The best athletes choosing to play other sports is often cited as a reason for U.S Soccer’s failures, but that theory doesn’t add up.
At one point, Odell Beckham Jr. was a soccer player. That’s a fact that often gets brought up when talking about the failures of the USMNT and by extension, MLS. The theory is that in a country of more than 300,000,000 people, there’s more than enough good athletes. The problem isn’t a lack of athletes, but the fact that most of them choose to play other sports.
Soccer is only a distant fifth on the list of the USA’s most popular sports, after all. While rising attendances and increased fan support for the national team would suggest that it’s getting more popular, it’s still very far from being as mainstream as the NFL or the NBA.
Many blame the national team struggles on this. If we had players like LeBron James and Odell Beckham, instead of Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, we would be one of the top World Cup contenders. The world’s top soccer nations don’t have to share their talent with other popular sports. At least, that’s how the theory goes.
In practice, it doesn’t really add up. Most top players in the NFL or NBA would fare badly or would be average as soccer players. Even freak athletes, like the previously mentioned Beckham, would struggle unless they could learn the necessary skills to go along with their athleticism.
Both American football and basketball value raw athleticism more than technical skill. That’s not to say that they don’t require a high level of skill. They do, but there’s also a reason why there’s not many NBA players under six feet tall.
The average NBA player is roughly 6’7″. The average NFL player is 6’1″, and both sports typically have heavier athletes who may weigh 200 or more pounds. The types of players that have success in these sports are very different from the ones who have success in soccer. Athleticism is usually valued over technique, and players who rely on the latter often have reputations for lacking the former.
Soccer has more in common with hockey, but hockey is also pretty distant from it. There’s no guarantee that being great at skating would make someone a decent ball handler in soccer. Baseball is another popular sport where precision is valued, but baseball players aren’t known for their stamina.
Every sport demands something different, and players choose their sports based on their talents. Someone that’s good at basketball might be terrible at soccer, and vice versa. This isn’t like the American kind of football, where having the bigger and faster athletes can easily win the game.
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In a way, the national team’s struggles could be tracked back to valuing athleticism too much. If you ask Europeans why they don’t think MLS is entertaining, a lot of them will say that the ball skills aren’t there. Defenders make more errors, midfielders give up the ball more easily, and forwards make their own goals less often.
The same problem exists for the national team. It’s a far cry from some of the top European and South American clubs, where kids younger than 13 join academies and work intensively on their ball handling. Ajax is known around the world for their role in developing top talents, and they value technique over everything else for their youngest youth players.
U.S Soccer’s problem isn’t a lack of talented players, it’s a failure to develop them. The country has already had moderate success while being internationally known for poor youth development, so it’s not crazy to say that there would be more success with a better developmental system.
That would mean changes across all levels. The 149 clubs of the U.S Soccer Development Academy would be smart to take strategies from clubs like Ajax, Southampton, Bayern, and Barcelona. The federation could also make coaching badges cheaper and more accessible, which would ensure that there’s more competent coaches at every level.
There’s a number of ways that USSF could improve, and a whole article could easily be written on just that. But when you look at the real root of the USMNT’s problems, the one clear thing is that this isn’t an athleticism problem. To say that it is one is disrespectful to all the players who have made it to the top, not because of winning the genetic lottery, but because of the years spent honing their finer skills.