If you’ve ventured outside this week, you’ve probably noticed something peculiar – Americans paying attention to soccer. And we’re not just watching soccer; we’re losing our patriotic minds over it. What’s going on out there? Have the terrorists found a way to mess with our brains? Were this year’s NBA Finals so terrible that we had no choice but to find a new sport? Or, could it be, that the time has finally come for Americans to join the rest of the world in loving soccer?
No. America still hates soccer. (If you don’t believe me, give it another month.) But one thing we don’t hate is watching America compete against any country that isn’t America in any sport that isn’t cross-country skiing. (Cross-country skiing is unwatchable, regardless of how many Americans are competing). So, we aren’t so much freaking out about the World Cup as we are about Team USA competing in it.
And if you’ve ventured out to a bar to watch our national team play, you’ve likely heard one of these temporary American fans utter the question that has puzzled Americans for years:
Why, in a nation of over 300 million people, have we not produced a single world-class soccer player?
For most, the answer is obvious. Because all of our best athletes play other sports, duh. And how can that not be the answer when the logic behind it seems so legit? While every other country obsesses over kicking a ball, we’re busy kicking every other country’s ass in real sports like football, basketball, and baseball. So it makes sense that all of our best athletes flock to our most popular sports at a young age, leaving soccer to the kids who were too short and slow to make the basketball team.
Obviously, the only reason we aren’t the best at soccer is because we simply don’t care to be. If the best American athletes wanted to play soccer, our national team would destroy every one of those skinny, metrosexual nations. Just imagine Megatron going up for a header and nodding it over to LeBron for him to kick into the net. I mean have you seen LeBron James? No doubt that a properly trained LeBron could kick the ever-loving shit out of a ball. Even if a goalkeeper did manage to save one of LeBron’s shots without dying, he’d spend the next half hour shaking his hands off like he just pulled out a hot casserole with no oven mitts on.
So yes, if we took all of our best athletes and trained them to be great soccer players, we’d field soccer’s version of the Dream Team. Right?
Wrong. It’s unlikely that we’d be much better at all. Here are some reasons why. . .
Soccer isn’t basketball
Or football. Or baseball. Pure athleticism doesn’t make a great soccer player. Spain is a shining example of this. Before their poor showing at this World Cup, Spain dominated international soccer for almost a decade, and they weren’t even close to being the most athletic team on the field. Most of their players could have a second career as jockeys. And have you seen Lionel Messi? The consensus best player in the world has to call his wife into the kitchen every morning so she can get the cereal down from the top shelf. (I’m only kidding. He stands on a chair.) Sure, Messi is unbelievably quick, but he’s a far cry from our country’s definition of an athlete.
This picture, taken at a charity game last year, shows the height disparity between Messi and Megatron Johnson. The latter went for 8 touchdowns and 792 receiving yards, largely due to the fact that he was being covered by Messi.
Unlike the NBA, where you either have to be a seven-footer or an athletic freak-show to succeed, soccer doesn’t really have a prototypical body type. In addition to small, quick guys like Messi, there’s speed-players like Christiano Ronaldo, lanky guys like Yaya Toure, and players like Brazilian forward Hulk, who any NFL team would be willing to try out at tail back (his name is Hulk for God’s sake). The assumption that the best American athletes would excel at soccer simply because of their superior physicality is simply unfounded. The skill set is completely different. It’s not football, people.
Well, maybe it is kind of like football
More specifically, the quarterback position. At least that’s the closest comparison I can make to an American sport. While some quarterbacks are great athletes (Michael Vick), others manage to thrive at the position while possessing far less athletic ability (Brady, the Manning brothers).
If you had no idea who Peyton Manning was and you saw him walking down the beach shirtless, you’d never guess he’s the greatest commercial-star-turned-quarterback of all time. (Though I’m not sure Peyton would go shirtless at the beach. He strikes me as more of a white t-shirt, not rubbing the sunscreen all the way into his nose type of guy.) You’d probably take one look at Peyton and think: Now there’s a guy with a great 401(k). Yep, that guy doesn’t work out at all – probably because he’s too busy taking care of his Down’s brother.
