The problem for U.S. soccer can be seen on the streets

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Children playing soccer on the streets is a common sight in many places around the world but not in the U.S./WSJ

By Ray Hamill

Good news for the rest of the world. FIFA has decided to go ahead anyway with the World Cup next summer, even without the U.S.

Apparently, they’re not going to miss us as much as we’re going to miss them.

First up, though, let’s deal with the obvious.

Missing out on qualification for the finals is an embarrassment for the U.S. men’s team. There is simply no other way to describe it.

Especially considering the resources the Americans boast, the far larger pool of players and coaches than most of our CONCACAF rivals that we can choose from, and the relative ease of our route to the finals. (Arguably, only the host nation, which qualifies automatically, has an easier route to the World Cup Finals than Mexico or the United States.)

Not qualifying, however, isn’t going to affect the evolution of the sport here in any negative manner, just as qualifying wasn’t going to do much to promote it.

The game here is in a healthy – if not spectacular – state and clearly has grown in leaps and bounds since the dark days of soccer coverage and media interest a few decades ago.

If you were a soccer player in the U.S. back in the 80s, you were either a foreigner or a freak. If you were a fan, you were a sports nerd.

Since then, coverage has evolved into near equal that of any other sport, and the development of players and coaching acumen has improved substantially, and continues to do so.

It is one of the most popular participant sports for children here in the U.S., and with a growing concern and awareness of CTE and brain-related injuries in football, the numbers will likely continue to rise.

 

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U,S. goalkeeper Tim Howard in action recently/WSJ

The problem, on the other hand, is the perception and tradition of the game here in the U.S., not to mention its social standing,

The problem is that sports fans still don’t really care about soccer to the same extent they do elsewhere. It just doesn’t mean as much to us. We don’t go quite as nuts over it all. And that hasn’t changed much over the years.

If this was Brazil, or almost any other country on the planet, last week’s developments would be the beginning of six months of national mourning. Here, however, it’s an easily forgettable blip right before the start of the NBA season.

This week, in fact, we have all five major U.S. professional sports leagues in action – the only time of the year that happens – not to mention college football, which is massively popular, and the anticipation of the college basketball season just around the corner.

With all that going on, it’s easy for the casual fan to forget the soccer team didn’t qualify. (We’ll all be reminded continually for a month next summer, but for now at least it’s easy to move on.)

That’s not to excuse it, but rather to put it in perspective.

There is, however, a more fundamental problem with the evolution of the game here, and one that puts that lack of interest into perspective. Soccer has never been – nor likely ever will be – the “street sport” of the U.S. in the way it is almost everywhere else.

And that continues to hinder its development, because we simply don’t create the street savvy players the way the rest of the world does. U.S. soccer players are well coached and technically as sound as anywhere, but they lack a fundamental sense of the game that’s instinctive to players who grow up in other parts of the world.

Kids here don’t play pick-up soccer the way they do elsewhere in the world. Games have to be organized for them, almost handed to them on a platter. It’s one of the downsides to living in a country with access to excess.

It’s not like that elsewhere.

When I was a kid growing up in Dublin City, all we needed was a ball of any kind – an empty can of soda maybe – or anything we could kick with our feet.

And we all played.

All the time.

Anytime we could.

Anywhere we could.

Literally.

And we certainly didn’t need anyone to organize it for us.

I personally broke more windows playing on my street than I can recall, and I wasn’t alone.

It was our Sandlot moment.

If you drove through the streets of Dublin outside of school hours in those days, you would see groups of kids of all ages playing “football” with their friends, on the local greens or in their driveways.

That’s the way soccer has always been for most of the world.

Conversely, that’s the way basketball is here in the U.S. (and the way baseball used to be), or ice hockey in Canada, or cricket in India, the street game no one needs much encouragement or organization to play, on the streets, in the driveways, in the local city parks every day. The type of sport most of the neighborhood kids love to play, and a game that brings them together at even the slightest hint of a suggestion.

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Basketball is the street sport in the U.S. the way soccer is elsewhere/downtrend.com

That’s why no one will ever compete with the U.S. when it comes to basketball. That sport means more to Americans than other nations. There’s more of a tradition here. It’s ingrained. It’s the “street sport” of the people.

And it’s also why the U.S. will never compete with the Brazils and Germanys of the world in soccer. Soccer is their “street sport.”

It’s not player development that’s the big problem with soccer in the U.S. Or coaching. It’s the tradition handed down from generation to generation. The deep-rooted love for the game. That’s what develops players. That’s what develops stars. You just can’t instill that in a generation, and it’s arrogant to think you can.

That’s not to say soccer hasn’t “arrived” in the U.S. It has.

Soccer is immensely popular here, and will continue to grow.

But the tradition of the sport is just not as profound as it is elsewhere and anyone clamoring for the national men’s team to win a World Cup any time soon is optimistically delusional (especially after last week).

The U.S. men are unlikely to win a World Cup any time in the next century. That didn’t change one way or the other last week.

And that’s not a knock on the U.S. or the game here. It’s a tribute to how important the game is to other nations and how much more culturally ingrained it is elsewhere.

And anyone who laughs at that notion should think about this. In almost a century of World Cups, only eight different countries (out of more than 200) have ever actually won it.

Even more telling, only seven different nations have even reached the World Cup Final in the past 50 years.

That’s a pretty exclusive club.

Of course, winning a World Cup is one thing, qualifying for the finals is something else entirely, and by any standards the U.S. men should be qualifying out of CONCACAF every time.

The players, coaches and administration should be embarrassed it didn’t happen, and changes need to be addressed.

But there are no quick fixes. The problems for U.S. soccer go all the way to the streets. Problems we haven’t necessarily noticed until now because we compete in CONCACAF.

In the end, Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica – three countries with a combined population of 18 million, or five and a half percent of the U.S. population – placed ahead of the U.S because ultimately they wanted it more than the Americans.

For them, it’s in their blood, and has been for generations.

For them, it’s on their streets.

4 comments

  • Ray, I take particular exception to Bruce Arena’s comment that “the growth in our domestic league has benefited the national team”. I’d argue that the MLS is a major obstacle in the National teams future success. The MLS has a massive wage disparity. Old and washed up European stars get paid big bucks when they cam no longer hack it in Europe. The other over paid stars in the MLS are the premier American nationals. The MLS uses Howard, Dempsey, and Bradley to sell tickets. They pay wages to them they couldn’t get over seas. While great for the players this is not so great for the USMNT. In order for the national team to be successful the players need to be pushed to their highest level. They need to not only fight for the position, but play against the best the world has to offer. This simply isn’t the case in the MLS. The average salary of the players not mentioned above is about $60,000. Or what a nurse or teacher makes. We need our best players training with and playing against the world’s best, not players that are in par with the 4th division in the major European leagues. Add to that the new home grown rule where our young players are property of the MLS club and we have a situation where a club will keep our young players to prop up the domestic league even if it’s at the developmental detriment to the player and the national team.

    Until we separate the MLS from the USMNT, US soccer will continue to fail to reach a higher standard.

    • Jantz, I agree with you one hundred percent. The U.S. will never get the best out of its players unless they’re playing in better leagues week in week out, and that’s the same for most nations around the world. The top African and Asian players all ply their trade in the European leagues and they make their national teams better because of it. The MLS has served to promote the evolution of the game here and it works in that regard, but if the national team players play here, the team will suffer

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