Fourth and Twenty-Six: Soccer in America, and why we stink

In Brazil and other countries around the world, soccer is the go-to sport for restless youth.
In Brazil and other countries around the world, soccer is the go-to sport for kids. Credit: Flickr user Lucas Ninno

Just a quick note before I start: this was intended to be a Philadelphia sports column. But at the moment, the city’s sports landscape is in a bit of a lull. Sure, I could write about Mike Vick and his new contract or Andrew Bynum and his knees, but I sense we need a break from football, and the Bynum situation is too murky to draw any real conclusions.

Baseball is on the horizon, and is the likely subject of the column in two weeks’ time, but it doesn’t feel right to talk about green grass, cloudless skies, and 70-degree weather when I look up to see a thermometer that reads 26.4. So without further ado…

Reach into your memory. Look back six or seven months, and look across the Atlantic. In August 2012, the world’s best athletes descended upon London for the Olympic Games, the greatest collection of sporting events in the world as we know it. In between the spectacles of the opening and closing ceremonies, competition was heated, sportsmanship was exemplary, and world champions were crowned.

And no country was home to more of these glorious and triumphant competitors than the United States of America. No country won more gold medals, no country won more silver medals, and — yep, you guessed it — no country won more bronze medals. But furthermore, this is nothing out of the ordinary — it’s become the norm. From Michael Phelps to Jacob Varner, from LeBron James to Ashton Eaton, the Olympic Games put on display countless examples that support an almost indisputable argument: overall, the U.S. produces the best athletes on the planet.

There are a number of important contributing factors, including the country’s size, population and resources. Dominance has become the expectation, and athletes in the major sports — basketball, baseball, and hockey — have met that mark; and that’s not to mention American football, which bears our country’s name for a reason. But you’re probably aware by now that there’s a glaring omission from that list: the world’s game. The beautiful game. Soccer.

The U.S. has rarely been competitive on the world soccer scene, and failed to even qualify for the London Games. Nations like Romania, Montenegro, Mali, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Norway and Ecuador currently rank ahead of the Yanks in FIFA’s World Rankings. So the question is straightforward and succinct: why haven’t we caught on?

The answer is less simple. Despite some popular beliefs, the answer does not lie in teenage development academies. It cannot be found in American coaching, or a supposedly soccer-averse American mindset — in fact, soccer is the second most popular sport in our country within the younger generation (24 and under).

The answer conceals itself where you would least expect it. It lies in poor neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago; it goes to sleep every night at sunset in the overshadowed and overlooked areas of east L.A., and awakens at sunrise in north Philly. It manifests itself in the 7-year-old kid who plays basketball with his friends on the hoop nailed to his family’s barn in rural Iowa.

Now look back across the Atlantic, or south of the Mexican border, and find comparable cities, neighborhoods, or regions to those just mentioned. Take a trip to the poor areas of Liverpool, England, the impoverished neighborhoods of Barcelona, Spain, Marseille, France, or Rome, Italy. Travel to Mexico City, to Bogotá, Colombia, to Santiago, Chile, to Rosario, Argentina or Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In the United States and all around the world, on a given sunny Saturday afternoon in April, the scenes in all these areas are strikingly similar. The neighborhood’s inhabitants gravitate to a central park or playground; drugs change hands, mothers and fathers look for work, the homeless beg for money, and kids of all ages play. That last aspect of the setting is the most important, because there’s an argument to be made that 8-year-old children competing on a playground is the purest form of sport — but also because that’s where the scene in the U.S. is different from those around the world. In America, those children play basketball — everywhere else, they play football, or fútbol, or calcio, or fussball, or サッカー, or futebol. And it’s not until the orange-brown ball in a kid’s hands starts to be replaced by a white one at their feet that the United States will become a world power in soccer.

