Now that the U.S. has, once again, exited the World Cup in the Round of 16, American soccer aficionados are in the self-reflective, hand wringing stage of sports grief. We’re asking ourselves what went wrong? What could we have done differently? Why aren’t we better? Will we ever win the top prize of the most popular sport on earth?
It’s good for us to hash these things out and conspire to improve. As an American soccer fan, I want us to win the World Cup as much as anyone. But we should also maintain the perspective that we’ve come a very long way in a relatively short period. Holland wasn’t remotely a power on the world soccer stage prior to the 1974 World Cup (before that they’d never even made a quarterfinal). As in Holland’s case, a single great generation of players can transform a country’s soccer fortunes. It’s tough to become a world soccer power but the U.S. isn’t as bad off as we think. Even our fierce CONCACAF rival Mexico has never made it past the World Cup quarterfinals (and they haven’t made a quarterfinal since 1986). But Americans want results and we want them now.
The difference in the self-reflection this time around is that it’s happening, if only fleetingly, in the national media spotlight. For those that remember the dearth of soccer coverage by American media in the 1990s and early 2000s, the mainstream attention showered on the U.S. team at this World Cup has been remarkable by comparison. You know there has been a sea change when the lead story on NBC’s Today show is about the U.S. loss to Belgium.
There is a common refrain in this mainstream media attention, something that seems to confound many pundits unfamiliar with soccer’s nuances: how can a nation that places such a high priority on sports and produces so many quality athletes fail to produce an elite soccer team on the world stage? We always hear the stats, that more American children play soccer than any other country. How can that be and yet the U.S. continually stalls out in the World Cup Round of 16? The go-to argument (and one that I’m growing weary of) is that the U.S. loses their best athletes to the other major American sports. The theory holds that if only our LeBron James’ and Tom Brady’s played soccer, we’d be lining up for July 13th tickets at the Maracana.
I don’t buy this theory that we have World Cup-winning caliber players out there, but they’re all suiting up for the NBA, NFL, or MLB instead. Raw athleticism does not create elite soccer players. Remember when Usain Bolt wanted to play for Manchester United? Clubs haven’t exactly beaten down the door to give him a shot. Soccer is not all about physical superiority. Look at Romelu Lukaku, Lionel Messi, or Miroslav Klose – all very different body types who have succeeded quite nicely for their teams at this World Cup. Or consider the great Spanish team that won the 2008 and 2012 Euros, and the 2010 World Cup – not necessarily a team of elite athletes in a purely physical, stereotypically American ideal of an elite athlete. They were great athletes who were elite at playing cohesive, instinctual, creative soccer, but this didn’t come from bench-pressing prowess or fast times in the 40. One of the unique things about soccer is its relatively level playing field athletically. It is not all about stature and strength – those can be great tools, but they won’t typically win matches alone.