Why is the US so bad at soccer?

Now that Team USA has emerged winless for the second time in the last three World Cups, the quadrennial gnashing of teeth has begun once again. As poorly as the team has historically performed in international competition, one fact that is overlooked is the popularity of soccer youth leagues. I'd guess that at least as many kids in America, if not more, play soccer as football, baseball, or basketball. There's a reason we have the term "soccer mom" but not "baseball mom". So why doesn't this popularity translate into success at the international level? A couple of theories:

1) Our best athletes choose to play football and basketball, whereas the best athletes in other countries choose to play soccer. This theory assumes that sports skills are fungible. The best intramural basketball players at Virginia Tech were the varsity football players (the varsity basketball players weren't allowed to compete in the intramural leagues).

While this might be true for basketball and football, I believe that soccer uses an entirely different skillset, and I don't think the opportunity cost for an athlete pursuing soccer is an athlete not pursuing football or basketball, and vice versa.

2) Soccer in America is a formal, organized sport, where talent is not allowed to flourish but rather is restricted and stifled, whereas in other countries, it is the sport of the playground. Anyone who plays basketball knows that the best talent not playing at a professional or college level is found on the blacktops of inner cities. There, the game is different: more raw, flashier, more creative, and faster. Social reputation, not just winning and losing, is at stake. Style matters. Thus, we have the best basketball talent in the world. In contrast, soccer is played in youth leagues where individual creativity is frowned upon and the success of the team comes first. The game is formal, controlled, and mechanical. Individual talent and creativity are stifled. Thus, the US, even to this day, has no world class ball strikers, whereas in the rest of the world, soccer is the sport of the common people, played in the same social milieu as basketball is in the US.

This theory seems plausible, but it doesn't explain the success of the US women's team in international soccer. I would think the same creativity-formality dynamics would also apply to women.

3) Lack of a professional soccer league. Young athletes would be less likely to become soccer players if they have no reason to think they could play soccer for a living without having to go overseas. This theory may have applied in the past, but no longer after the creation of MLS.

In the end, I'm not sure why the US men's team performs so poorly.

In remembrance of this year's efforts, I'd like to come up with a motto for Team USA. Here are some I came up with:

Team USA: the Bode Miller of soccer.
Team USA: in America, soccer plays you!
Team USA: oh, when you said football, you meant football.

Any others?

Share this

Jonathan, When I played my

Jonathan,

When I played my only game of soccer in HS PE class, I may have scored nearly as many goals (hyperbole) as I have seen scored in the 40 years since. Nobody said anything at the time about an offside rule.

Regards, Don

Argument 2 is plausible. As

Argument 2 is plausible. As for refutation by analogy with women's soccer, there are not many places in the world where young girls have the same social freedom as young boys to knock a soccer ball around for hours. The structure and safety afforded by American youth sports helps females overcome the handicaps their sisters face in other countries, even as that structure and emphasis on self-esteem stifles the creativity of the males.

The MLS exists, but there's

The MLS exists, but there's (comparatively) little money in it. The average player makes (IIRC) $30,000 a year,the top players make $100,000, and the salary cap is very low. In baseball, basketball, and football the minimum is around $250,000, plus there are more teams and so a demand for more players. Also, there are more college scholarships for those sports as well. But it all comes back down to spectator demand -- unitl the MLS gets the kind of interest in fan attendence and TV money, they won't be able to offer the salaries necessary for good athletes to choose soccer early enough that their skills are fungible.

As for #1, I think soccer skills are fungible, but they need to be developed early on. It isn't taken as seriously as basketball, etc. in great athletes' formative years, so the skills don't develop. You mean to tell me that obviously great athletes like Allen Iverson, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Derek Jeter wouldn't be great soccer players if they had played it seriously as they had been playing basketball, football, or baseball growing up?

