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Don't blame us, we voted for Karl Pilkington.


Arresting Development

Can he play in Europe? Can he start for the USMNT?
Can Fiji Water hydrate me properly after a grueling day signing autographs?
***
Remember paper?

You know, that stuff we used to read stuff on. You might remember it referred to as "papyrus." It was made out of wood pulp, or something. It's hard to really say. This "paper" was invented by the ancient Egyptians and, presumably, the manufacturing process was taught to them by the same aliens who built the pyramids. My memory of all this is a little fuzzy. Forgive me.

Anyways, ancient man used to use paper and often bound these pages into volumes called, "books." Which were read to gain knowledge and or entertain you before television was invented.

One day I stumbled across one of these "books" in my daily adventures and took it home with me. "The Rough Guide to Cult Football" it was titled. Something told me this would find a perfect home resting comfortably atop the lid on my toilet for reading material, as the fear of dropping an iPhone and or iPad into the bowl would be worse than having your pinky finger lopped off.

This book was full of fun tidbits, profiles, charts, pictures, anecdotes  etc. about football, or what we uncouth Americans call, "soccer." (A sport played with your feet.) Basically fun stuff from the Time Before, aka when soccer was available on television 24/7/365 to Americans -- so roughly 2001.

Throughout this tome, there are numerous shots by the British writers at America's attempt to play the sport. In fact, here's one in list form, including a dig at ESPN analyst and ginger extraordinaire, Alexi Lalas. There are swipes, too, at the defunct NASL. If you lived in a cave and had no knowledge of the outside world (but somehow had this book) you'd get the picture Americans attempting to play the sport of soccer would be akin to chimpanzee's hammering away at a typewriter -- albeit less hilarious. (It's unlikely someone living in isolation in the woods would draw parallels to something based off a Simpsons joke, but you never know.)

Reading all this -- and knowing a little bit how the Brits think -- there's a definite fearful tone in the writing. Why would British hacks take so much pleasure in perpetuating the myth Americans don't know a thing about soccer unless, deep down, they were afraid of the Colonies one day conquering the sports like we Yanks have done nearly all other team sports, well the ones we care about anyway. Let Denmark have Team Handball.

Why don't the English crack wise about China's inability to raise its soccer profile?

China has a robust economy, over a billion citizens and a communist government pushing excellence in sports -- see the Beijing Olympics -- yet soccer in the country languishes in the backwaters. China has played in one World Cup -- 2002. It's current national team is comprised entirely of players from it's own domestic league, the Chinese Super League which in the last two days saw high-profile players Didier Drogba and Niclas Anelka jump ship barely a year into their contracts.

Remember Dong Faagzhuo? Allegedly this nascent Chinese superstar, signed to Manchester United last decade?

Yeah, me neither.

And yet, here we are as we hit the main course of 2014 CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. Seemingly not a day goes by where somebody hatches an idea why the United States lags behind the world soccer powers like Brazil and Spain nearly 25 years since the "modern era" since the 1990 World Cup. Monday it was ESPN's Roger Bennett writing a long story theorizing why the United States hasn't produced a star player like Lionel Messi. Read it if you haven't, if only to stir the juices in your brain.

Everybody who's ever watched an American soccer game or considers his or herself a fan has probably spent plenty of time speculating on the subject.

It's flawed youth development that only cares about trophies.

It's MLS's closed system where the clubs can't directly train their own youth academies like the rest of the world.

It's the broken college/pro idea all other American sports use.

It's because American players want to get an education.

It's because the USSF hasn't figured out how to integrate America's growing Hispanic population.

It's because not enough players are in Europe.

It's because we lost Giuseppe Rossi to Italy.

It's because MLS doesn't have promotion and relegation.

It's because there aren't enough Americans on Champions League clubs.

The USSF doesn't have enough oversight.

The USSF has too much oversight.

American kids play other sports.

The United States is too big geographically.