But despite there being thousands of quarterbacks who are more athletic than Manning, few, if any, are better. That’s where the QB position parallels with soccer. Being a great athlete is a plus, but lumbering onto the field with a set of man boobs and a gigantic forehead doesn’t preclude you from greatness either. That’s because quarterbacking, like soccering, relies less on raw athleticism and more on a player’s decision making, speed of thought, and technique.
Our youth system is broken
This is the primary reason why America doesn’t produce elite talent. In other countries, young players with the most potential are identified at an early age and signed on to a professional team’s youth academy. The coaches at the academies are extremely well-trained, most having played at soccer’s highest level. The goal for every kid taken in by the academy, even at twelve years of age, is to make the professional team. They train with other elite kids daily and if one player excels beyond his peers, he gets moved up to a higher age group where the competition is bigger and faster. The player then must adapt to the heightened competition.
But unlike in American Football, he doesn’t improve his game by additional work-out sessions or an extra scoop of creatine or steroids or breast milk or whatever kids are doing to get an edge these days. Players improve because in order to survive at a higher level, their touch has to get better, decisions must be quicker, and a level of creativity and deception must be learned. In soccer, players can make vast improvements without getting any bigger, faster, or stronger.
But here in America, when one kid is better than the others, we refuse to move him up an age group. The best 14-year-old doesn’t get better if he’s not regularly playing with the 16-year-olds. He gets cocky – doesn’t improve his game because he doesn’t have to. Players can’t develop if they’re competing against inferior competition. What if LeBron would have been forced to play college hoops for 4 years? Or Rafa Nadal’s coaches only let him play ping-pong? Or Kobayashi’s diet was limited to Vienna sausages? Or the management at Sonic told Scott Hamilton he could only skate in quads?
That’s the same thing we’re doing to our young soccer talent – hindering their development because it’s easier to organize the carpool when everyone’s kept in their own age group.
Our priorities are too straight
As a well-educated and economically advanced culture, we emphasize providing our kids with a well-rounded education. Not only do we want them to have multiple athletic experiences, but we also want them to do well in school, and sometimes even participate in after school plays or join charitable organizations – yuk. All of this focus on a diverse and well-enriched upbringing is taking away from what really matters – breeding superior athletes. Do you think Luis Suarez’s parents were forcing him to take piano lessons when he was growing up? Hell no they weren’t. I doubt the guy even knows how to read. But with all the money he’s made from being awesome at soccer he can afford to have Morgan Freeman come over to his house and read for him if he wanted to.
In America, when a young player has great potential, we tell him that his ability might just get him an athletic scholarship. You’re so good at this soccer thing, we say, that you should use all that talent to focus on something you’re not very good at – like school. That way he can grow up and use his
soccer talent to become a professional player college degree and average GPA to sit in an office and stare at a computer for fifty hours a week while Luis Suarez is busy using all the money he made from being awesome at soccer to pay someone to sit in an office and stare at a computer for fifty hours a week.
And if you think I’m crazy to suggest that we should abandon education so our elite players can focus on their game, apparently you aren’t familiar with how the major college football and basketball programs work in this country. How many classes do you think Johnny Football went to last year? Do you think Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid were sitting Indian style in their Kansas dorm room going over flash cards for the Spanish quiz? Spanish? Are you kidding me? Those guys can barely speak English. And who cares? They’re both going to make millions this year playing basketball. We don’t expect the future doctors to become better athletes, so why should we force the future pros to know any more Spanish than what’s necessary to place an order at Taco Bell?
Until we rearrange our priorities, we’ll never create a world-class soccer talent, even if the next LeBron James decides to take his talents to the pitch instead of the hardwood, the diamond, or the gridiron.