Theory 2 is probably true

Theory 2 is probably true but not hugely important. (also the example of women's football is irrelevant - outside of the US, there is little interest in women's football which is very much a minority sport - it wouldn't be comparabe to the relative prestige between, say women's tennis and men's tennis). Remember the US has the advantage of a pretty big population. You don't need to have your best athletes playing soccer if you have enough really good athletes to spare. I'd say there are more proximate reasons why "Team USA" doesn't do well - principally parochialism. They are stuck in the CONCACAF region, playing against fairly poor teams. There's basically Mexico and the US and that's it - two big fishes playing in a small pond. Thus, they go and win their group or the CONCACAF cup and think they justify FIFA's ridiculous 6th in the world ranking. Meanwhile they have a coach who has never managed a club team in any of the elite leagues (England, Spain, Italy) or any other international side. Add to that that there aren't too many American players at any of the elite clubs- Demarcus Beasley plays for PSV Eindhoven and has experience in the Champions League but the few others who play in England or Germany play for lesser sides and most lay in the backwaters of the MLS. Teams like Ghana (supposedly 48th in the world but through to the last 16) have the likes of Michael Essien playing for the English champions Chelsea. There are no major barrriers to american footballing success: Scout for players with American connections playing in Europe or encourage American players to seek experience in Europe, even naturalise a few Brazilians (there are five at the world cup playing for other teams, even a country like Spain does this now) and most importantly hire a decent coach like, say, Guus Hiddink or Felipe Scolari.

As to #1, I generally agree

As to #1, I generally agree with Tom Greaves, which is that footspeed and foot control are major skill factors in the pool of these sports and other american sports, particularly our football as opposed to futbol, takes a lions share of athletes with superior speed. In this I'd be interested in an analysis of Team U.S.A.'s measured footspeed against say NFL or even college football teams as well as other nations futbol teams.

There might be a reason why Beasley is the only guy with real top flight european experience in that when healthy, he appeared to be the fastest guy on the U.S. squad.

I can only imagine what could be accomplished with a time machine and a random assortment of starting NFL wide receivers, defensive backs, and running backs...

As for women , soccer is

As for women , soccer is seen as a “male” sport and for social reasons women do not play soccer, only rarely, I guess there is not too many women playing professional American Football for the same reason.

Women don't play American football for the same reason they don't wrestle: few women enjoy violence.

A fourth reason is that soccer favors improvisation and a little chaos ( something that while not uncommon in the us, it’s rare), with less emphasis on teamwork than basketball and baseball.

Baseball is almost unique in that the individual can be a spectacular stand-out, and recognised as a world-class player, even if every single other player on the team is abyssmal. A five-tool player cannot be hidden even if the team loses 100 games. Put another way, you can lead the majors in home runs or hit .400 without any help from your teammates. You can't, however, be a world-class striker without offensive penetration and support.

- Josh

Our women excel on the world

Our women excel on the world stage because we were one of the first countries to allow our women to play. Other countries don't have the ability to field women's teams for either social or economic reasons. American women excel above national competition in other traditionally male sports also, even when our national team is not a world power house in mens' competitions. Look at hockey for example, it will be the same if womens basketball becomes an international competition. In a way it ties back to the idea that prosperity allows women out of the kitchen, or hut.

Athletic talent is

Athletic talent is definitely fungible. The best soccer player in my high school graduating class was also the best baseball player in the high school and has gone on to pitch professionally. He was also the best basketball player in my graduating class, perhaps the whole school.

Soccer requires many of the underlying genetic gifts as other sports: limb-eye coordination, agility, speed, quick reflexes, short reaction time, good eyesight, and the ability to think several moves ahead of your opponent. That's as necessary for a star second baseman as it is for a star midfielder. The difference is in the sport specific skills: hitting a curve ball as opposed to making a perfect 40-yard kick.

I think the lack of "playground soccer" has significant explanatory power, personally. The problem is not that American soccer players lack individual flash - although they do. The problem is that there is much less practice with the sport-specific skills. It's like the difference between the fastest man in hockey and the fastest 100m sprinter. Both have similar genetic gifts, but the hockey player has other skills the sprinter does not: skating, puck handling, ice vision, etc. Without a significant fraction of children who play soccer non-stop, American players will have less-developed soccer-specific skills.

- Josh

#1 and #2 are basically

#1 and #2 are basically correct, living in South America, I can tell that it is difficult to find a male over 6 that does NOT play soccer at least twice a week, esp. in Brazil and Argentina; in rich or poor neighborhood or even shanty towns.
That's why they are the best in the world.

As for women , soccer is seen as a "male" sport and for social reasons women do not play soccer, only rarely, I guess there is not too many women playing professional American Football for the same reason.

A fourth reason is that soccer favors improvisation and a little chaos ( something that while not uncommon in the us, it's rare), with less emphasis on teamwork than basketball and baseball.

