels, so much so that the U.S. soccer powers that be have scoured the world looking for dual citizens who somehow live and play in another country but will be eligible to play for Team U.S.A. It's almost as though they've posted a neon sign that exclaims: "If you can play striker and have U.S. citizenship, apply immediately."

Why is the U.S. having so much trouble?

There are several explanations:

1. Soccer remains a secondary sport in this country. Sure, there is a groundswell of fans in various places, but there aren't as many as there are for professional football, college football, baseball, college basketball and, yes, even pro basketball and pro ice hockey. As a result, despite the outstanding play and money in England and Spain, among other places, it just doesn't get the play here. In almost any other country, soccer is the thing. Not here.

2. The best athletes in the U.S. do not play soccer. They play anything but. That's the simplest answer to why the U.S. isn't better, but if you were to take Derrick Rose or Chris Paul and have had them play soccer, I have little doubt that they might be on par with the Kakas and Messis of the world, and their height would give them an advantage. That supposition also assumes that there would be some many good athletes playing the sport that the competition -- formally and informally (in pickup games) would be so good that the U.S. would continue to develop outstanding players. So, even if one Derrick Rose-caliber athlete were to play soccer, I don't think that would be the answer for the U.S., as it wouldn't appear that we have the systems in place -- or the competition -- to hone the skills of such a high-level athlete (I'll explain soon enough).

3. The reason for the hypothesis at the end of paragraph 2 is that if you had Rose-caliber athletes playing, presumably they'd be working out on their own -- on playgrounds -- to create, to work on their individual skills, to improvise. This happens all over the world, especially with kids who have a passion for the game or a drive to get out of some pretty poor living situations (that said, Kaka's father is a fairly well-to-do engineer in Brazil). But the fact remains that they play "pick-up" soccer in many countries, and it doesn't seem that they do so here. The demands are great, but the creativity isn't. It's good that Claudio Reyna has taken up a sizeable role in U.S.A. soccer, because he once remarked that the didn't want his kids to play organized soccer here because it was too regimented and stymied the creativity that makes players all over the world great. That's something that the powers that be need to chew on.

4. The U.S. had made advances, but I don't think that the U.S. will significantly improve its stature until you have about 30-40 players playing in the top leagues in Europe. Once that happens, then you'd have some serious competition for the national team that might lead to a Final Four appearance in the World Cup. If you looked at the roster that Spain fielded against the U.S. a few weeks ago in a friendly match, the players either played for Barcelona or Real Madrid, two of the best teams in the world. The U.S. might have a player or two on a top team, but none are stars. The Spanish team is loaded with them.

5. So what's the solution? First, recruit athletes who might opt for other sports, such as football. Small running backs might get some glory in high school, but a 5'7", 165 pound kid with quick feet and great moves in traffic might play soccer for money into his early 30's. He might be done after high school. Second, recruit athletes beyond what seems to be the traditional vineyards -- the middle class. Try to recruit kids from a broader economic spectrum -- that might help. Third, change training methods. What has been going on hasn't been working. Find a nation that has been more successful, study why, and see what the U.S. can implement that might work. For example, a recent article in the Sunday New York Times wrote about the Dutch system, which, while flawed in certain ways, doesn't overwork its young players and nurtures them until they're ready for the big time. Fourth, it's not totally about the money. I'm sure that wealthy donors can help fortify the U.S. national program with the best of everything, but that's not enough. The leaders need to be more creative and think out of the box about how to get going -- and that means more than looking for expatriated U.S. citizens to return.

This is a big opportunity for the right leadership. Right now, U.S.A. Soccer will tout the virtues of MLS (which does have its diehards), but, let's face it, it's not a Major League product along the lines of the best leagues in England, France, Spain and Germany (I'll include Italy, too, but I'm mindful that corruption over the years has made it pretty hard for teams not named A.C. Milan and Juventus not to win, although Inter Milan and AS Roma have fared well on occasion).

I like soccer. It's a great game, but U.S. fans should be critical of the sport and the product the way they can be of everything else. And that criticism isn't meant to bury the sport because it might threaten the "traditional" sports. Nope, it's not. It's mean to challenge the powers that be to piece together the best thinking of other national powers to come up with a feeder system that can help make the U.S. preeminent.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is fascinating that a nation of 310 million cannot defeat in soccer a nation of 3 million. Even if 99% of our best athletes are playing other sports, we should still be on equal footing with Panama.

To me, it's almost a point of pride that we are terrible in soccer. It's much different today but the original reason why the rest of the world embraced soccer while we did not is entirely economic.

As you point out, soccer is cheap, cheap, cheap to play. In the days after World War II, the rest of world couldn't afford baseball, football, basketball or hockey even if they had an interest (which they did not), only soccer. We could afford all of them, diluting our efforts in soccer tremendously.

Now of course, the rest of the world is much richer on a relative basis and our school kids grow up playing soccer, but it's too late in the competitive arc of the sport's development. In the US, it's lacrosse and even more niche sports which are growing in popularity; soccer is in a perpetual holding pattern despite the best efforts of many of its supporters and promoters.

Someday soon, when all of our basic manufacturing is done in China and the lower half of our workforce endures perpetual low wages and high unemployment, we can at least look with pride at our complete lack of skills in soccer as a warm reminder of the recent history when the US economic machine ruled supreme.

3:36 PM  

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