The US Men’s National soccer team (USMNT) has had two bad losses in international qualifying play in the past several weeks. Naturally, the response to those losses (to Mexico and then to Costa Rica) was to fire the coach, Jurgen Klinsmann. The soccer-adorers in the US would have their emotions somewhere between orgasmic and rapturous in the event that the US were to win something big like the World Cup or the Olympic Gold Medal in soccer. Precisely because they can imagine such euphoria, they simultaneously imagine that such achievements are not just possible but are likely if only they could get the right guy to “coach ‘em up” properly.
The soccer-adorers are living in a delusional state; but when one is in such a state, reality and fantasy blur at the edges. Moreover, they so fondly want the fantasy state to become the reality state that their mood is improved when the coach gets fired and a new victim/coach is put in charge. Hope springs eternal … and all that stuff.
The new coach will be Bruce Arena. He had the job once before and not surprisingly, he did not take the USMNT to the sorts of heights that the soccer-adorers envision for their national team heroes. There was a time when the soccer-adorers were only happy to see Bruce Arena replaced at the helm for not getting the job done; today he is the maven that will kick down the barricades keeping the USMNT from its glory.
Let me be clear; I am not someone who roots against the USMNT. I also admit that there are tons of people out there who recognize the subtleties of play in soccer games that totally escape my notice. Having said all of that, here is something that is very clear to me when I watch international soccer games:
- There is an obvious difference in the way the players on other teams play the game of soccer as compared to the way the players on the USMNT play the game of soccer. The difference is qualitative and not quantitative; nonetheless, it is real and it is not hard to see – – unless one prefers not to see it from the get-go.
That qualitative difference is why the USMNT is on a different plane of existence in the world of international soccer from the plane occupied by teams from Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal and the rest of the usual suspects when it comes to top international competition. I have a hypothesis – it is not even sufficiently established to call it a theory – as to why this is the case.
The US has 320 million residents; that is a large pool of potential soccer players from which to distill 20 or 25 guys who will represent the country in international competition. By comparison, here are the rough populations of some countries that are far more accomplished in international soccer than the US:
- Argentina has a population of about 42 million
- Brazil has a population of about 200 million
- England has a population of about 53 million
- Germany has a population of about 60 million
- Italy has a population of about 60 million
Costa Rica – the team that just beat the USMNT by a score of 4-0 – has a population of less than 5 million people. So why would it appear that the US is mining such “low-grade ore” when it comes to finding about 25 guys to play consistently at the top levels of international competition? I reject the argument that there are not enough natural athletes in the population here in the US or that all the really good athletes go into baseball or football or basketball because that is where the money is. There are plenty of minor sports where American athletes consistently competitive and soccer is on a higher potential income level than many of those other minor sports. [Aside: As soon as I write this, I am certain that someone will form a National Luge League and start offering six figure contracts to lugers everywhere…]
My hypothesis is that the youth sports culture in the US is the problem. I have read in several places that “Soccer Academies” are commonplace in much of the rest of the world. These “Soccer Academies” take children – some as young as 6 years old – and begin to give them the skills necessary to be a top-shelf player. The key word in that last sentence is “skills”. These academies stress fundamentals and techniques and learning the game through drills and repetition and practice. Here in the US, we take kids and have them practice and then put them into “game situations”. If the “most promising” players here were taught skills more than given the opportunity to play games and spend hours en route to games for travel teams, I think the USMNT would be in a better place 10 years down the road.
One of those “qualitative differences” that I see when watching the USMNT play against an English or Spanish team is this:
- The foreign players seem to know what they are going to do with the ball as it is approaching them while the US players seem to be trying to control the ball first and then figure out what their next move shall be.
I think that particular “qualitative difference” can be explained by the constant repetition of skills exercises that foreign players undergo in their development; they do not need to do things sequentially and in finite quanta of play; they seem to know what to do – and how they are going to do it – before they are in a position to do it. Moreover, their teammates appear to be able to see what is happening and to recognize what the player about to receive the ball is going to do next even before he is in possession of the ball.
If I am even close to correct, the thing that is keeping the US from the pinnacle of international soccer competition is not the coach and it is not really the players themselves. I think a large part of the “problem” is that we develop our young players in a less effective manner than the rest of the world does. Players who grew up developing skills and anticipation will distill down to a better national team than players who grew up playing games whenever possible and letting the outcome of those games depend on superior natural athleticism. In the US, our youth player system favors the offspring of young affluent parents; there are loads of kids who could not possibly afford to be part of a “travel team” and in the US, if you are not on that track, you are not likely to be recognized as a “high potential player” on school teams. We have limited our pool of talent and we do not teach skills the way they do internationally.
Jurgen Klinsmann lost games because – and this is only a bit of an exaggeration – he took a knife to a gun fight. That happened to Bruce Arena in the past prior to his firing as the coach of the USMNT and it is going to happen to him again sometime in the next 3-5 years. Unless of course, Bruce Arena finds a lamp on a beach somewhere and rubs it and a genie appears and …
Finally, there was an “incident” involving a player on the South African National Soccer Team that drew commentary from two sportswriters:
“A player was kicked off South Africa’s national soccer team for passing gas in the direction of the coach. You can’t help but feel the team chemistry may be slightly off.” [Brad Dickson, Omaha World-Herald]
“SowetanLive.co.za reported that striker Tokelo Rantie got booted from South Africa’s national soccer team for passing gas in the direction of manager Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba.
“Somewhere, the late Margaret Mitchell is smiling.” [Dwight Perry, Seattle Times]
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………