After a historically poor World Cup qualifying campaign the US Men’s National Team is going through a bit of an identity crisis. Despite winning three consecutive hexes prior to 2018, amassing 20+ points in each campaign, the in-flux squad could only manage 12 points this go-around.
Ask a pundit what went wrong and they’ll tell you that Klinsmann lost control of the locker room, the tactics were desultory, or that bad luck simply took center stage. The aforementioned are all valid reasons, however, the demise of the USMNT has much more far-reaching roots than an Omar Gonzalez own goal or a locker room squabble.
We’re good at every other sport, so why not soccer?
Well that’s the thing; we’re actually not. On paper, the US shouldn’t just be coasting through CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers but running out of trophy space on its mantelpiece.
When’s the last time you heard about American athletes excelling in rugby or table tennis? What about cricket, badminton, cycling or field hockey? We may view ourselves as utterly dominant in all areas of sport, but we’re not; and there’s a legitimate reason why.
It comes down to the numbers. Not the number of people we have in our country, if this were the logic China would dominate every sport, but the number of people playing soccer. In the US, three sports dominate the sporting arena: football, basketball, and baseball. And even though love for the beautiful game has been gradually increasing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that more kids are choosing to play soccer instead of other sports.
Perhaps soccer in the US isn’t just a game for 1st and 2nd generation Americans but it’s still far from taking a sizeable bite from basketball and football’s talent pools. The numbers vary a little but most agree that as of 2015, about 24 million Americans played soccer. A Gallup poll from 2017 actually found that soccer is the third-most played sport across the US behind basketball and football. While 24 million may sound well and good, the number’s a bit deceiving.
Between the US Youth Soccer Association, American Youth Soccer Organization, USL youth leagues, DI soccer, and Americans soccer players abroad there are a little less than 4 million potential soccer starlets.
The numbers matter
Yet this article pertains to why the US Men’s National Team will never be considered a soccer superpower. We can go ahead and subtract about 1.7 million female soccer players from that number consequently leaving us with a soccer-specific athletic pool of 2.3 million male athletes under the age of 22. Looking to the future that gives us a total of just over 2 million soccer players that we’re relying on to bring home the FIFA World Cup.
Just a few keepy uppies south of the US and you’ll find Brazil with a tick over 13 million registered soccer players according to FIFA. The gender disparity is a bit more pronounced in Brazil where women were actually banned from playing soccer from 1941 to 1979. This translates to approximately 11 million registered male youth soccer players and legions of other youth players not on the books that are playing favela footy. Judging from the numbers alone the Brazilians are more than 6x as likely to be producing the next Pele, Maradona, or Cruyff.
Accurate numbers are tough to come by, but it’s safe to say that the US has less soccer players than a number of top-tier soccer nations that have substantially smaller overall populations such as Germany, Brazil and France. Yet there are still minnows like Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland, Holland, and Chile that have fewer players than the US but are significantly more adept with a ball at their feet.
If we have as many youth soccer players as Italy, why are we not nearly as good?
For one, the pitch isn’t the only place that American youth soccer players spend their free time. 60% of males between the ages of 5-19 play more than one sport. You can be sure that kids in Holland, Brazil, and even Iceland are monogamous when it comes to their sporting relationships.
Secondly, we have a U.S. Soccer Development Academy that was only founded in 2007. This nascent academy is a microcosm of the development of youth soccer in the US. While countries like Spain can boast thousands of experienced coaches with UEFA A licenses, the US has but a few hundred. Youth soccer is kept stagnant by inept coaches and a dearth of trained eyes scouting for precocious talent. And if you’re wondering why more talented youth players don’t go to Europe to train, consider how difficult it is to get a youth work permit. Pulisic was only able to leave for Borussia Dortmund at such an early age because he has Croatian citizenship thus enabling him to work throughout the EU.
If viewed with a perfunctory glance, the US and top 25 FIFA-ranked countries have a comparable amount of youth soccer players. Yet examined through a more statistical lens and we see that there’s a disparity in the number of serious, dedicated soccer players in the US as compared to a myriad of other nations.
Many a pundit is still pondering why the USMNT didn’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Had a commercial not cut Taylor Twellman off he might still be on a tangent. The truth of that dismal World Cup qualifying campaign is that Americans just don’t care about soccer. While the pool of soccer talent is expanding, who knows when it will be before Americans become a serious contender on the world stage.