It's because LeBron James decided to play basketball instead of soccer.

It's because of something Bob Bradley did, so it's likely his fault.

Or it's because of the Mayans.

That about covers about all the arguments.

In short, it's probably some of these and all of these or none of these. Maybe we're all wasting too much thinking about all this, losing focus on the other details, or beyond that even enjoying the games at hand, such as Tuesday night's all-important traditional end of January friendly, this time against Canada in Houston. (9 p.m., ESPN2)

Sometimes it feels like the amount of time we (myself included) have poured into figuring out why America hasn't conquered the world of soccer, is staggering. Never-mind these facts:

1. the U.S. is almost an automatic World Cup qualifier, reaching the knockout rounds two of the last three competitions
2. Out of the 200-plus nations in FIFA, eight have won a World Cup. Eight, is simply astounding.

Could the U.S. be further along? Should we as fans expect a little more than a place in the Round of 16 in the World Cup? Definitely.

By the same token, can we all of a sudden transplant Barcelona's La Masia training ground, bottle up whatever magical water flows there and plop it into the fields of America and replicate the results? Obviously not. You could observe what a Barcelona does for months, or the German youth system, but applying it to America and simply snapping your fingers and expecting results is asinine.

If there is one thing I'll say is a definite factor in the hindrance of U.S. soccer development is the difference where most American parents wouldn't want their children, at say, 13 training with a pro club with maybe the outside shot of a pro contract by the time he's 18. In Europe or around the world this isn't balked at, yet for so many American parents the driving force is the almighty college scholarship, so nearly all decisions for their soccer-playing children are made with that in mind, not the greater development of the sport in the country. Call it a sense of entitlement. "My little Hunter plays U12 on Rockingham United. He's a shoo-in for a spot on Stanford's college team."

Right.

Take a big country like Brazil. There's thousands upon thousands of kids playing against each other around the clock. It produces better players and weeds out the weaker ones, much like what we have with basketball in America. If you go to a playground, maybe you'll see some talent kids playing hoops, yet only the best of the best are going to a Division I school and even less to the NBA.

In the more abstract sense, let's keep looking at basketball.

European basketball clubs and academies continually produce players, fundamentally sound players. You know all the stereotypes. Guys who can pass, shoot, make free throws, etc. Solid all-around basketball players. You can take that player, stick in at an American college and chances are he'll do fairly well even if ... HE'S SOFT! (because every single European to play basketball is softer than a wedge of brie.)

As fundamentally capable as that player is, line him up against a guy like LeBron James who is physically unlike nearly 99.99999999999999999999999999 percent of the human population and there's going to be a gap. There is something inherently special about LeBron on the basketball court, something that no matter if you took someone with a base level of skill, trained him for eight hours a day for years, he'll never be able to replicate.

Or even take a basketball player like J.J. Redick. Not an overwhelming physical player. There's no shortage of 6-foot-4 shooting guards. Redick, for whatever reason, has that knack for the 3-point shot and has carved out an NBA career from it. He's able to to that one thing on the court very, very well.

This might apply to soccer even more, but in a different way. It goes back to my long-held theory that of all the sports, soccer is art. It can be played so many different ways to create beauty. It's not purely physical. If it were, 6-foot-7 Peter Crouch would theoretically a better player than the 5-foot-7 Lionel Messi. If Everton left back Leighton Baines walked past you on the street, you'd never think he's a borderline world class player.

There probably isn't a magic formula for what makes a world-class soccer player, though some would argue that Messi has the ideal height. There are so many little different skill sets in the game, and with the proper coaching can be used and molded into a successful team. There's yet to be a team of 11 Franz Beckenbauers, who at his pomp could conceivably play anywhere on the field.

