Team USA’s defeat against Trinidad and Tobago and resulting failure to qualify for the world cup has sparked a debate about the current state of US soccer and the infrastructure in place. It marked the first time in 30 years that the US did not make the cut and came at a time when there was a very positive outlook on the future of soccer in the country. Young stars like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie were finding success in top European leagues and the old generation of players (Tim Howard and Michael Bradley) were at the end of their primes going for one last run. It was the perfect opportunity for the vets to mentor the exciting young talent and produce quality on the field. Instead, it was the most catastrophic failure in the history of the program. So, what’s wrong with soccer in the US? It is easy to attribute the lack of success to a multitude of problems with the overall infrastructure and development programs. Pay to play, bad coaching, poor scouting, and an underwhelming national league are common sources of blame, but the real problem in the US is the culture surrounding soccer.
It appears to be a chicken and egg problem. Does the country’s poor national performance, domestic league, and youth development program come from a lack of fandom and established soccer culture? Or is the poor infrastructure and lack of quality pro teams preventing a more fervent soccer culture. When looking to other countries as examples, it is clear the culture around soccer is at the root of the problem. It’s not as if every successful soccer country in the world has developed a perfect system to develop and find talent. Look at Croatia. They have four million people, basic facilities, few new stadiums, no long-term system, and managed to make it all the way to the final of the 2018 World Cup against France. From the leadership down, their soccer program is corrupt and is in a state of chaos. Yet, they produce some of the best players in the world and compete with the best teams in the world. However, this isn’t to say that a strong infrastructure can’t play a role in the success of a national team. Take Belgium. After flaming out of the world cup in 1998, they made a commitment to produce a better national system for soccer. They studied player development, built a national soccer center, trained coaches, and overhauled the academy system. Twenty years later, they are ranked first in the world and are in the midst of a golden generation loaded with young talent. However, Belgium is the gold standard, not the average. Like Croatia, many countries have success without a strong pro league and without impressive youth systems and facilities. Strength in soccer comes from practice and skill, and people in these countries have the desire to play as much as possible. Little kids in these countries dream of becoming famous soccer players and grow up playing soccer wherever and whenever they can, no matter what background. Everyone knows soccer and has been surrounded by the game. Top soccer players in these countries are the biggest celebrities and are idolized by the population.
In America, this is not the case. Kids don’t grow up dreaming about becoming a star on the US soccer team. They idolize NBA and NFL stars like Lebron James and Tom Brady. People aren’t in their back yards mimicking Cristiano Ronaldo, they are yelling “Kobe” and shooting fadeaway jump shots. Success in the NBA and NFL brings fame and celebrity status in the way soccer does in Europe. These are the figures who have a platform to speak on social issues and have the power to enact change in communities. Even if soccer pitches were available in every neighborhood and coaching was top level, kids would still rather go out and play basketball. In fact, many athletes have made this choice in the past. Just to name a few: Jason Kidd, Andrew Luck, and Odell Beckham Junior all were youth soccer stars that opted to play football or basketball instead of soccer. This has always been the trend in America, and it is difficult to see that changing. People play pickup basketball or touch football far more than pickup soccer and most US kids are not born with a soccer ball at their feet unless born into a soccer family. This environment with constant touches and competition is what creates stars. If Cristian Pulisic’s dad wasn’t a soccer coach, it is unlikely that he would be the player he is today.
The culture in the US is driven by hip hop artists and athletes and is spread through social media. While the desire for fame and fortune is certainly a reason why kids play basketball and football, they are also the “cooler” sports to be playing. Rappers talk about Kevin Durant, slam dunks, and one-handed catches. Drake hangs out with Odell and Ben Simmons dates Kendall Jenner. The coolest shoes to wear are a fresh pair of Jordan’s and Instagram is full of football and basketball highlights. The people who guide the culture either play basketball or football or are huge fans of the sport. In many communities, soccer is viewed as a sport for foreigners. A huge portion of the population in the US never plays soccer in their lives, as it is not viewed as cool and does not provide a path to college or career like it is in Europe. Changing pay to play or improving scouting would help, but not enough to make American youth want to play soccer.
Because most people don’t grow up playing and looking up to certain icons, the average American has no allegiance to a team or to the sport in general. Families rally around their basketball and football teams in the same way that Europeans do with soccer clubs. Avid fan bases exist at all levels of these sports, whether it be high school or the pros, and in all regions of the country. Not to say that MLS teams don’t have respectable fans, but it is a much smaller portion of a city’s population. A city doesn’t rally around a soccer team in the same way it does with an NFL or NBA team. Saying that there isn’t room for another sport would be silly, but it takes time and strong cultural roots for something to become as popular as football and basketball are. It certainly doesn’t help that there is much less exposure to top soccer in the US. In Europe, important soccer games are broadcasted in most countries and are prime time TV. In America, any important European match broadcasts in the early afternoon. Unless the MLS becomes a top league, this won’t change any time soon.
So, what would it take for America to develop a culture where playing soccer is commonplace and is as appealing as playing other top sports? I believe it would take a Lebron like figure in soccer. A relatable global star that is a role model for American kids and that has a platform to push the culture forward and comment on politics and current events. Maybe someone that used soccer to escape a hard life and improve their community. International stars like Neymar, Ronaldo, and Ibrahimović all came from poverty because they grew up knowing it was their chance at fame. If kids in America felt the same way, then the perception around soccer could change. America clearly has the capacity and athletic talent to be a global competitor in soccer. The woman’s team has found great success because there is no football or basketball to compete with. Soccer is the sport that gives women the most status in America and produces the most recognizable athletes. Hopefully, the men will catch up.