The Soccer Talent Drain Matters. (Sort of…)

The bad thing about having a “real job” is that I don’t blog about the beautiful game as much as I’d like. There is a silver lining though, I get to ignore lots of topics that are only marginally interesting to me and rather focus on some more interesting theories.

I decided to sit down for a few minutes and think about an article that for blogger standards is ancient (August 26) but that struck a chord for me. That article is Jeff Carlisle’s piece at ESPN about what many suggest is a key factor holding US Soccer back on the world stage, the idea that our “best” athletes are siphoned away from soccer by the more lucrative (and loved) basketball, football, etc. Seeing that there are over 300 comments on this article, I’m clearly not alone in finding the topic of interest.  I recommend you give Jeff’s piece a read, and as such I won’t recount all of the interesting ideas posted there.

I admit that I’ve long held the easy to grab belief that if our best athletes were soccer players we’d be in a much better place than we are today. However I was glad someone added to that discussion by at least asking some tough questions about the other factors that play into success.

I too realize that I am somewhat of a hypocrite with this view, in that I yearn for the beautiful game and find as much – or more – value in a visionary pass or incredible first touch as I do a break-away sprint. Carlos Valderamma could orchestrate more beautiful soccer standing still for a full game than most of the young mobile athletes of today. Xavi of Barcelona could probably fit inside Oguchi Onyewu’s shoe, yet pulls the strings for one of today’s best clubs. Does anyone remember Arshavin’s Euro Campaign? And without needing to qualify this: College Soccer. Clearly, it’s not so simple that better, bigger, stronger athletes would equal success.

That admission is where many leave the debate, as they figure this disqualifies the “better athletes” view of what “could have been.” They suggest that without the proper soccer “culture” the overall level of athletes added to the pool does not drastically change anything. While I agree what is clearly lacking in this country is a soccer mentality, a soccer “culture” – as many would describe it – I am not sure that this disqualifies the idea that if the best US athletes chose soccer it would lead to success.

First there’s the simple numbers game.  The more talented athletes that play soccer the more likely you are to find some stars among them.

Second there’s the idea that skills matter MORE than size and strength. However, what if that wasn’t a tradeoff? What if there was size AND skill. Anyone watch Didier Drogba recently?

That leaves us with the culture conversation – and our inability to “create” skillful soccer players in abundance. I think we need to simply understand that our sports culture will never be the same as that of other nations, meaning whatever “soccer culture” we could create would be equally different.

One thing that the US always responds to is something perceived to be the “best” – which can be seen when comparing the interest “World Football Challenge” (pre-season Euro teams selling tickets and jerseys) versus MLS games (our domestic league) or why it appears more people excited to see ESPN showing Premier League games than MLS games. I’d submit it also plays in the lagging interest in MLS (at least as attendances go) this year . . . as fans refocus their recession-affected wallets only on the “best” sports, athletes and experiences that they can.

If we lived in some parallel universe where soccer WAS the premier sport in the US (which I think would have happened if all the best athletes were historically playing it) in the country (as it is in many – if not most – other countries), it would be the place where people turned to see the crème de la crème. It would get the front-page arguments about lineups, about style, about what makes a good soccer team great. Today, those arguments are found in a corner of a major sports outlet’s site, a blog or 100 comments deep on someone’s article. Meanwhile, page one talks about how many times the same quarterback can retire.

Would success come if the “best” athletes weren’t pulled away to more “tier one” sports? Yes. Just not for pure athleticism’s sake (though I hardly see how it could hurt.) Instead, having the best athletes playing the sport would – I submit – build a soccer culture based on totally different values (quest for fame/wealth, need to be the best) than what makes Brazilian soccer (need to escape Favelas?) or any other leading nation successful.

If the MLS Cup was the Super Bowl? The College National Championship referred to “futbol” not football? If March Madness had ‘extra time?’ If our Olympic “Dream Team” fielded 11, not five?

Kids in inner cities that turn to basketball and bring creative playing and a deep desire to the NBA would instead be kicking a ball instead of shooting hoops in hope of getting out of their current situations.   Latino fans and players would find it easier to jump allegiances to US teams as they jump North of the border.   We’d have a player pool that would be difficult for any other country to match – soccer power or otherwise.

In that pretend world we’d be the best I think, and maybe the most skillful as well.

The problem is, I don’t see a simple path to that place from where we are today.

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