U.S Soccer fandom is a confusing experience. Supporting the women’s team is my rare chance to share the mindset of a San Antonio Spurs fan; the expected obliteration of all opposition coupled with utter disappointment at anything less. Case in point, the USWNT just ended a great tournament run in the Women’s World Cup with a dominant championship display, giving them the most titles in the history of the tournament. Contradictorily, the men’s team brings me back down to the reality I always face in supporting my other American teams (the Eagles and Pistons); a crippling cycle of unbound optimism, fading hope, and inevitable disappointment.
The men’s team, ranked 27th according to the FIFA world rankings, is currently struggling to beat low-level CONCACAF sides in the Gold Cup. This underachievement is historic; in World Cup history the USMNT’s best results to date are reaching the semi-finals of the inaugural world cup in 1930, which featured only 13 teams, and the quarter-finals of the 2002 world cup. But why the glaring distinction between two teams born out of the same soccer environment?
Maybe I’m entitled in thinking the U.S. should be good at every sport, but when your country has over 300 million people, I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect that we can find 11 of them who are great at the sport that everyone else in the world plays. In evaluating why U.S. men’s soccer has not achieved success, people often compare its development to that of more successful nations in Europe like Spain and Germany. The U.S.’s deviations from those nations’ player development methods are viewed as flaws in our own system.
These countries’ success is often attributed to their strong league system. Their players get involved with professional clubs from an early age, and often make it into the senior team around age 18. For example, Lionel Messi, instant legend, scored his first goal for FC Barcelona at age 17. Early player involvement in the highest levels of competition serves to create a revolving door of generational talent that strengthens both the domestic league and national team. Germany and Spain are clear-cut examples of this model being successful with their national and club teams dominating international and European competition over the past several years.
The U.S. Soccer player development model blends the European system with the more standard American system of college athletics. For instance, Clint Dempsey spent 3 years playing for Furman University before joining the New England Revolution at age 21, while Michael Bradley bypassed college soccer altogether and joined MetroStars (now the NY Red Bulls) at age 16. Although the college system works for other sports, for soccer it has been criticized for stunting player growth and blamed as a critical flaw of the American soccer player development system. The main argument against college soccer is that it forces young players to play in a low-quality league at a crucial period in their development. For perspective, Neymar, Pogba, and Sterling are all 23 or younger, and are already established superstars at top professional clubs in Europe. Criticism of the college soccer system is often coupled with criticism of the weakness of our domestic league. The MLS is somewhere in between the English 2nd and 3rd divisions in terms of quality, as U.S. players are often better off going abroad to Europe to experience higher level leagues and get a real taste of international competition.
The MLS is somewhere in between the English 2nd and 3rd divisions in terms of quality, as U.S. players are often better off going abroad to Europe to experience higher level leagues and get a real taste of international competition.
With this domestic soccer structure in place, it seems like the U.S. national teams are doomed to fail. However, the success of the USWNT shows that our commonly criticized soccer infrastructure is not necessarily the root of the USMNT’s underachievement. All of the players from the World Cup winning USWNT side played college soccer; in fact World Cup breakout star, Morgan Brian just finished playing for the University of Virginia this past year. Also, all of the team currently play in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), a league founded in 2013 as a successor to one of the several failed attempts at women’s soccer leagues. Just like men’s soccer, women’s soccer in America follows a player development model that deviates from the popular European model. So what allows the USWNT to consistently achieve success in international competition despite being a product of a model that supposedly holds back the USMNT?
What allows the USWNT to consistently achieve success in international competition despite being a product of a model that supposedly holds back the USMNT?
One major difference that could explain the distinction, is the concentration of top American athletes in the sport. On the men’s side, top athletes often favor other more popular and more financially-rewarding sports like American football, basketball, and baseball. On the women’s side there are fewer options for professional sports (the WNBA and WTA are probably the only mainstream leagues), which leads to more female athletes choosing soccer. This means women’s soccer can get a larger proportion of top young talent to develop into professional athletes.
In American sports, the strength of the domestic league is a clear indication of the quality of the respective athletes, since it is rare for American athletes to play in other countries’ leagues. The failures of the women’s professional leagues is more due to lack of interest rather than lack of quality, as it features the best American and international talent playing together (e.g. 5-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta). American men’s soccer players wouldn’t need to go abroad to find competitive leagues if we were to tap into our large talent pool to develop athletes that could help grow the MLS into a top league. Imagine the state of USMNT if freak athletes like LeBron James, Calvin Johnson, and Mike Trout chose soccer instead of their respective sports.
The key to growing the game is getting more young male athletes to pick soccer instead of the more mainstream sports. Things seem to be trending that way as soccer is gaining popularity in the U.S.; a 2012 ESPN Sports Poll Annual Report showed that soccer was the 2nd most popular sport (behind only the NFL) for those aged 12-24 years old. If this increased popularity can lead to soccer becoming more competitive in recruiting young male athletes and more lucrative for those athletes, the USMNT can soon know the glory of winning a World Cup.