The Biggest Fallacy of American Soccer
One of the biggest fallacies I hear concerning American soccer is that we are not as good as the rest of the world because there are too many other sports attracting our best athletes. “Imagine if Lebron James played soccer!” is an all-too-often phrase that comes from the mouth of American soccer apologists. Now, on one level, I agree with this sentiment. American soccer would be much better (overall) if soccer was more popular than football and basketball in the U.S., but this is not our biggest problem. Let me give you two examples why:
If you’re even a moderate American soccer fan you should know these names because both of these men have played prominent roles in the the past few World Cups. Andres Iniesta scored the winning goal of the 2010 World Cup Final for Spain and Andrea Pirlo is the evergreen midfield-maestro who starred on the 2006 World Cup winning Italian team.
The reason I bring up these two players in particular is, to put it bluntly, they are not the respective “Lebron James’s” of Spain and Italy. Andres Iniesta is 5’7” and Andrea Pirlo is 5’10”. Furthermore, neither player is either incredibly fast, quick, or strong. Yet, both of these players are considered two of the greatest midfielders of our generation.
Let me flip this around and explain why the U.S. is better than everyone else in basketball. Once again, it isn’t because every other nation’s best athletes are playing soccer. Look at the NBA finals. The starting centers for both teams were non-Americans. Andrew Bogut of the Warriors is from Australia and Timofey Mozgov of the Cavaliers is from Russia.
The reason why the U.S. is better than both Australia and Russia in Basketball is the same reason why Spain and Italy are better than the U.S. in soccer: Culture. That’s right culture. In fact, you can test this theory quite easily. If you live near a public park in the U.S. I would put money on the fact that most days of the week there are kids playing pickup basketball on the courts. There is a park about 10 minutes from my house and there are close to 50 kids (from elementary school aged to high schoolers) playing pickup basketball for hours every afternoon and evening of the year.
The question is not about whether our best athletes are being drawn to other sports, the question is whether American children are touching a soccer ball outside of organized practices and games. Unfortunately, in most cases the answer is “no.”
One of the greatest things about soccer is that there are very few physical attributes necessary to be a great player. Of course physical specimens like Cristiano Ronaldo are going to do well. Speed + power + agility serves most people well in most sports (except baseball maybe). Players like Andres Iniesta and Andrea Pirlo can dominate games with their technical, tactical, and mental acumen while being physically limited. Yet the reason these players are able to do these things is because they’ve had a soccer ball at their feet since they were three years old.
Go out into the streets of Spain and Italy. What do you see the children doing? They are playing soccer. The parks are filled with pickup games in the same way that American parks are filled with pickup basketball games.
If America is going to become better at soccer we need to change this fundamental difference before we attempt anything else. Before we worry about our best athletes playing other sports or changing our developmental systems America needs to get our children playing with each other on their own. Messi became the greatest soccer player on the planet because he had most likely touched a soccer ball more times by the time he was nine than most current players in the MLS have.
Food for thought.