No matter where you stand on the U.S. soccer development paradigm, we can agree the America has produced a steady string of solid, physically fit, capable soccer players with high stamina. Where the U.S. lags far behind the world is finding creative, soccer-minds. There aren't many Americans who we think of as crafty and cagey. When we do have an example of a highly intelligent American player, it's Claudio Reyna. To wit, granted these are the top examples, but the U.S. hasn't produced guys like Xavi or Andrea Pirlo -- or even their non-union Mexican equivalents. (Note, that's another Simpsons reference.) Instead the definitive players of the brief Jurgen Klinsmann era are gritty grinders like Jermaine Jones.

Here's the thing, in soccer you can win with a guy like Jones.

No, seriously, stop laughing.

Goal by MLS, still counts as one on the scoreboard. 

It's not easy, but international soccer isn't always about cramming the most individual talent possibly in the starting XI. It's finding a system that works and limiting mistakes. As the U.S. under Bradley (and Klinsmann) proved, sometimes all it takes is one fortunate moment over the span of 90 minutes to produce a result, ie. vs. Spain, Italy, Mexico etc.

When the U.S. takes on Canada Tuesday, or plays at Honduras in a qualifier next Wednesday, do you think when the ball touches the feet of Graham Zusi do you think he's worrying about the fact he played at Maryland or was only a second-round MLS pick? Or when Mixx Diskerud collects a pass he's remembering how he came up through the Stabaek youth system in Norway and played briefly in Belgium before he could legally buy a can of Budweiser in the United States?

We as fans worry about this stuff a lot more than the players, or even Klinsmann, although his comments to the Wall Street Journal might say otherwise. On the eve of qualification, it doesn't seem the German-born coach is too worried about pedigrees or which club pays your wages, he wants guys with hunger who are driven to consistently be the best they can be -- sounds decidedly American, doesn't it?

It speaks to that insecurity we as American soccer fans are ingrained to feel. That the rest of the world scoffs at us, while the mainstream media in our country laughs behind our backs about the sport.

In the words of the great Dr. Steve Brule, "Who cares?"

If, next week vs. Honduras, (a game that's fairly important) are we going to care if a goal is scored by Terrance Boyd who came up in the Hertha Berlin youth set-up in Germany or if it's Chris Wondolowski, who played with something called the Chico State Wildcats as a kid? Probably not.

Look, this isn't something people are going to like to hear, but we've been talking about U.S. soccer player development for years and it has moved at a glacial pace. Everyone who cares about soccer has an opinion on it, but enacting something that's comprehensive and works seems a bridge too far -- if for the immediate future. There are so  many forces at play, things unique to America compared to the rest of the world trying to copy or emulate another system will take years to take root. Instead whomever is the U.S. coach or in a position or power with the USSF is going to have to accept the situation and make it work the best for him.

There isn't a magic bullet. And to think a wealthy country of 350 people needs one to compete is a defeatism mentality, a fall-back excuse for when the United States -- at all levels, especially the youth -- comes up short. The player pool is deep enough to find 23 solid international players at any given time.

Realistically, whatever success the U.S. has on the soccer field is going to be wrought the "American Way." For better or for worse ... and whatever that ultimately means.

Look it up in a book. Maybe it'll have a definition.

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2 Responses to “Arresting Development”

  1. # Blogger 30f

    I know this is a big picture think piece, but I wanted to add in two USMNT things that have me thinking the past couple days ...

    1. The Klinny-copter
    2. Holtby's arrival at White Hart Lane lessening Clint's playing time with Tottenham.  

  2. # Blogger HBO2003

    The simple answer, that there isn't one, is probably correct this time.

    Another American sport that has this column written twice a year every year is men's tennis. Why isn't there an American men's tennis star? There have been at least 2 each decade up until the 00s. Most of the European women train in FL so the facilities and programs are here. The rewards are great, a huge shoe contract and your choice of an Adam Sandler rom-com love interest WAG. What more could you want?

    - The Klinsmann diatribe I enjoyed the most this week was the one that showed up in the NY Times telling his players that staying out for three beers is too long if they hope to have a serious career. Wonder how he and Ribery got along at Bayern.  

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