As the old expression goes, never is a long time. That said, I predict that the USA men’s team will never win it all in World Cup Soccer—at least, not in my lifetime.
I don’t buy the idea that it's because the best players eventually concentrate on basketball, football or baseball. After all, American stars are already the best, or among the best, in all of those sports--simultaneously. Instead, I believe the problem is two-fold.
(1) You have to turn professional early.
Let’s face it, to compete at a world-class level in most big-money sports, you essentially have to become a semi-professional player when you are about 12 years old, and a full-time pro when you are 17 or 18 at the latest.
- LeBron James was identified as a future NBA star when he was in high school, and turned pro at 18.
- Maria Sharapova moved from her native Russia to Florida when she was 9, to train full time at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.
- The great soccer star, Ronaldinho, was playing virtually full time for the Brazilian junior national team long before they won the junior World’s in Egypt when Ronaldinho was 17.
These kids are hungry. They did not attend college because world-class competition in their sports could not be found there, making money in college was a struggle, and schoolwork presented a distraction. They were identified as potential stars early, and gave up their lives to their sports.
With rare exceptions such as Freddy Adu (who grew up in Ghana before moving to the United States at age 8), most young soccer players in the US don’t have that commitment. Their parents’ tend to persuade them into not turning professional so early.
Consequently, most young US soccer players go to elite colleges on scholarships before turning pro.
(2) You have to move to where the best competition is, and early.
Talent and hard work isn't enough in world-class sports. You have to have world-class competition to push you into being a razor at your sport.
In soccer, the best competition from age 8 to age 17 is probably found in the big cities in Brazil, kicking beat-up balls on the streets of city slums. After age 17, the best competition is found in European professional soccer (e.g. football) leagues.
Look at the current US National men’s soccer team—of the 33 members on the roster, only 16 currently play in Europe! While it may be that some of those that play in the US aren’t good enough to get hired by European football clubs, it’s also true that some of the American players simply don’t like it in Europe and don’t have the commitment to play there.
Landon Donovan, the all-time leading scorer for the US National soccer team, was initially signed by Bayer Leverkusen of Germany, but he didn’t like it there and they loaned him to the San Jose Earthquakes. Subsequently, he briefly played in Europe before retreating back to the United States.
I don’t see any of the above changing. It’s a shame, yes, but who cares? I love soccer! The Brazilians and Italians are huge fun to watch, and besides, Football and Basketball are more fun to watch than a 1-0 soccer game anyway!
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