Not That Kind of Player
 
As I sit here and watch the Copa America, I obviously notice major differences between US Soccer and the teams of South and Central America on display.  That’s nothing new and an amateur soccer fan could probably tell you the same thing.  What really piques my interest in these games is something brought to my attention by a friend of mine who is undoubtedly a soccer novice.  He emailed me a link to an ESPN Soccernet story about La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy that seems to be churning out World Players of the Year like the U.S. Mint presses money.  As an unabashed admirer of the style and ethos of Barcelona, I’ve read my fair share of pieces about what makes these young men into footballing gods. By now, the story is well known. Starlets are plucked from local Catalan teams (mostly, save the odd foreigner) and educated in the way of pass and move, tiki-taka. Very few make the grade of the first team while others are poached by foreign clubs with lesser restrictions regarding youth transfers (looking at you Monsieur Wenger).

Quickly, the Barcelona way has become the development plan du jour. Inevitably, the question becomes, at least in the American soccer community, “Why can’t we do that here?” 

The easy answer would be there’s no reason we can’t install a Barcelona-like academy here.  The US spends more on its youth national team than any other country in the world. We have the best facilities in the world and an increasing population of soccer players, ingredients which many other nations would quickly trade places with us for.

Unfortunately though, the United States has no “soccer culture.”  Sure, the United States has a culture of sport. Americans love to win, love beating other countries in anything we compete in.  But we lack a clearly definable sporting culture that is cross-generational and multi-demographic.  

Americans love football (gridiron) but that is an insular culture, one in which we do not test ourselves against other countries.[1]  Baseball, a Western hemisphere phenomenon, rarely shows the sort of cultural touch points as soccer bar the slick-handling Central American infielder or the enhanced, slugging first baseman of the North American countries.  Basketball exists in an environment that has made some excursions outside the Americans borders but comes nowhere near as close to rivaling soccer’s worldwide impact.  NBA teams have failed to extend their fan bases to the sneaker-head underground of Europe or Asia.

For the most part, our sports are products of our own cultures, our own inventions.  Basketball, baseball and football were all incorporated into organized leagues in the United States. Soccer exists as one of the only instances in which Americans have to “catch up” to the rest of the world.[2]  In this sense, we have yet to define what our soccer culture is. While Brazil, Spain and Mexico have all come to grips with what their country’s soccer identity is, Americans, even though we have supported a national team for as long as these nations, can not identify what makes American soccer “American.”

We have yet to determine how our players should play or what our players should look like when they play.  I remember going to the Disney Showcase and seeing the U17 French national team take the pitch with what looked like doppelgangers of Henry, Viera and Makelele.  That’s not to say we need a cookie-cutter assembly line of players, but it was obvious that the French had a prototype of players they were looking for and grooming, with a balanced blend of pace, power and guile as well as a method for developing said players.

Perhaps the French should be our model. After all, they are grappling with the same immigration issues both on and off the pitch that the United States seems to encounter every election. What it means to be “French,” a flashpoint stoked by North African immigration, has brought the FFF into hot water regarding player quotas.  In the same way, the United States has had trouble integrating its Hispanic American players into a largely Anglo and African American player pool.  One can only look at the difficulty someone with the undoubted skill of Jose Torres has had at cracking the national team. [3] 

Returning to culture though, the American model is unsure of what kind of player we want to develop and what kind of player the culture will develop.  Without a soccer culture, we will inherit players that are in a sense, random.  They will develop in whatever regional or state culture they are nurtured in.  A great example of this is Clint Dempsey who grew up playing in the Hispanic adult leagues in Nacogadoches, Texas, developing a flair for the game not seen in many American players. Wilmer Cabrera, head coach of the US U-17 National Team, notes the differences in culture.  Speaking after their Round of 16 elimination in the FIFA U17 World Cup he states, “They have more technique. We have kids who don’t start practicing soccer everyday until they come to Bradenton. Do you realize that? The first time they practice everyday is when they come to us. It’s not the players’ fault. It’s cultural. It’s the system and we cannot change that from one day to the next.”[4]

Contrast Dempsey’s randomness with that of Landon Donovan, a Southern Californian product of US development academies from a young age, who bypassed college soccer and has been a mainstay of the national team set up.  Dempsey, a product of pick-up soccer, Donovan a product of U.S. development programs. Neither of these are the wrong approach, after all, both have or still ply their trade in the English Premier League.  However, the players mentioned above are the exception to the rule. For every Donovan and Dempsey that we produce every generation, Spain produces untold amounts.[5]

Hopefully the new U.S. Soccer Curriculum will be a step in the right direction.  After giving it a read over, it does seem that the U.S. is moving in the right direction in terms of developing a culture.  However, from top to bottom, the program must be bought into.  We can’t have the full national team playing 4-4-2 while the Curriculum indicates a preference for 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. [6]  Barcelona’s ethos of Mes que un club, pretentious or not, helps install an aura and acts as a mission statement for the club. It is more than a club, it is a culture, it is a way of life. Until the United States soccer establishment develops a Mes que un pais attitude, the US can expect it’s soccer culture to remain random while unpredictably producing one or two great players, some good players and a lot of average players.

 

 

[1] A Champions League of American Football would be interesting though. Canadian Grey Cup Finalists vs. Super Bowl finalists.  A (nearly) World Championship!

[2] Is it fair to compare our pedigree with that of countries who have supported professional teams for a hundred years? Probably not (this is Don Garber’s argument), but we have a hundred years of soccer history to look at how other teams got to where they are now.

[3] No knock against Michael Bradley or Jermaine Jones, both excellent players in their roles. Torres offers ball retention abilities in the range of a John O’Brien, something the U.S. could use.

[4] http://www.socceramerica.com/article/42855/wilmer-cabrera-us-boys-are-immature.html

[5] Cesc Fabregas has trouble making the First XI.  He is the captain of Arsenal FC. Santi Cazorla, who torched the U.S. in a friendly this summer, rarely sees more than 20 minutes off the bench.

[6] Bob Bradley seems to prefer a narrow 4-4-2 but did alternate with a 4-2-3-1 in the Gold Cup.

 

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    Clint Irwin is a professional footballer and an amateur writer.

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