Skip the Abby Wambach backlash and focus on US Soccer’s identity problem

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Our country’s soccer fans and pundits have been arguing about so-called passport players since before we knew what a pundit was. It’s been a talker since the days of Thomas Dooley and Earnie Stewart, the top US performers among the foreign-born set at a highly meaningful World Cup 1994.

But old argument doesn’t mean bad or unnecessary argument. In fact, this quarrel needs a fresh going-over every now and then, especially given the ongoing evolution, the steady bulking up of the US game. Abby Wambach may have been an unlikely figure to spin this wheel, but spin she did last week.

SEE MORE: On her final day, Abby Wambach was at full volume.

A good starting point for the discussion is this dandy little pearl of wisdom (if this one isn’t in your personal, lifetime tool kit, it really should be): “Show me a simple answer to a complex question and I’ll show you the wrong answer.”

If you see Wambach today, remind her of that, after wishing her the happiest of holidays, of course! Wambach was wrong … but no reason to be uncivil about it. Besides, while her remarks on the subject were ineloquent and half-baked, perhaps she’s driving toward a certain point. Landon Donovan got a little closer to the point, mercifully folding more nuance into the conversation. From there, some thoughtful, countering remarks by Mix Diskerud supplied useful balance and context.

Here is the basic outline of last week’s point-counter point:

On the occasion of here retirement, Wambach offered a couple of HSTs (Hot Soccer Takes) on Jurgen Klinsmann’s national team. We all have our thoughts on Klinsmann and a wildly underwhelming 2015, so why shouldn’t Wambach take her swings at the piñata?

She says to fire the guy; Wambach is hardly the only one banging that drum, so nothing too controversial there. But one of her objections to the Klinsmann regime was that he “brought in these foreign guys …” That’s the one that lit the Christmas tree on fire.

Wambach insinuated that this was something new, which it isn’t. Klinsmann has certainly made more liberal use of talented players of American parents who grew up abroad, but he no more invented the practice than he invented eggnog. Around the world, it goes back well before the days of Dooley, Stewart, et al.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. These are US citizens, period. More than that, if you talk to someone like Diskerud, who grew up in Norway but often “summered” in the United States in his youth, he sounds quintessentially American. He knows his Yankees from his Red Sox. He understands that Colonel Sanders isn’t really in the armed services and probably knows that Homer Simpson loves him some beer and doughnuts.

So Diskerud was right (and the right figure) to offer his thoughtful retort, defending himself and Klinsmann’s class of foreign-born providers of soccer skill and know-how.

Wow Abby, I guess there are pros and cons in limiting the base for selection. You have just singled out a few of us. But why? Why are we your single oddballs? Think about who you try to disenfranchise. Because if you see us as the group to disenfranchise, then at least let it be known who we are. Stats and history will show – “our group” has more than others produced volunteer and defending soldiers for what, by us, is willingly chosen and gathered to be worth protecting: Your nation. Wish you would accept it as ours too. I know we’re not quite equal. From “your group of people” the country’s Commander in Chief need to be selected. However, other than that – you and I share something not unique, but constitutionally earned, a birthright to defend this nation as an American. Wherever we go. Led by whoever has earned, by democratic process, his/her right to lead, on or off the field, in peace, in war, in practice, or in any other kind of pursuit of your happiness. Enjoy your retirement. But stay active. We all need you. Oddballs or not. Mix

A photo posted by Mix Diskerud (@mixdiskerud) on

Now, is Diskerud 100 percent right? Well, yes and no. This is where the complexity comes in – an evolving complexity at that.

It’s not Klinsmann’s “use” per se of foreign born talent. Rather it’s the frequency of usage that sometimes riles the masses. It’s Klinsmann’s apparent preference to “discover” another man of US lineage rather than provide further opportunity to a player developed through America’s youth systems. Yeah, the systems are flawed. But if you’re wondering “maybe we should work harder to fix the flaws rather than bandage over them with the next Timothy Chandler gambit,” well, you aren’t the only one.

See, for every successful! German-born Fabian Johnson, there is a Chandler, still another German-born son of a US serviceman. Most soccer supports in our home of the brave know Johnson as a quality, versatile left-sider who almost always delivers the goods, sometimes with a flourish. He’s not just a solid Bundesliga man anymore, he’s a budding star. Chandler’s performance has been a mixed bag at very best; in some assessments, the guy’s got a big bag of nothing. Plus, his commitment to the US cause can rightly be questioned, going back to Bob Bradley’s time in charge.

When a guy doesn’t seem 100 percent on board, and when he rates a “just OK” overall, that’s where a bunch of us crane our heads, wondering “what gives?” And yet, he’s got more skin in the national team game than Terrence Boyd, Danny Williams, John Brooks, Julian Green and other members of US Soccer’s passing and trapping foreign legion.

There are more of them, and probably more to come, still. That’s where Donovan’s points resonate. Donovan wondered aloud if, to a man, everyone’s heart was in it 100 percent?

Donovan said he told Klinsmann there are “a few players on your World Cup roster .. that don’t care in the same way I do.” He told Klinsmann that a poor World Cup showing might sting some of the foreign-born players, but it would “devastate” him.

We can’t know what’s truly in a man’s heart, but if I’m guessing, I’d say Donovan was right. Not about every player, for sure, and that’s not what he was saying. But one or two of them? Well, he was in the locker room with these guys, and Donovan is a pretty sharp guy.

Even if he wasn’t right about specific World Cup cause and effect, Donovan was getting at another point, one that speaks to the larger, more general men’s national team program’s purpose and ambition. Obviously, as professionals, everyone wants to win, whether they were born in California, Colombia, Croatia or Cologne. Most paid-to-play athletes are where they are, in part, because competitive drive is hard-wired. They want to prevail in every pickup game. They narrow the eyes and tighten the laces for every silly little practice field game of “cross bar.”

But in the critical match-day moment, when they need a little more “want to,” a little more fight and desire, when it’s time to block out pain and faithfully ignore exhaustion – keep running until you physically cannot run any more, the way Frankie Hejduk once spoke of the necessary effort – is everybody on board for the love of country? Are they all toiling for the same cause? Do they all share the same cultural “can do” faith? (Because not every country does.) Do they fight for each other and love each other the way soldiers say? There are lots of quality soccer nations out there; that last little 1-2 percent of effort and belief, surely the hardest to tap, could be the difference.

That’s where Donovan’s point was presumably heading, and he’s not wrong in asking that question. The United States team has been at its best (from a results standpoint, that is) when fighting as scrappy underdogs, when making good use of that pesky chip on their collective shoulder.

Perhaps he wasn’t questioning some players’ effort so much as the ability to develop esprit de corps, the intangible of creating team identity so that there’s more on at stake than wins and losses. Perhaps it’s true that to perform at their best, US players must want to show that America works – that American soccer works.

Bruce Arena was nibbling around the edges of the same point a few years ago, essentially asking, “If we’re not ultimately concerned with developing our own players, then what’s it all about?”

So there’s the rub for many of us. Johnson can soar up and down the wing, and that’s great! If Diskerud runs the midfield like a man possessed, every American Outlaw from chapters far and wide will sing the man’s praises, wholly unconcerned if he was born in Norway. And on it goes; most of us recognize their individual, rightful citizenship and feel damn proud when they tell the world they “always felt American.” You betcha they did!
But bigger picture, beyond those individuals, what do we want the program to be?

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One Response

  1. Jack December 27, 2015

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