Pegasus, you're correct, as

Pegasus, you're correct, as I said I don't live in the US so I don't know much about baseball,so one player can make a difference; but in soccer that happens too, I rather have a 10 random players and ronaldinho, than any random team.
As for women not enjoing violence, i don't think anybody *enjoys* violence I just wanted to make a point that certain sports are "soccially accepted" (for whatever reason ) for women to play while others not , and this depend on the coutry and social position, ( women do play soccer, only much less than men, wich makes difficult to build a world class team , this does not seem to have happened in the US )

PS: And women do wrestle ( at least in TV ) :-)

I think you're #2 is right

I think you're #2 is right on. As a youth coach, I encourage experimentation and creativity and for my attacking players to not be afraid to make mistakes. I encourage them to play as much as they can on their own with friends. Too many youth coaches think it's about organized drills and nothing else.

I think the difference between the men's and women's game is that the 'street soccer' you talk of never really developed in the women's game and the well-organized and well-conditioned American women have that advantage.

I think the US is indeed

I think the US is indeed hurt by a relatively weak confederation (though I'd hasten to add that Costa Rica is pretty good too and are virtually impossible to beat at home. In fact, most Central American teams are impossible to get away results against).

Speaking of parochialism, I wonder how Serbia and Montenegro went undefeated in European qualifying and conceded only 1 goal in 10 qualifiers but somehow managed to lost 0-6 to Argentina and concede 3 more to unfancied Ivory Coast. What about another undefeated European group winner, Croatia, that went home without a win? Maybe because S&M were also a big fish in a small pond too. Outside of Spain, they were lumped with powerhouses Belgium, Bosnia, Lithuania and San Marino. Or the Czechs for that matter. 2nd in the world and out in the first round. Their qualifying group aside from Holland: Romania, Finland, Macedonia, Armenia, Andorra. Why doesn't Frank explain that? Sorry, but Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and Trinidad are a much tough quartet than either of those groups.

Brian, Risking going OT

Brian,

Risking going OT here, I would say the places in the world cup are not well distributed, the Europeans have 15 teams in the final with only 10 making into the top 16, Africa has 4 places with only Ghana making it to the next round, South America has 4 places + 1 shared with Australia and New Zealand, of the 5 teams in that series, 4 made it to the 16.
The Central and North American Confederation had also 4 teams with only Mexico qualifying. Asia 's got 2 places but both Japan and Korea failed to make it.
Where the US had really bad luck was in the draw for the groups, had the landed in group B, D, G or H instead of E they may have done better....

I think Mr. Wilde's premise

I think Mr. Wilde's premise is flawed. The U.S. plays pretty good soccer. We've quickly forgotten that only four years ago the American team finished among the top eight teams in the Cup, and finishing ahead of Mexico in qualifying is no small feat.

Even this year they were better than the results might indicate. They came out flat against the Czechs and got whupped, but played very solidly against Italy, and were clearly better than Ghana. Unfortunately sometimes the better team has the worse luck. That's a part of sports.

I think it's safe to say that even now the U.S. should be ranked in the top twenty or so internationally. The worldwide talent pool is far deeper in soccer than any other team sport, and there are scores of countries which play well on an international level. OTOH, only a dozen or fewer countries play baseball, hockey, or basketball well. Being #20 in basketball is no big deal, while being #20 in soccer is an accomplishment. I don't think most Americans realize that.

I'd have to agree with

I'd have to agree with Walter. For what ranks as no better than the 10th most popular professional sport in this country (football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing, tennis, golf, NASCAR, and thoroughbred racing are all clearly more popular, and arguments can be made for a host of others) we're really not that bad at all.

Please let me trim the fat

Please let me trim the fat on this discussion. #1 and #2 are correct. Bottom line is that our best athletes don't play Soccer. If I took the top 6 cornerbacks in the NFL,the top 6 point guards in the NBA, the top 6 small forwards in the NBA,formed a team, turned back the clock 15 years, trained the athletes in soccer only, the rest of the world would not have a chance. It is that simple.

I'm going with #1. Athletic

I'm going with #1. Athletic ability is definitely fungible. As I recall, Hakeem Alajuwon started as a soccer player and ended up in basketball as arguably one of the most athletic centers. One of the best soccer players I played with played lacrosse in college (no raping, AFAIK) and is apparently also a good hockey player. My brother could take up any sport and master it quickly, but his favorite was soccer. Footspeed, conditioning, balance, and visual acuity transfer easily. That said, I think Lance Armstrong would make a terrible linebacker.

