Soccer fever seems to have affected a significant number of sports fans in the United States since the start of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Having closely followed the coverage of the event on ESPN and other sports media and carefully listened to the analysis by these outlets of Team USA’s performance in the tournament, I wanted to share some observations on soccer in the United States on the eve of the exit of the team from the competition at the hands of Belgium (2-1) in the round of 16. As a long-time soccer fan and as someone who played that sport at competitive levels since my childhood, I seek to highlight here some points that are rarely discussed in the media, if at all, and that I believe to be important in any sort of serious analysis of Team USA’s participation in the World Cup.
The first point is that in the vast majority of cases, the best American athletes on the men side of sports do not pursue careers as professional soccer players and this is likely to continue to be the case in the near future as well. This point might seem basic enough but, as far as I can tell, it remains strangely absent from both media discussions and everyday fan talk in sports bars, around water coolers, etc… One must remember that for most, if not all, other countries in the 2014 World Cup, soccer is by far the most popular and most lucrative athletic career to pursue. Kids and young adults dream of being the next big name, the next national star, the next Lionel Messi, Christiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Karim Benzema, Neymar Jr., or Giovanni Dos Santos. Not in the United States. The idolized names are Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning, Richard Sherman, or Miguel Cabrera. These are the best examples of successful sports personalities on the American landscape; they are cultural icons and they catch the imagination of all. They do not play soccer. Thus, the best young talents inevitably follow in their footsteps. That is where one hopes to find glory, big contracts, regular television appearances, and loyal fans. U.S. soccer has little access to the pool of the physically most able and mentally strongest athletes who are indeed the ones most equipped to overcome the highly demanding and extremely stressful big stages of high level sport competition like the FIFA World Cup.
Another element that is never touched upon is that competitive youth soccer in the United States is a suburban higher middle class affair. In fact, families that want their kids to play competitive soccer and to receive the benefit of adequate coaching must make a significant financial commitment ($500-$2000 per child not even counting summer camps). Even when some soccer clubs make the effort to provide a little financial relief to the occasional unique talent whose family is unable to shoulder the cost, it remains that the system in place creates big hurdles from the start of the process. When one adds to the picture the real possibility that the reward in the future would be meager, given that college scholarships for soccer are limited and that the average salary for a professional soccer player in Major League Soccer is not very high ($200,000 in 2014, compared to $4.5 million in the NBA, $3.9 million in the MLB, and $2 million in the NFL),* it is understandable that many would turn their back to the “beautiful game.”
In most other countries, soccer is the sport of the street, the sport of the lower middle class and the poor. For many of the kids in those environments, soccer is not simply a hobby. It is a way of life. Soccer is a framework through which an individual positions himself vis-à-vis “a human condition.” This framework might in addition play the role of a shield against destructive practices that lure many youth living in severe situations. Soccer, like basketball or football in many urban African American communities in the U.S., is perceived as the best hope out of difficult economic conditions. A young man who reaches his dream of becoming a professional soccer player might find himself all of a sudden in the role of a savior for a whole family, if not a whole neighborhood. The picture is less dramatic in European countries, but even there, most soccer players stem from lower classes. I am not trying to suggest that athletes from more affluent backgrounds cannot become the best at the sport they practice. But there is a uniqueness to the passion and creativity that ooze out of those who embrace soccer as a lifestyle that is deeply connected to existential questions. Soccer runs in the blood of those many underprivileged children who dream of recognition and economic success.
These points must be kept in mind when judging the performance of Team USA at this World Cup. But we must also recognize that American soccer is in a transitional period. There is more interest in soccer than ever before, the MLS is a financially viable league that will continue to grow in the future, and more importantly the inevitable demographic shifts in the American population will slowly raise the status of soccer. But for Team USA to become a world power, capable of competing for the ultimate title on a regular basis, soccer officials in the United States must find ways to make competitive soccer more accessible to all kinds of communities and must continue to raise the quality of youth coaching. Perhaps in the long run, we will then enjoy watching the German defense trying to contain the likes of Lebron James (NBA) and Michael Vick (NFL) on break, Belgian forwards attempting to go through a defensive front composed of the likes of the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom (NFL) or a Spanish midfield seeking to outwork the likes of Kevin Love (NBA) and Chris Paul (NBA). Until then, we must all be proud of the current Team USA whose players fought hard and represented their country with great dignity on the biggest of all soccer stages. Like the fans of all other countries in the World Cup, we cheered and hoped for one more goal, one more win, and one more round. We believed we could win until the last second of a grueling campaign. We left in the round of 16 but we will be back and we will again believe that we will win.
* Source: Businessinsider.com