The US womens team are the reigning world champions. In an extract from his new book, Beau Dure explains why the men are unlikely to equal that feat
The US mens soccer team will be forever looking up at the worlds powers for several reasons.
The USA fell behind by 100 years, in part because of cultural forces that made Americans favor American sports. Now that soccer is relatively ingrained into mainstream America (the kid on the new drama Stumptown often wears a Portland Timbers shirt), US soccer entrepreneurs and supporters are battling to pick the right direction forward, and those battles too frequently end up in court. Americans are obsessed with the quick fix for whatever ails the mens team, ignoring the more systemic issues beneath the surface, and the constant in-fighting imposes a somber air on a sport built on joy.
One more reason the USA always struggle: US supporters are insecure in their identities.
Lets be clear: The US soccer community is justly proud of its inclusivity. Everyone is acutely aware that this is a global game. English-speaking soccer fans try to teach each other enough Spanish to follow broadcasts on Univision and Telemundo. Soccer is ahead of most sports in providing professional opportunities for women, and most of us recognize that we still have a long way to go. Soccer fans embrace the many lesbian players in the womens game, and its no surprise that soccer was the first major US sport with an openly gay male player Robbie Rogers, who came out after his release from English club Leeds United and figured his career was done, only to be coaxed out of his brief retirement to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy, whose fans greeted his first appearance with a standing ovation. We are a diverse bunch.
But among suburbanites and young urban hipsters, being a soccer fan used to carry a sort of outsiders cachet. This is a group that wants a wide selection of craft beers, and is more likely to argue the merits of recent Radiohead albums than dance to Taylor Swift. At the extreme, some soccer fans are the Goth kids from South Park elitist nonconformists who frankly can be kind of obnoxious about it. Let the Great Unwashed watch brutal (football) or boring (baseball) sports.
So Major League Soccers growth poses a problem. We want to keep up our soccer cred. But MLS isnt a microbrew. Its Budweiser, a former MLS sponsor. (The league has moved one rung up the beer snobs ladder, to Heineken.)
We are certainly divided. Young city dwellers are happy to partake of the MLS fan experience, especially in Portland and Seattle. But for many segments of this crowd, MLS is simply too pedestrian. And the worlds biggest clubs are clearly better than any MLS club, even Atlanta United, so they cant support that.
Were that desperate to be hip. More precisely, we have to be snobs. In the parlance of the US soccer community, Eurosnobs.
So if youve ever wondered whatever happened to the guy in your college who insisted that the campus radio station had gone too commercial, now you know.
In 2014, a couple of months before the World Cup, Deadspin held a vote an NCAA tournament-style set of brackets in which the winning entity in the vote advanced to the next round to find the Bitchiest, Most Defensive Fans in America. The top seed in the sports-related bracket: Soccer fans. To give some perspective, Duke fans supporters of the college mens basketball team everyone loves to hate were seeded fourth in that bracket.
In the same bracket, MLS Fanboys were broken out as a subset and seeded 12th. Deadspins explanation for the nomination sounded sympathetic, pointing out the MLS contingent had to battle on two fronts against people who hate soccer and soccer people who hate MLS.
This identity crisis isnt just social media fodder. Its at the root of the disagreements and lawsuits that plague the professional game and the national teams. It also reaches down to the grass roots.
As a relatively new soccer nation, we have a lot of parents who dont know much about the game but eagerly sign up their kids and get weirdly competitive about it. And we have plenty of people who are happy to prey on their ignorance.
Consider a press release that made the rounds on behalf of a youth soccer coach who was in danger of losing his visa. You cant blame the guy for wanting to stay in the country, and were living in a time in which a lot of Americans dont want to recognize the contributions of people who didnt come over here before the Revolution. But the gist of the press release wasnt a humanitarian appeal to keep a hard-working immigrant in the United States: How do we save US Soccer? With ubertalented coaches like [name and country redacted], struggling to get an O-1 Visa, but time is running out, read the subject line. The press release goes on to posit this coach as that tiny bright light we need who would be bringing European soccer techniques to young US soccer players.
This press release wasnt sent in 1980. This was from 2018.
If youve spent any time at all in US youth soccer, you know that hundreds of coaches have brought European soccer techniques to young American players for generations. But a lot of parents dont know that. This press release wouldnt have been sent if the coach and publicist thought the target audience of American parents understood that an accent does not a great coach make.
Then we have a busy marketplace of clubs and leagues, all claiming to offer the path forward to the pros, or at least to college. Recent scandals and studies on college admission have shed light on the fact that being a star athlete sometimes matters more than being a star student, which explains some of the motivation for parents whose kids dont make or cant commute to pro academies to shell out thousands of dollars a year for travel soccer.
Many of these leagues and clubs offer different approaches. And parents are ill-equipped to know which one is best for their children.
Not that the soccer community as a whole can agree. Do we want the AYSO-driven ethos of parity and opportunity for every player? Or do we want a Darwinian struggle to sort the future pros from the eight-year-olds with no future?
Then what style to we want our young phenoms to play?
Other countries have national teams that reflect their nations culture. Germany is methodical and efficient. Brazils soccer carries the uninhibited joy of Carnival. Italy invented a stern defensive approach punctuated by breathtaking moments of skill. England is evolving but has a rugged mentality, no surprise for a country obsessed with hard work and character. The Scandinavian countries have an English-style direct approach of banging the ball around and running hard, mostly in an effort to avoid freezing. If Mexican teams ran that much, theyd collapse from the heat.
The American style is …?
Were trying, apparently. US Soccer hired its first mens national team general manager in 2018, bestowing the job on 1994 World Cup hero Earnie Stewart and charging him with pushing forward the teams national style and tactical principles. If only we knew what that was.
For a while in the 2010s, the obsession was Barcelona, with its tiki-taka philosophy of short passes. This trend played into a sudden obsession with futsal, the indoor game (without the walls that American indoor soccer has) that puts a premium on short-range connections. Americans have failed to develop such skills, we were told, and so that became the focus on various curricula handed down from on high and usually ignored.
Americans also lacked the ability to dribble and beat defenders in a one-on-one situation, we were told. Those of us who coached the youngest players in recreational soccer were told to forget about passing for the first couple of years and just work on getting players comfortable with the ball at their feet. Some coaches took this to extremes, emphasizing individual efforts at older ages when the games expand from four-a-side to seven-a-side.
No ones going to argue against developing a good feel for the ball, both dribbling and passing at short range, at a young age. But thats not really a style. Thats simply teaching fundamental skills, like an elementary school teacher teaching multiplication or subject-verb agreement.
We cant please everybody. US Soccer certainly cant. Go all in on a Barcelona-style passing game, and some good players developed by good coaches wont fit in. Go all in on MLS, and good players wont get opportunities with the big clubs in Europe. Go all in on sending players to Europe, and MLS will wither.
And the fan base cant win. Sit quietly on our hands, and were accused of having no atmosphere. Come up with chants emanating from large supporters sections, and were accused of being mere imitators of the European game.
Its all quite tumultuous and, at times, kind of fun. But is it a community that can produce a World Cup winner? Not likely.
This story is adapted from the new book Why the U.S. Men Will Never Win the World Cup: A Historical and Cultural Reality Check by Beau Dure. Copyright 2019. Published by arrangement with Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Beau Dure is a freelance journalist who has covered US soccer for more than two decades.