Monday, June 28, 2010

The United States and Soccer

June 26, 2010 - South Africa - Football - United States of America v Ghana FIFA World Cup Second Round - South Africa 2010 - Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg, South Africa - 26/6/10..USA's Landon Donovan (L) jumps over a challenge by Ghana's Andre Ayew.
After the United States lost in the World Cup on Saturday I was hearing a lot of people question, how could a country like Ghana? Ghana is roughly the size of Oregon about 50x smaller than the United States. One would think that the talent pool alone in the the United States compared to Ghana would come into play. Why is it that the Americans are more than competitive in most sports but not in Soccer? I have never claimed to be nor pretend to be a fan of Soccer. I watched some of the World Cup and followed casually. I compare my interest much like the Olympics. But I have some thoughts on the idea.....

I would agree with the assessment that the talent pool for athletes in the United States is better than the talent pool in Ghana, the big difference is the talent in the United States is spread out. The sporting landscape in the United States is different than in other countries. And in the United States the popularity of sports such as Football, Baseball, Basketball, and even Hockey stand above the popularity of Soccer. Sure, youth Soccer is huge and millions of American children spend their weekends on the Soccer field. However, in the United States when the top young athletes have to decide what sport they wish to pursue they gravitate away from Soccer and toward other sports that are more popular in the United States.

In other countries, such a Ghana, there are fewer options when it comes to highly publicized sports. In many, and would even say most nations the following for Soccer is much bigger than the NFL, MLB, and NBA combined. In these countries you attract the very best athletes that nation as to offer because in their world Soccer is king. The popularity of the game and development of talent in the United States is the best that it has been and is only getting better. I just do not see that shift occurring in the United States where soccer will attract the top athletes which is why the United States will never be an upper echelon nation for Soccer.


Nate said...

Size of country and talent pool do not necessarily equate to success in international sports. It isn't the quantity of the talent pool that matters, but the quality. The U.S.'s pool may be bigger, but does that make it better? Who cares if we have 500 players living at the national team facility if Ghana has 25 players that are more quality than our 500? Only 11 can play at a time, remember? The same can be said for the Dominican Republic in baseball, the Caribbean islands in sprinting, and New Zealand in rugby. These populations are tiny in comparison to the U.S, yet these nations produce athletes for these sports that are per-capita far superior to the U.S.

The logic that America has the most talented 'athletes' therefore that should equate to World Cup success, is simply flawed on every level. It's the TYPE of athlete that counts, and all of the variables that cannot be measured on a stat sheet, such as vision, creativity, endurance, and composure are simply too important to the game to ignore.
Also, the word 'athlete' as we perceive it in the U.S. doesn't translate to success in soccer, so it doesn't matter how many we have. Just go into Dick's sporting goods and look at the manikins - they are all 6'4", 230 and look like meatballs. That's our image of 'athletic' here in the states - big, powerful, and high on testosterone - and it works for basketball, football, and hockey, but not for soccer. If Shawne Merriman did his ridiculous celebration dance after each time he connected a pass, he'd need O2 20 minutes into the game! No other team sport combines the aerobic, anaerobic, and VO2 max requirements of soccer. This isn't arguable. Now, mix that with two commercial-free, time out- free, 45 min. halves and at the end of it you've wound up sprinting almost 6 or 7 miles, all while trying to control a ball with your feet, chest, and head, without the use of in-helmet radios, huddles, or time-outs. Bundle all of that up at the World Cup level and you have an athlete in every sense of the word. One with sub-five minute mile endurance, 4.5 forty speed, maximum flexibility, and core and leg strength synonymous with Tour de France cyclists.

As far as soccer's future in Muurica is concerned, it is already attracting the top athletes the nation has to offer, it just depends on your definition of the word as noted above. It will continue to attract (on the men's side) people with an average weight of 150-180 lbs and an average height of 5'8"-6'2". This holds true on a global level. Manu Ginobli is from a country which is a soccer powerhouse, but he chose a different sport because of his natural frame. It's silly to make blanket statements regarding athletics, because all sports are different and require different skill sets.

As far as kids choosing a sport at a young age, and not continuing on with soccer, it's usually because their lack of skills and fitness prohibit them from doing so. I challenge anyone to find a more organized and competitive youth system than the USYSA. More young athletes from this system go on to play Division I sports per-capita more than any other youth sports org. in this country, and it's not even debatable. Go to any top clubs in any city in America and examine their U18 teams, odds are up to 80% of the rosters are going D-I. AND these college programs have a quarter of the roster spots open at quarter of the colleges and universities in comparison to football, basketball, and baseball. So the athletes are there, the critics and journalists simply don't know any of them.

