Soccer and the States

After overcoming Ecuador 2:1 in the quarter-finals of the Copa America, USA stood yesterday in the semi-finals against Argentina. It was clear that USA was going to be the underdog in Houston, Texas, but that Messi and his teammates would give USA that big of a lesson in the sport was not expected. Argentina came away with a dominant 4:0 win, justifying their number one spot in FIFA’s national team rankings and disrupting USA’s joyful atmosphere revolving around the sport after beating Ecuador just last week.

Sadly for USA’s national team though, while the majority of Americans witnessed this great loss last night, the majority missed the great victory USA achieved against Ecuador last Thursday. Due to the 6th game of the NBA finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors that started at the same time as the quarter-finals, most Americans did not watch the hard-fought battle of their national team. Obviously, an important basketball game still has the upper hand when it conflicts with an important soccer game in the States.

However, there is a general feeling in Europe that soccer is slowly finding more than just ‘acceptance’ and growing vastly across the Atlantic. More and more Americans are starting to follow their national league, the Major League Soccer (MLS), due to its newest stars – Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo and Didier Drogba only to name a few. These European soccer oldies are following the footsteps of players such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry and even Franz Beckenbauer by ending their career in the MLS. They have all won big European championships and cups and are now showing off their skills in American cities like Los Angeles, Dallas and Philadelphia, drawing more and more people to the soccer stadiums and attention to the league. Americans are clearly curious to see how a 37 year old man like Andrea Pirlo can shine in midfield amongst the young and physically superior athletes in the MLS.

The reason why is not as obvious as you may think. On first sight, MLS players seem to be no different from European top league players. Same size, same height, same looks. Yet once the whistle blows, you can see that there is in fact a huge difference. The touch of the ball of European top league players is more elegant and clean. Finesse and precision are more treasured than strength and power. In addition a European top league player knows where exactly to be on the pitch to be relevant for his team. This is truly one of the greatest difficulties of the sport that separates the good from the great.
In contrast, American soccer is biased by its very physical sports such as basketball, football or baseball. It puts a lot of emphasis on physique, thereby neglecting technique and understanding of the game.
As a result, an oldie like Pirlo, who may not be the fastest or strongest, can shine in the MLS, because he knows how to touch the ball and where to stand in the game.

American soccer is missing a clear philosophy

What is missing in American soccer is a clear philosophy. The British have “Kick and rush”, the Spanish play “Tiki-taka” and the Germans a sort of mix of the both.
However, one has to separate female from male soccer on this issue, since the women’s national team has proven itself to have a successful philosophy. Unlike the men’s national team, the women have been placing 1st, 2nd or 3rd in every World Cup since the first one was arranged in 1991 (they won it 1991, 1999, 2015). Hence, the solution might just be for US men’s soccer to look a little closer to their women programs and adopt their philosophy.

Be that as it may, “ODP Europe Director of Coaching” Sebastian Korst sees the cause of the problem in the multitude of programs, e.g. US Youth Soccer, US Soccer, US Club Soccer, NCAA and many more. Each program has a different idea of how the game should be played and desires to be the ‘head organization’ of American soccer. This struggle over being the leader of the sport thereby slows down the growth process of the game as a whole in the country. Korst believes that if the US soccer programs could come together and form a common philosophy, American soccer would benefit tremendously and would eventually become a serious contender like Spain and Germany for the World Cup in the next ten years. At the moment they are working on building a national structure in the States, like the DFB started building through major reforms in 2004. Considering the fruits that the national team of Germany is bearing today – winning the World Cup roughly ten years after their reforms in 2014 – the future of US soccer would appear bright and promising in the years to come, if the programs could form a united philosophy.

In general however, Korst claims that soccer in USA has had a dynamic growth over the past five to ten years. Many parents that used to just watch the game are now playing the game with their kids. Surprisingly, it is already the number one most played game in American schools. According to a recent statistic the highest number of registrations in schools this year was for soccer. This public interest of soccer will also continue to grow in Korst’s opinion and ultimately catch up with basketball, football and baseball.

All in all, soccer in the States is growing. Many Americans have already fallen in love with the game. It has not earned the title of being an American sport such as basketball or football yet, but it is on the way of doing so. Whether USA has a greater chance of winning the World Cup in the next decade will depend significantly on whether American youth programs come together and create a clear soccer philosophy and structure throughout the country.

Last night’s game was disappointing against Argentina. It revealed how much USA has to catch up to measure itself with the top national teams. Yet it also revealed what bars the country has to set itself to compete on the international stage. And the way I know Americans, they will not back off from the challenge.

By John-Markus Maddaloni