Before today’s World Cup matches started, the U.S. needed two things to advance: a win by Italy over the Czech Republic, and a U.S. win over tiny Ghana. The matches just ended and Italy did their part, winning 2-0. But the U.S. tanked badly and lost to Ghana, 2-1. The vaunted American team–”our best ever!”–looked woefully inadequate. Watching the match was eerily like watching Game 6 of the NBA Finals; the U.S. wearing Mavs white and blue, with Ghana in Miami Heat red. With the score tied, Ghana benefited from a terrible call of a Dwayne Wade-esque “non foul” in the box, resulting in a successful penalty kick. But the bottom line was that the U.S. stars did not step up, and they put themselves in position to lose with numerous missed opportunities. So why can’t the U.S. succeed? Keep reading.
To understand the sorry state of U.S. soccer, consider this: Ghana, a small, impoverished African farming country of 22 million, slightly smaller than Oregon, whose chief export is chocolate, managed to field a team that beat the mighty American colossus with its 300 million people and state-of-the-art resources.
How? Because in Ghana, soccer is king. Every kid grows up dreaming of one thing: to play on his country’s team in the World Cup (this is the exact same dream of every kid in Brazil, England, Italy, Portugal, etc.) So the sport of soccer gets not only the very best athletes, it gets their hearts and minds as well. It also gets government resources, the best coaches available, and massive coverage in the national media.
In America, the best athletes are playing football, baseball, and basketball. Then come hockey, golf, and tennis. Soccer rates seventh, at best. No one “dreams” of playing Major League Soccer; it’s a fallback option at best. So until the mindset changes, and our best athletes devote themselves to soccer from infancy the way kids around the world do, we will always be second best.
Watching the World Cup, it is clear to even an uneducated eye that our players are nowhere near the caliber of the Europeans or South Americans. In today’s crucial match, the U.S. corner kicks sailed so high no one even had a chance, headers were wildly off the mark, and passes to open players were frequently misplayed. There is no quick fix for this.
But there is hope. The huge infusion of immigrants from Mexico and Central America brings with them a passion for the sport that is infectious. Our growing population will look for new avenues of sports participation and soccer is a marketable option, now that two generations of soccer-savvy club players are engaged in the sport. Bruce Arena, the dominant U.S. coach for 30 years, will likely step aside for new leadership. Perhaps the biggest step is that this year’s World Cup is getting unprecedented exposure on ESPN and in the U.S. media. Making soccer sexy is everything.