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In the last three World Cups, the United States has advanced to the knockout stage, but were eliminated by Ghana in back to back World Cups and then Belgium ended their 2014 World Cup campaign. The combined population of Ghana and Belgium is around 37 million, which is only a fraction of the total population of the United States. How is that the United States soccer team consistently lose to national teams that draw from a much smaller talent pool in terms of the country’s total population? It is often cited that many of America’s best athletes go on to play more popular North American sports like American football, baseball, and basketball, but this ignores the United States’ massive population advantage and the wealth of athletes the U.S. possesses. The real issue with the United States and the relative lack of success in international soccer and the failure to produce world class talent is the result of the absence of a soccer culture in the U.S.
In terms of spectatorship, soccer lags far behind the most popular sports in the United States, which are American football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. Only 4 percent of Americans selected men’s soccer as their favorite sport in a 2015 poll conducted by Harris Poll. While very few Americans consider soccer to be their favorite sport, over 13 million Americans play soccer in the United States, making it the third most played team sport in the U.S. In terms of membership, US Youth Soccer is the largest youth sports organization in America with 3 million members. The issue here is that many of the kids that play soccer in their youth eventually turn to one of the more popular American sports like American football or baseball when they get older. Soccer has long been a suburban sport in America where soccer is seen as a relatively simple and safe sport. Unlike other countries where soccer is the primary sport, soccer is sort of like an activity that kids can play until they are old enough to play tackle football, baseball, or basketball.
Many of the better athletes that may have played soccer in their youth are likely to pursue more lucrative American sports like American football, baseball, or basketball. While Major League Soccer has made large strides in increasing its popularity in the U.S. it still lags far behind in terms of viewerships and general popularity among Americans. This compounds the issue of incentive for American soccer prospects to pursue other sports as viewership dictates the amount of money you can make in each sport. As long as American football, baseball, and basketball continue to remain far more popular than soccer, the media deals that those leagues get compared to those MLS can get hinders the incentive for American soccer players to stick to the sport. Despite the best American athletes going to other sports, it must be reiterated that there is still a large pool of American athletes that stick to soccer in America. At the high school level, soccer is the fourth most played sport with only American football, basketball, and track and field ahead of it. In a country of over 300 million people, there are plenty of good athletes in the soccer talent pool.
If there is a large talent pool of soccer players in the United States, then why are we not able to produce world class soccer talent at the rate of countries like Belgium, Uruguay, or the Netherlands that have much smaller populations? The issue for those American soccer players who stick to the sport, it is the lack of a serious soccer culture that is present in countries where soccer is the number one sport. The hiring and firing of Jurgen Klinsmann as the US national team head coach, who played and coached the German national team, highlighted the lack of a regimented structure at the youth levels of American soccer. In Germany and in other European and South American countries, the youth soccer development model is a very strict process where the national soccer program identifies, selects and develops talented youth players as young as 8 years old.
After finishing at the bottom of their group at Euro 2000, Germany overhauled its youth soccer program, which consisted of developing youth academies across both the top divisions of the Bundesliga, the top soccer league in Germany. The development programs spans 366 different areas of Germany. The youth academies cater to children aged 8 to 14 and 1,000 Uefa licenses coaches are tasked with identifying the best prospects. Technique, tactics, and honing skills are emphasized in these development programs where kids receive world class coaching, while also getting to compete with other top youth prospects in Germany. In the United States, youth soccer consists of an emphasis on playing games and racking up wins or losses. The worst aspect of youth soccer programs in America is the lack of adequate coaches. In many youth programs, the coach might be your friend’s dad who may have played soccer as a child, but gave up the sport and is now volunteering as a youth soccer coach.
In the United States, there is no real system of developing soccer talent and it often follows the American college model of basketball and American football. American soccer players will earn a scholarship to play soccer at an American college where the soccer programs are no where as stringent as youth soccer programs overseas due to NCAA restrictions on the amount of hours you can spend on the practice field. By the time American soccer talent reaches the college level, their counterparts overseas have been training in a youth academies from a very young age, where they have been exposed to the professional work ethic required to become a soccer player. Most of the top European soccer talent are full-fledged professionals that are on the first team of professional clubs by the time they are in their late teens.
There are plenty of good athletes in America that play soccer, but their talents are not being developed the way the soccer talent overseas is being developed. In countries like Germany, who have consistently produced world class soccer talent is the result of a systematic development of youth talent. This type of system does not exist in the Untied States, where even the best talent ends up going through the American college model. While soccer talent in America reaches college age, top soccer talent overseas are likely to be on the first team of a professional club and well-versed in the lifestyle of a professional soccer player by the time they are in their late teens. The professional nature of youth soccer outside of the United States is what gives them the advantage in producing soccer talent of the United States.
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