Why Americans Do Not Excel at Soccer (Football)

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIApril 26, 2009

COMMERCE CITY, CO - NOVEMBER 19:  Freddy Adu #10 of the USA battles with Carlos Castrillo #2 of Guatemala during their semifinal round FIFA World Cup qualifier match at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on November 19, 2008 in Commerce City, Colorado. USA defeated Guatemala 2-0.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

I previously wrote an article in which I stated that soccer would never be popular in the U.S. unless the sport has more scoring.  In response to this, some non-American readers of the article (it was posted in four different sites) stated that the reason that soccer is not popular in the U.S. is because we “suck at it” or words to that extent. 

They essentially concluded that because we do not excel at soccer at the International level, we don’t follow the sport.

Well, not having success at the International level and sucking at soccer are two different things. Americans don’t inherently suck at soccer—the reason that the U.S. does not have more International success in men’s (since the women’s team is very successful) soccer is because since there is less money and less prestige in soccer than other sports that are more popular in the U.S. and most of our best athletes concentrate and excel at those sports. 

It is not because we are not capable—if it was an important national goal -- of being an International soccer power.

I am not saying this saying this because I feel a need to defend Americans or because I am dying to tell the rest of the world that America is a great country. However, because of the advantages that the U.S. has in population, resources (i.e., money), and the racial melting pot that exists in the U.S., Americans are capable of excelling at any sport Internationally that they put their mind to. 

And it is not because Americans are better than anyone else, but because these huge advantages give us a significant edge in developing world-class athletes.  It really is that simple and this is not meant in a bragging sense.

In the first half of the 20th Century, there were only three major sports in the U.S. – baseball, boxing, and horse racing.  College football was somewhat popular and professional football was starting to become popular.  (Baseball was introduced in 1846, soccer and American Football both in 1869, basketball in 1891, and hockey in 1893.) 

Despite soccer not being popular in the U.S. at that time, the U.S. team still managed to place 3rd place out of 13 countries in the first World Cup in 1930.  Hence, Americans do not inherently suck at soccer and their success at the first World Cup did not make soccer popular in the U.S.

For whatever reasons, American’s sports taste did not gravitate towards soccer since the very beginning (1869) and not because of our lack of success after 1930 or because “we sucked at it.”  No, it was because our best athletes chose to compete at sports where there were professional leagues – first baseball (MLB and the Negro Leagues), then American football (NFL), and finally basketball (NBA) in 1946 (I am excluding hockey since most the players from the six team NHL were from Canada at that time).

What other country in the world has four other team sports and numerous individual sports that attract most of out best athletes?  Uh, that would be none.  In most countries around the world, soccer is considered their national pastime; while, here in the U.S., it the fifth most popular team sport, and individual sports such as golf and auto racing are also more popular than soccer.  

Soccer has never been popular in the U.S. – it does not lack popularity here because the U.S. men are not an International power.  Of course, soccer would be more popular in the U.S. if the men’s team won the World Cup, but not by that much and it would only be temporary if the U.S. did not stay at the very top of International soccer.  And I will note that the great success of the U.S. women’s soccer has done little to increase soccer’s popularity in the U.S.

I should point out for sake of completeness, that the U.S. men’s team was ranked as high as 4th by FIFA in 2006 (although they were probably not the 4th best team in the world at that time) and now are ranked 15th (they changed the ranking system after 2006). 

In addition, the U.S. has two of the most talented young strikers (both only 19 years old) in the world in Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore (who recently became the youngest American to score a hat trick in an International game).
So, maybe, despite that most of our best male athletes compete at other sports, the U.S. men’s soccer team will rise to the top Internationally. 

However, as long as soccer is not popular in the U.S. and our best athletes pursue careers in the more lucrative team sports available here, it will always be an uphill battle.