(This article first appeared at Forbes.com, just before the World Cup began.)
I remember the year well. Our high school had recently formed a soccer team, and a number of us who loved sports but were too small or light or slow-growing to play football were delighted to have a new fall sport. Cambridge, Mass. was a diverse city then, as it is now, and the Cambridge High & Latin team was made up mostly of kids from Greece, Italy, Brazil, Portugal, etc., but there were some of us American-born too. Our skills were raw compared to our foreign-born teammates who’d grown up dribbling with their feet not their hands, but it didn’t take us long to intuitively grasp the appeal of “the beautiful game” – the simplicity, constant motion, emphasis on teamwork – without frequent interruptions for huddles (football), free throws (basketball) or waiting between pitches (baseball). Just a lovely simple fluid sport. I also distinctly remember some of our conversations. Wait till this sport catches on here. With our national talent pool of athletes and coaching, the U.S. will have really great teams. It’s just a matter of time…
The year was 1967.
Today, 47 years later, as the U.S. warily awaits its first World Cup game Monday against Ghana, and ponders its unfortunate inclusion in the powerful “Group of Death” (Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the U.S.), we’re still waiting. Still asking similar questions: What happened? What’s taken so long? When will the U.S. become a real global soccer superpower?
I should amend that question slightly. When will the U.S. men’s team become a real global soccer superpower? The U.S. women of course long have been (How’s it going these days, Brandi Chastain?), with two World Cup championships and a team that’s always in the hunt.
So what’s happened to U.S. men’s soccer over the last 47 years? I ask this question seriously, not cynically, but uncertain.
Is it the stranglehold of The Big Three – football, basketball and baseball (four if you count hockey) – in routinely siphoning off so much of our elite athletic talent?
Is it the relatively limited appeal of the sport (plus lack of fields in big cities) to our athletically gifted African-American population?
In a superstar culture, is it the lack of a true single-name athlete (e.g. Michael, LeBron, Peyton) to capture the public’s fancy… while the rest of the world has had many (e.g. Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo, etc.)?
Forty-seven years ago we used to say, Wait till we have really good youth leagues, a strong feeder system like Little League baseball. Now we do. Youth soccer abounds. American high school teams everywhere play at a level our old Cambridge Latin team could only dream of. Not to mention high-quality college programs and professional leagues (though the latter’s always been a little brother to the Big Three).
So I ask these questions earnestly – readers feel free to help me out here: When will the U.S. become a global soccer superpower? What’s holding us back?
Sports Illustrated describes the current U.S. World Cup squad as “a team in transition, its identity now tied as much to its charismatic coach, (Jurgen) Klinsmann, as to any player or system. While much will fall on the shoulders of familiar players – goalkeeper Tim Howard, midfield general Michael Bradley and captain Clint Dempsey – Klinsmann hopes that his focus on fitness and intangibles will spell a crucial difference.”
Hmmm… “fitness and intangibles” – doesn’t exactly sound like a solid vote of confidence when going up against the Group of Death.
Forty-seven years. Well, I hope this is the year. A run deep into the tournament would make for some awfully exciting viewing with the NBA finals soon to end and baseball in its mid-season doldrums. Fingers are crossed. But am not holding my breath.
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