Wednesday, July 02, 2014

USA Soccer Isn't Elite Because the Elite Teams Are Ridiculously Good

US Soccer remains second tier, underneath the true superpowers of the sport. The US is somewhere outside the top 10 in the world, but inside the top 25. They're equivalent to a mid-major college basketball team. They're the Wichita State of world soccer. They advance a few rounds, but the big boys always wind up winning it all.

And that's not a criticism. It's difficult to crack into the top 10 in world soccer. To do so, one of those elite teams would have to be dislodged. Do you think Germany is going to fall out of the top 10 any time soon? They're in their 15th straight World Cup quarterfinals. That's 60 years, and most of that time they were playing as a divided country.

There are a number of reasons the US is good, but not great at soccer. Our best athletes play football, basketball, baseball, hockey, lacrosse, track and field, and so on. We don't have soccer academies like European league teams have, signing 13-year old prospects to train with the best coaches and learn from the best players in the world. College and MLS players don't get the experience of playing against the best in the world on a regular basis like players in European leagues.

However, there are more reasons beyond internal ones, to explain why US Soccer is not elitel. We don't give enough credit to other countries for how good they are at the sport. Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, France, Argentina, this is their game. Only 8 countries have ever won the World Cup, and powerhouses like Brazil (5 World Cups) are a significant reason why it's so hard for anyone else to win.

It's arrogant to presume that if the USA tried a little harder at soccer, they'd be able to take control of the game from these powerhouses. This game is theirs, and has been for decades. They've controlled the game throughout the years against repeated challengers.

Look at England. They don't have the same "disadvantages" that the US has, with other sports taking priority, and with a college system instead of an academy system. Yet they struggle in these tournaments just the same. England won their World Cup 48 years ago. They've never won a European Championship.

We don't produce great players at the same rate and abundance as soccer powerhouses.

The only truly world class player on Team USA is Tim Howard. There are a number of great and good American players, but Howard is one of those rare players that can change a game all by himself. He's the goalkeeping equivalent of Messi or Ronaldo.

You've also got guys like Clint Dempsey, who scored 50 goals in 184 goals for Fulham in England years ago. That's very good, but Brazil and the Netherlands have a couple of guys much better than Dempsey. Germany has 4 or 5 guys that can all score as well as Dempsey. Argentina have Messi. Uruguay had Suarez. And those two guys are on an inhuman level.

Matching these teams is incredibly difficult. The notion that "we don't win the World Cup because we don't do X, and we don't do enough Y" basically ignores the fact that dozens of other countries want to win the World Cup too. And they've been playing this game, and playing it well, for decades. And they too struggle to succeed in these tournaments.

Soccer is to Brazil and Germany what hockey is to Canada. Only more so. The US could send all their young soccer phenoms to European academies, they could give financial incentives for top athletes to choose soccer over other sports, and we'd still find ourselves on the second tier. English players go to academies and get paid millions, and they still can't get to the next level.

The good news is, soccer can be cyclical. A handful of players can lift a team to a higher level. Spain dominated for a few years, they've fallen back down. Uruguay is nothing without Suarez. If Portugal found another great player to support Ronaldo, they'd be dominant.

Team USA has improved over the last 20 years. They're a few players away from being true World Cup contenders. Maybe those players will come along in 5 or 10 years. Maybe they won't and the US might even find themselves struggling to qualify again.

That's why it's important to enjoy every good moment, every goal, every save, every win, every World Cup qualification, every advancement from the group stage.

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