For kids in bad neighborhoods, with poor families, and no access to quality education, a sport is their way out. It’s their road to a better life, and however narrow that road may be, the majority of them truly believe that it’s a road they can take. Every American child who puts a ball through a hoop in his youth, and knows who LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are, dreams of becoming a professional basketball player, and many never give up on that vision until they are forced to. The overwhelming majority of these kids will never even sniff a Division 1 college basketball scholarship, much less the NBA, but every once in a while, there’s an exception. There’s that kid who wants so badly to be the next Michael Jordan that he stays out late at the park shooting jump shots all by himself until the darkness and the rim become one, and then returns the next morning at the crack of dawn to continue. He’s the one who eventually becomes something special. He doesn’t become Michael Jordan, but he develops into a player better than 99.99% of the rest of the kids who had an identical dream, and he makes it come true.

American soccer has yet to be able to find that kid with any consistency. They have yet to find that kind who invests his life in the sport from the day he first touches a ball. Instead, basketball has won over those children, just as the beautiful game has won over similar children across the globe. We get caught up in the deficiencies of our youth coaching programs, but fail to realize that a kid’s childhood “training” between the ages of four and ten — that is, when he or she is playing in the driveway or at the park with friends — is just as important, if not more important, than his or her training in the following ten years. We get caught up in the idea that our best athletes choose football, basketball, or baseball over soccer, but fail to realize that a good portion of the population has that choice naturally forced upon them.

The result is that the majority of top American players are one of two things: either an immigrant who has chosen to play for the U.S. instead of his country of birth, or a kid from a middle or upper class family.

The problem with the first type of player is that the reason they choose the U.S. over their native country is because they likely aren’t good enough play for that country’s national team. The problem with the second type is that they don’t grow up with a ball at their feet. Sure, they play two or three times a week, maybe more, but not every day and as much as possible. While they are busy being taught how to pass by a parent-coach (who may or may not know what he’s talking about), similar kids in Europe, in Africa, in South America, and in Central America are just playing. They are getting exponentially more touches of the ball. They are learning to see the game the right way, to read it, and most of all they are learning to love it. They are developing an affinity for the game that will eventually morph into a work ethic, and one day, maybe develop into world-class talent.

The one notable exception to these classifications is Clint Dempsey. Dempsey grew up living in a trailer park in Texas, his family struggling to support him and his siblings. Dempsey has talked about how he would jump at any chance he got to play soccer. He would seek out pickup games, or go in search of other local kids who wanted to knock a ball around. As he grew, he began to understand his family’s situation, and put it upon himself to change it. To this day, Dempsey has never relented. He works tirelessly on and off the field, and it’s no coincidence that he has turned into arguably the best American player ever (excluding goalkeepers — they’re a different breed).

But the fact that he’s the exception is the problem. Elsewhere in the world, there are dozens of Clint Dempseys — albeit with different names and skill sets — but you get the point. The Clint Dempsey production rate in the U.S. just hasn’t caught up to the rest of the world, and unfortunately there’s no simple solution. Basketball is deeply rooted in our nation’s culture — and justifiably so, it’s a great sport — but it’s so deeply rooted that there’s no room for soccer.

The USSF (United States Soccer Federation) can do all they want to change the structure of their youth systems or coaching styles, but the difference they make can only be minimal at best. It’s totally impracticable, but the best way to change the level of soccer in this country at the international level would be to go to as many low-income neighborhoods as possible and take down basketball nets in the middle of the night, replace them with goals, and leave a soccer ball in the middle of the court. But as I said, that’s not even remotely plausible.

The rise will have to be gradual. The game is growing in popularity within our borders —in part due to it’s availability on TV screens, in part due to MLS, and in part due to, of all things, EA Sports’ FIFA franchise — and we are finally starting to understand the beauty of the beautiful game. But until the whole country — that is, all ages, races, socio-economic classes — gets on board, we will always stink.

Ok, we don’t stink. Don’t take that too seriously. In fact, a little more than a decade ago, the Stars and Stripes were a referee away from a World Cup semifinal. But the development has hit a standstill, with the current crop of players no better than that of ten years ago. There’s some optimism that in the near future, everything will change and the success of the U.S. Men’s National Team will mirror the power and size of the nation it represents, but that can’t happen overnight. The means must change before the end result does, and until that change — the one that you’ve just read about — occurs, we will be stuck behind countries that are inferior in size, inferior in power, inferior in economics, and inferior in almost every other sport besides soccer.