My hotel breakfast buffet voucher suddenly seemed less valuable as the annoyingly long line of young soccer players unfolded before me. Pocketing my ticket to the most important meal of the day, I went straight back to my room. However, my hatred for exceedingly long queues was tempered by wonder. What if one of these kids is part of America’s next top crop of soccer players? Could I be crossing paths with one who possesses the talent, drive, and luck to be one of America’s next soccer stars? And how many other hotels out there are crammed with hordes of young, wide-eyed practitioners of the game? Surely, based on sheer volume alone, the American youth soccer system machine will soon spit out the exceptionally creative and technical talent that is needed to conquer the gauntlet of the soccer field…er, right? With two major international tournaments from opposite hemispheres currently taking place and patriotic fervor arriving in kind, it is the perfect time to check up on the state of soccer in one’s preferred country; that country in the my case being the USA. It is a common sentiment that a country’s playing style often mimics the culture of that country. Well let’s examine how this idea applies to the United States.
Unfortunately, recent report cards for U.S. Soccer have come back as much less than flattering. Recent MLS import and Italian legend Andrea Pirlo recently said, “there is a cultural void that needs to be filled,” in terms of integrating technical ability very early on in a young American’s development. Similar to how a young child relatively quickly grasps the complexities of their native language, so to should a young player grasp the intricacies of soccer. In Europe, Pirlo goes on to say, “they train them in much more than just running. They train them in stopping the ball. Here that doesn’t happen.” In the U.S., on the other hand, “there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play.”
And in a recent hard-hitting article from the Guardian, journalist Les Carpenter rips into the USA’s pay-to-play youth soccer system. It is hard to argue that our current system is not rigged toward the children of rich parents who can afford to pay the escalating, exorbitant fees required to get into the best teams in the best tournaments. As a result, U.S. soccer (including the women’s sides) lacks much of the creativity and joie de vivre that grow organically from the cracks in the pavement, upon which kids rely on guile and close control to outwit their nemeses.
To recap, American soccer players are not technical enough and not creative enough. This lack of aptitude is a big problem. If soccer were a house constructed from scratch, technique and creativity would be the foundation that holds up the structure. To lack either is to build something with major liabilities and a tendency for crumbling.
Despite the overwhelming access to resources and multitudes of personnel involved in the American youth system compared to other countries, players are inordinately churned out with skillsets that are mostly uninspiring. In light of other American sports, it makes sense. Most skills required to compete in the big four sports of America, football, baseball, basketball, and hockey, are relatively rote and rely partially on strength, speed, and reactions. Often, all you need is a big man with decent eyesight and coordination to dominate. But, in soccer, vision is king. And vision is the great unifier of technique and creativity.
Going back to the context of culture, what does the U.S.’s current style say about the U.S.? The generally spiritless, vanilla get-it-done approach is more reminiscent of a stifling, rigid bureaucracy rather than the storm-the-bunker mentality and melting pot reality that are also major attributes of the U.S. and actually deserve to be celebrated. Only when the focus of the U.S. Soccer Federation migrates from the former to the latter, will the US have something worth celebrating.
After finishing in first place in their Copa America group and in preparation for the knockout stage, USMNT coach Jürgen Klinsmann has suddenly tapped into this idea. Klinsmann said, “The old story is the underdog story, and I cannot hear that story anymore. I want to see them risk things. Let’s go for it!” While I have reservations that shedding the underdog role could lead to overconfidence, I completely agree about “going for it!” It’s far better to go out in a blaze of glory than to leave the pitch littered with the lightly trampled eggshells of regret.
Two European clubs from the recent 2015/16 season come to mind that exemplify this fighting spirit. Of course there was Leicester City, champions who never backed down from their opponent, despite feeling like the underdog in every game. Then there was La Liga’s Rayo Vallecano who were determined to play every game with relentless attacking plays…despite lacking the talent to do so. The team won plaudits from many La Liga fans for their upbeat play, and were subsequently rewarded with relegation for their efforts. But hey, there is no relegation in international football.
United States soccer has come a long way and still has long way to go. Only when the U.S. Soccer Federation will tap into their country’s roots and solve the current institutionalized problems that limit technique and creativity, will many of the ills of U.S. soccer be cured. Until then, embrace reality and push forward. Shout out “we are underdogs and we’re here to kick some ass!” Let’s go for it!