#2 I think is a minor but true point. Anyone mildly interested or gifted will quickly find themselves out of PE or AYSO and into a club league where free play and pickup games are common.

BTW, I stopped and watched some men (roughly 18-25) play pickup in the basketball courts near the Eiffel Tower one day. Horrible. The flashiest players couldn't sink a shot (or do anything truly flashy). I was tempted to join in, but didn't have any decent shoes.

I think the main problem is

I think the main problem is that the pool of gifted american athletes is spread around too many sports. Athletically gifted people in the US have a choice between Football, baseball, basketball, plus a bunch of other less popular sports. Athletically gifted people in places like brazil play soccer. That means all the best athletes spend their entire lives learning the sport, which means theres many more great soccer players for the brazil team to chose from.
Also, I think the really good soccer players in the US get snapped up by european teams, because they pay a lot more and give a lot more respect to their players. With the lack of good players left over, american soccer is boring, and nobody watches it.
I think for soccer to really pick up in the US a few very rich people would have to spend lots of money hiring good soccer players from around the world to create an exciting league.

I think Walter is correct.

I think Walter is correct. First, I don't think the US Team was that bad this year, despite their result. If they played in a league w/the rest of these national teams, they'd likely settle out much better than the 0-2-1 result they gleaned in the '06 World Cup (a ranking in the top 20 IS absolutely accurate). We need to recognize that soccer isn't like so many other sports (basketball, football & tennis, for example) that have scoring often enough to more accurately show who the better team is. Soccer is a game of few goals, where chance certainly plays a significant role in the outcome. In my mind that's a beautiful thing; it allows you to go in against a superior opponent and know that you still have a chance...

That being said that we have a decent team today, I do think the MLS and our national team would be much stronger if we had the financial incentives that they have in Europe, or in the US's big sports. I am someone who loved the game and was probably decent enough to squeek into the MLS, but I figured no decent money was available, so why pursue it any further.

Finally, I think the NFL has some incredible athletic talent that could add some wicked strikers, sweepers and marking backs to the game. Wouldn't it be cool to see soccer gain enough notoriety in the US that we could have a dual sport athlete playing football and soccer?..

The underlying assumption

The underlying assumption that the U.S. fielded the best possible team coached by the best possible coach goes unchallenged. I know there are better coaches than Arena, though they may not be as politically astute or connected, and I assume that the lack of Latino bred players has left our side lacking in offensive skill and creativity. One can even challenge the notion that the coach used the best combination of his 23-man roster or prepped the team as well as possible for the teams the squad met on the field. In trying to figure out why the cause for the U.S. team's poor performance, we might start with the assumption that the player pool is adequate and, instead, challenge the assumption that the same could be said for the people making all the important decisions. Who knows? The answer might actually be as simple as getting a better team selection process and a better coach.

1 is an absolutely bogus

1 is an absolutely bogus theory. Football and basketball may take the largest and fastest American athletes, but go to Europe or South America and it's the exact same thing, only rugby, track and basketball take these so-called "superior" athletes. You don't see any more players running sub-11 second 100m times in Europe than you do in the U.S.

Another thing to consider is that he best soccer players in the world aren't often the most athletic players. They're the most technically developed and/or the most intelligent players. With the exception of France's Thierry Henry, I can't think of a single world class player who you could look at and instantly say he was one of the best "athletes" (using the most basic definition of athleticism) in the world. Soccer is a game of the brain first, and the body second.

The United States doesn't compare to the world's biggest soccer powers because our players are technically and tactically lacking, not because our team is made of inferior athletes. American players are actually known for being very fast, strong, and well conditioned.

By the way, Joe, I really

By the way, Joe, I really have to ask. Who are these Latin-bred players you speak of? There aren't many top class Latin players born, raised, or playing in the United States with a strong desire to play for the national team. The Hispanic players, specifically, typically come from poorer backgrounds, and seldom make it to the MLS or even NCAA soccer. Colleges scout and select players more on the bases of club team success, high school success, and academic performance, all linked to players coming from wealthier backgrounds, than they scout for raw talent and ability. This is linked to another problem in American soccer, that so many quit the game after high school or after college. The amateur soccer ranks are thin indeed. In Europe, amateur and Sunday League soccer are big parts of everyday life. Many players from these leagues develop late (early to mid 20s) and even go on to play for their national teams. American coaches tend to give up on a player if he's not bona fide future pro material by the age of 18 or 21.