I take no pleasure in piling on U.S. soccer in the aftermath of the U.S. men’s national team’s failure to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia.
Actually, I lie — I take some pleasure.
My family is from Trinidad, and I remember the moment U.S. soccer arrived on the global scene when the men’s team qualified for the 1990 World Cup at the expense of, you guessed it, Trinidad and Tobago, the “minnow” that contributed to the team’s downfall in this international soccer cycle. That long-ago victory confirmed the decision to award the U.S. the 1994 World Cup and accelerated the establishment of Major League Soccer (MLS).
Tuesday’s 2-1 away loss to the Soca Warriors, as T&T’s team is dubbed, was instrumental in the U.S. team’s inability to advance. But even as we enjoy a 30-year soccer boom in the United States, the seeds of this collapse were sown long ago. Let’s begin with how the game is viewed and treated in the U.S. The “pay-to-play” model casts it as a middle- to upper-class sport, where millions of soccer moms and dads caravan their privileged offspring to weekend games in leafy hamlets. I didn’t just make that up.
“It’s not working for the underserved community,” said Doug Andreassen, chairman of U.S. soccer’s diversity task force, in an article published in The Guardian last year. “It’s working for the white kids. People don’t want to talk about it.”
That noninclusive image persists despite the identification of the problem and lip service paid to address it. That storyline doesn’t view soccer as a serious challenger to the big three: baseball, football and basketball. Although more kids play soccer than the big three, it’s a niche, like hockey or lacrosse.
Unabated, youth soccer continues to swell, at the expense of youth football, which is grappling with the implications of concussions and head trauma, and to some extent baseball, where there’s more concern about young arms and the innings they pitch. But while the soccer explosion has definitely enlarged the fan base, it has not concentrated the talent pool.
As former national team player-turned-broadcaster Taylor Twellman explained in his spot-on televised rant, there is no real developmental bridge for 14- to 18-year-old players. Good players in the U.S. in that age group are doing the travel soccer thing or targeting a college soccer scholarship. Some, who are talented enough, may be toiling in academies established by MLS franchises or at a few U.S. outposts of European clubs, such as the Everton Football Club of England. Some of it may be gratis for the most needy and talented; otherwise, parents are expected to pay for their youngsters to play.
The real diamonds in the rough — such as Christian Pulisic, the anointed future of U.S. soccer, who was the best U.S. player Tuesday night and scored the only U.S. goal — had to leave and hone his skills overseas. He did so at 15, and now at 19 he is a regular for Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga.
At a similar age, talented players in other countries have long since been identified and pipelined into academies affiliated with top professional clubs, which foot the bill for their training, housing and education. Soccer is in the DNA of some of these nations, and the commitment of their soccer federations to build from the youth level up results in successful national teams. That’s why “little” Iceland, population 332,000, is going to the World Cup and Panama, which for most of its history could best be described as a baseball nation, booked its ticket as well.
But after all these years, where is the comprehensive outreach to the communities that produce the elite U.S. athletes, the African-American athletes? There are programs to get inner-city African-American youths involved in ice hockey and lacrosse, but similar programs around soccer focus on Latin American and Hispanic kids.
Yes, I know that goalkeeper Tim Howard is African-American, but he and DaMarcus Beasley and former players such as Roy Lassiter and Cobi Jones are few and far between. (Let’s not forget the hand-wringing about the lack of African-Americans in major league baseball and youth programs instituted in the inner cities to try to close that glaring gap.)
Note: I didn’t say black athletes. There are many representatives of those whose family roots are from the Caribbean — Jozy Altidore, who plays on the U.S. national team, is of Haitian descent — and Africa, for example, under-17 national player Tim Weah, whose father, George, is from Liberia and is a former FIFA World Player of the Year. The younger Weah and his teammates are competing at the U-17 World Cup being staged in India. The senior national team’s roster also has players whose last names evidence Hispanic or Latino family backgrounds. This shows that the federation has been able at some level to tap into the large Hispanic population, for whom soccer is numero uno.
An overlapping theme to the U.S. men’s national team’s demise is the success of MLS, which is not considered a top-tier international league but is growing in stature. It might be more of a boon to regional national teams than to the United States. Players from the Caribbean and Latin America earn their keep in MLS, including the Seattle Sounders’ Román Torres, whose late goal Tuesday sent Panama to its first World Cup. Nine of the players on the Costa Rican team, also headed to Russia, play in MLS. And let us not forget the contribution made by the disgraced FIFA officialdom, former president Sepp Blatter and T&T’s own Jack Warner, who pumped money into regional federations while lining their own pockets.
The upshot is that for the first time since 1986, there will be a World Cup without the United States. A player like Pulisic will not be able to capitalize on his team’s participation, gain invaluable experience and enjoy the fruits of corporate and sponsorship attention. There is a legitimate concern that the U.S. viewing audience might shrink with no national team to root for.
These realities unsettle me. But just a little. Somewhere, I hope Paul Caligiuri has a few tears in his eyes.
Nick Charles is a soccer dad in upstate New York.
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