Friday, June 18, 2010

Barriers to U.S. Soccer Prowess

Today at the World Cup, the nation with the smallest population of those who qualified for the tournament is playing against the nation with the largest population. And yet the Slovenian team will undoubtedly give the United States a tough battle, and could win. What's more, more American kids play soccer than play any other sport. So why is it that the U.S. men's national team is not more competitive, or even dominant, in international soccer?

There are, of course, more answers to this question than I have time or space to enumerate, so I'll limit this post to mentioning a few that I find either interesting or under-appreciated. The approach I'll take is to consider the talent pool--those millions of American kids playing the sport--and how it dwindles, eventually to become no better than that of a small eastern European country.

1) The best American athletes, those with the athleticism that suggests the potential to play sport at the professional level, are (usually by the time they reach high school) shunted away from soccer and into football, basketball, or baseball, sports that not only receive more attention at the high school but which are much more lucrative at the professional level.

2) Ironically, while soccer is less lucrative at the American professional level, it has become primarily a rich-kid's sport at the youth level. Playing competitively with a club team requires that a child's family invest a good deal of money each season (and there are seasons year-round) for state and league costs, team fees, uniforms, coaching, and travel and hotel costs. One result of this is that many of those kids whose families care about no other sport (in my part of the country this would include especially second-generation Mexican immigrants) are closed out from that part of the talent pool that has the best chance of improving (through good coaching and good competition).

3) So the total potential talent pool has dwindled by the time it gets to college, having excluded most poor kids (including many for whom soccer is the only sport they want to play) and having lost many of the most athletic to the three more American sports. Nonetheless, there is still a good deal of excellent soccer being played at the college level. But at this point, the best college players have a decision to make. Do they opt to play in the MLS, the only domestic league, and one in which only the few elite players make the sort of money usually associated with professional sport? Or do they commit to spending their twenties and thirties in Europe, either playing in England or in a country on the continent where they speak a different language? Many of the best American college soccer players at this point decide instead to go to medical school or law school or to start a business or otherwise establish a career with the training they have obtained in college. This, of course, further dilutes the pool of talent available to the National Team.

4) At the professional level, the American men playing soccer are now spread over the world, some playing (or riding the bench) for first-division European clubs, others starring (or at least playing) for MLS teams. It is extremely difficult to assess the relative merits of players in these diverse situations. Everyone recognizes that the MLS is an inferior league, but is it comparable to the English second-tier league or their third? Does playing part-time for a first-division European team signify a better player than one who starts and even excels in the MLS? How one answers these questions has had a huge role in determining the make-up of the National Team, and whether the powers that be have generally answered them correctly is quite debatable.

5) And this is because assessing the best players in soccer is much more speculative and subjective than in most (if not all) other sports. In baseball, every individual can be assessed rather equally based on the percentage of times they have gotten a hit or been walked in a large volume of at-bats. Football try-outs involve extensive tests of speed, strength, and specific skills. Basketball, too, involves a whole set of skills and performance histories that can be assessed rather objectively, with little room for substituting subjective opinion. By contrast, the value of a given soccer player often has very little to do with easily-assessed parameters, and only a few players (like the goalkeeper and strikers) can be adequately assessed by their staistics (goals allowed or goals scored). So the final selection of the National Team involves very subjective decisions, and deserving players are invariably left off the team and players that are truly unable to compete at that high level end up playing key roles in the most important international tournament.

Again, there are many other things that could be discussed, but those are a few of the reasons that Slovenia can give the United States a game in the World Cup.

Final score: 2-2

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