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.
Yes, LeBron James is a superior athlete, but who’s to say his athleticism would meld with soccer, that he would have necessarily adapted to soccer as well as he did to basketball? We have this American idea that grit, brawn, and hard work will get us to the top, but as we’ve consistently seen, in the World Cup it will get you to the Round of 16. We need more.
By the way, saying that we lose our best athletes to other American sports is also quite insulting to our current national team. The implication is that we’re somehow sending second-string athletes to the World Cup and that is simply not true.
If sheer athleticism doesn’t win the World Cup then, how do we do it? I don’t pretend to have the best answers, but after 25 years of watching the U.S. play it does seem that our teams, generally speaking, still lack top-level soccer instinct. This is vague and difficult to quantify, but it involves creativity and the ability to very quickly read the patterns of the game, to see the angles, having the intuition to know when to hold the ball and when to get rid of it.
The last thing I wish to imply is that the U.S. has never had this type of creative player. Of course we have, we just don’t have a deep pool of this type of player. We need the kind of depth that sees a Schweinsteiger, Khedira, Lukaku, or Hazard enter the match as substitutes as those players have for Germany and Belgium during this World Cup.
Why haven’t we produced a squad of 20 Landon Donovan’s yet? It’s not about organization, funding, or facilities. We have all those things in spades. Perhaps it has more to do with the “10,000 hour rule” espoused by author Malcolm Gladwell and others which essentially holds that it requires an average of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. This is a still-developing field of research, and opinions about the validity of this “rule” vary widely, but I think it is at least partially applicable to the development of American soccer players. How many American players have practiced 10,000 hours by the age of 18, or even age 20, compared to their counterparts in soccer power nations like Brazil or Germany?
While I don’t believe we necessarily lose our best potential soccer players to other American sports, I do believe our best soccer players are more distracted by participation in other sports than their foreign counterparts. Our young soccer players typically play a lot of other sports concurrently. America has no shortage of excellent athletes. We have a shortage of excellent athletes who are soccer experts. Instinctive, creative soccer players with superior technical ability develop when players play a ton of soccer from a very young age (and play soccer almost exclusively). I’ve heard it said that the U.S. won’t win a World Cup until American children are playing soccer in the streets and I tend to agree.
Despite its talent, the U.S. team in Brazil still resembled past U.S. teams in its inability to retain the ball in the right places at the right time. The juxtaposition was jarring between the U.S. and Germany in ball possession and movement (Germany is the top-ranked team in the World Cup for completed passes). As a team, we still aren’t as technically sound on the ball as the world’s best teams.
The psychological effect of soccer’s second-class status in America, combined with getting fewer “mental reps” (watching top-tier soccer in person and on TV) and not playing exclusively as much soccer from a very young age help account for the talent divide that still exists between the U.S. and the world’s top soccer nations.
Ultimately, becoming an elite soccer nation, advancing to a World Cup semifinal, final, or even winning it all is a marathon rather than a sprint. America’s size and resources make it a good bet to eventually win the World Cup, but it won’t happen without additional cultural change in how we understand the game and develop players. And that takes time.