After a string of friendly matches which yielded less-than-ideal results, the familiar refrain began to be heard again: "The US will never be a soccer powerhouse because our best athletes don't choose soccer." The argument runs that because a young Kobe Bryant or a young Ray Lewis can make infinitely more money down the line playing an American game like basketball or football, sports like soccer are left with second-tier athletes with which to make do. It's also complete rubbish.
People are always asking "Can you imagine if we could put Allen Iverson in the midfield? His quickness would take over the game!" or "Imagine if Dwayne Wade played goalkeeper: with his size and athleticism he'd be a wall!" But it's a two-way street: who's to say that Oguchi Onyewu couldn't line up at defensive end and have an impact? Why couldn't Tim Howard be a great power forward?
At the highest level of any sport, the players are all top-tier athletes. On a one-to-one basis, the US mens' national team is no more or less athletic than the LA Lakers or the Dallas Cowboys. Nor are they more or less athletic than the English mens' national team or the Spanish mens' national team. Any results that we earn on the soccer pitch have more to do with our skill level and tactics than our athletic abilities.
The problem is that soccer is a game which is much more subtle about it's degree of difficulty than are American mainstream games. When LaDanian Tomlinson busts through the line for a 40-yard touchdown run, it's easy to be amazed by his explosiveness and speed. When DeMarcus Beasley beats an opponent to a loose ball on the touchline, holds off a defender and makes a pass to the forwards, that's not as spectacular. Since goals are a much rarer occurrence than a home run or a touchdown is, there are fewer easily discernible moments of individual ability in soccer than in other sports. For the casual fan, a Gilbert Arenas tomahawk dunk is much more impressive than Tim Howard tipping a free kick around the post, regardless of which actually takes more athletic ability.
Soccer is also much more of a team game than basketball or football. While a tremendous point guard or a star running back can throw the team on his shoulders and carry the load for stretches of a game, it's nearly impossible for one soccer player to take over a game. No matter how good one player is, no matter how much skill or athleticism he possesses, he's still dependent on his teammates for much of what he does. David Beckham has astounding footskills and is deadly with a dead-ball situation or a cross from the wing. But he's just another winger with average pace if his teammates can't win and get him the ball in dangerous positions. Even the most brilliant cross just turns into a goal kick without a forward making a run onto the end of it. Even with a crappy offensive line, Willis McGahee can take the ball, make three defenders miss, and break a big run. Chris Paul can bring the ball up the court and create his own shot. Beckham can't.
The claim about American sports being more conducive to future wealth is also bogus. It is true that the average NFL or NBA contract is for more than the average soccer contract. With that being said, however, there are many more opportunities to play professional soccer than there are professional football or basketball. Even for a player of (relatively) average ability, there are job opportunities abound.
There's the MLS. The Australian A-League, a league of similar age and skill level to MLS, is starting to take off in the land down under. The J-League in Japan attracts the finest players Japan and much of Asia has to offer. The Russian Premier League offers outstanding pay and facilities for those who don't mind the ferocious winters. The Mexican Primera Division gives decent opportunities to those players who might want to stay a little bit closer to home. The Coca-Cola Championship in England, the second division,
And of course, the English Premiership, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A, and Spanish Liga Primera are available for those players who have the ability to play with the world's best, and want to be compensated for it. In fact, the increased presence of Americans in these leagues has been a huge boon to the development of the national team.
So to those who say that American soccer is impeded by a lack of top-level athletes, I say: Don't confuse athleticism with skill. The United States might not be the most skilled soccer nation (yet!). But we do have the athleticism and the resources needed to compete with the best in the world. In time, we can hope that results such as our recent draw with Argentina (#1 in the world) will become accepted as commonplace, rather than heroic.
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