Consistently considered an afterthought, or even failing to be mentioned at times in the discussion of soccer, the United States of America has never been able to earn elite status. The question of why, however, is a puzzling question at first glance. The USA has the resources, it has the athletes, and it has the media and social platform to promote the game. The United States is an elite competitor globally in almost all sports and Olympic events, so why is this any different?
A topic that came up in a recent group discussion was the importance of football academies to clubs and player development overseas, and the lack of academies (or lack of storied academies, noting the MLS’ and U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s recent developments) in the United States. One might point to coaching, the American style of play, or even the argument of sport preference, where some of our best athletes are playing American football or basketball unlike in many European countries, as reasons for the absence of the United States’ elite soccer status. However, I am going to make a brief argument American soccer is held back by the lack of prominent development academies, which is caused by the societal expectations and social structure of our country.
The sociological pressures and expectations for athletics have created an environment where American soccer academies would be unable to grow to the status of European soccer academies, such as Ajax, let alone survive. This creates an inability for the United States to develop talent and compete at the most elite stage of soccer.
Our college system is unlike any other country. The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association), created in 1906 and consisting of 1,281 institutions, creates a prominent athletic platform widely covered and glorified in the United States. Athletes of all sports grow up dreaming of attending prominent universities and the ability to compete at the highest level, receive an education, and maybe even finance this opportunity are some of the values of playing a collegiate sport. A college degree is a viewed as a goal in American society that opens doors of opportunity. Our society applauds the “student-athlete,” he or she whom exemplifies excellence in the classroom and on the field. The desire to play at a prestigious university and receive a degree puts one at odds with participating in a full time academy or spending those years playing professionally. The university system takes away from full time soccer academies that could develop American talent. Americans negatively view athletes who leave college early or don’t attend college. The NCAA has made rules in other sports, such as football and basketball, forcing players (not technically, could play overseas) to attend a college before playing in the NFL or NBA. While pointless in my opinion, considering one year of college doesn’t provide an opportunity for quality learning, it still shows the nationwide sentiment of the importance of education. By placing a degree at the forefront, soccer players who decide to attend American universities might be at a serious disadvantage to foreign players who devote those years simply to skill development or playing professionally.
The research on competitive sport and the impacts on the players is vast. Our society rewards athletes and their successes, but much research and legislation has come into play to reduce the negative, unintended consequences competitive sport might have on young players. In an article from 2010 in the New York Times titled “How a Soccer Star Is Made”, about the academy of the European club Ajax, the author illuminates the consequences such demanding academies have on players, whom start in these clubs as early as five years old. In comparison, the MLS academy teams do not begin until early to mid teen years of age. As a society, for better or for worse in the athletic realm, we have become aware of these negative effects and ridicule any coach, parent, team, or any institution in general that allows any sort of abusive language, physical abuse, lack of focus on education, sport specialization at a young age, and any other behavior that might be considered obsessive or over the top and not in the athlete’s best interest. We see this behavior commented upon in media, where the film Kicking & Screaming, a 2005 American comedy starring Will Ferrell, mocks the ridiculous behaviors of little league coaches and gives an American point of view on the discussion, where as this sentiment might not be the same in Europe.
While extremely comic, these types of abusive coaching situations are common and receive a lot of negative attention from American society. Clubs such as Ajax are cold and cutthroat and their style that has made them successful wouldn’t be received well, even if the parent signs the kid up for it. Additionally, society looks down upon the negative effects on education that a sole focus on sports can produce, which occurred with the University of North Carolina scandal. Specialization has also been a been topic of discussion in lacrosse, with many advocates of multi-sport athletes, including these college coaches. With these sociological pressures, it is very hard for an academy with a model similar to Ajax, or any other successful European soccer academy, to survive let alone be competitive in the United States.
While certainly not the only reason the United States might be behind compared to other countries in terms of soccer prevalence, the lack of traditional academies and their lack of prominence is definitely inhibiting the growth of soccer in America. One might cite tennis as a similar example and wonder why tennis academies and the extreme tennis culture that exists in the United States, with the negative effects that are well documented through the likes of all time great Andre Agassi, still remains if the American society negatively views these types of behavior. It is a valid question to be analyzed more so in another discussion, but these cautionary tales and societal views will likely hinder American soccer academies from achieving success through the same means as academies such as Ajax.
I would love to hear others input and if anyone has any perspective from growing up around the European environment it would be great to compare and contrast!