Soccer will continue to be what it already is in the U.S. - a niche sport that at a higher level doesn't sit well with the American zeitgeist. And to be honest that's how we like it! Polarizing & dramatic. The way all great sports should be!

Adam said...

I never formed the argument that Soccer players are not athletes. I agree with you 100% that the level of athleticism it takes to play Soccer is amazing. And I also agree that it take a different level of athleticism. And I also undestand your argument that you can only play 11 players at the same time. But I still stand by my argument that the United States does not reach its full potential in Soccer because the talent pool is so spread out. I do not think that America has the best talent pool in the world, but would argue that it could be considered better than a country like Ghana. And I really don't think that US Soccer is getting the best athletes in the nation. I agree with what you said about our view of an "athlete" but at the same rate these individuals will shape their body to match the sport that they are playing. The same can be said for a Soccer player. An athlete who determines he will take on Soccer will begin to train in a specific way to be a Soccer player and shape their body accordingly. (Which I know you are familiar with!!!) You cannot compare the athleticism of Football Players and Soccer Players because they are completly different. It would be comparing "apples to oranges."

Please do not take this in any way as being a bash against Soccer or Soccer players. I think it takes an incredible athlete to be a soccer player. I also am not making the argument that people should stray away from Soccer to other sports. I was sharing some thoughts on Soccer in the United States to open up discussion (which has occurred!)

Nate said...

You're good, dude. I enjoy the dialogue, but the talent pool isn't spread out. At the age of 14 or 15, the USSF identifies players and invites them to become a part of the National Pool. They live together, go to school together, and play together through the U-15, U-17, and U-20 levels. ( They are the opposite of spread out. After this they either become a part of Generation Adidas and play in the MLS, play in Europe, or leave the game. The talent pool of the U.S. compared to Ghana, and believe me on this, is definitely inferior. Just as it is to smaller nations such as the Ivory Coast, Portugal, and Holland. Additionally, Ghana won the U-20 World Championship in 2009 and has been putting young players in the the Premier League and Ligue 1 for years. We (the USA) are just now breaking into these leagues...

And you're exactly right that you can't compare athletes from one sport to another. They are all different. So since you can't compare them from sport to sport, how can you come to the conclusion that one sport is or isn't getting the 'best' athletes? Can't be done. Athleticism in every sense of the word is extremely subjective. One of the problems our society makes is that we mistakenly correlate the word athleticism with potential success in a sport. "That kid's a hell of an athlete..." Well, can he hit the ball, can he catch the ball, does he mesh well with his teammates, is he a grease-fire off the field? What about these questions? God knows the USA had a very 'athletic' back four, but they couldn't distribute the ball effectively or organize themselves tactically to stop anyone. Athleticism, population size, and money only gets you so far - no matter what the sport.

Adam said...

Good, I thought you were mad! Plus I am in no way near a Soccer follower, I was just offering up my thoughts on why we are not as competitive at Soccer in the International landscape. I think the United States has made huge strides in developing talent. And when I say spread out I mean they are participating in other sports not just geographically. Maybe Ghana was a bad example! I could use a writer on Soccer topics for the blog. I will give you access to post if you are interested! It would bring a good angle to an otherwise Baseball, Football, Basketball centered Blog!

Wojo said...

I think one point that has been overlooked relates to the history and culture of soccer in the United States. Even though soccer has been played in the United States for decades, it has not received the focus of other sports until recently. This is where you are going, Adam, when you note that sports like football, baseball, and basketball in the US seem to draw the best players from their respective sports. These sports have been popular in the United States for a long time, attracting many young athletes, and has consistently seen a very high level competition. This in turn has drawn copious amounts of money to each sport and allowed them to further expand their market share of the public's interest.

Soccer, on the other hand, has lurked in the background and seems to have really stepped more in the limelight starting in the 1990's (when we finally made some World Cup appearances). Now, there is much more of a push to make US soccer become a world-class program and improve its popularity in country. During the time that US soccer laid dormant, the best professional leagues in the world sprouted in other countries like England, Italy, and Spain. Other countries developed their soccer programs long before we did and are now well-established organizations producing top-notch players (there's an article about Samuel Eto'o from Cameron that hits on this point in the World Cup edition of Time magazine. . . I have it if anyone wants to borrow it!)

Now, we find ourselves trying to play catch up in international soccer. We're starting to see the product of a program established in the late-90's to compete with the rest of the world. I don't think there is anything inherently inferior in our talent pool, but rather the time and energy we are willing to put into an entire soccer program- one that will consistently produce quality players far into the future. Will it help soccer's popularity in the US? Probably, if we can put out some winners. Can our society support another major sport? That might be a question for another post.