Open Mic: U.S. Soccer Not Lacking Athletes, Just Success

The LooperCorrespondent IJune 18, 2008

Scratching and clawing at the international soccer elite, the U.S. national soccer team just can't seem to break on through to that other side.

Even though Jim Morrison of The Doors and Wayne's World 2 fame most likely was not predicting the course of soccer in America over the 30-plus years since his death, the guy couldn't be more right.

After a recent scoreless draught against Argentina, Spain, and England—three of the world's soccer elites—which included a scoreless draw against Leo Messi and the Argentinians, you'd think that Morrison was right, and I'd agree (in spite of the fact that I don't like The Doors).

Yet, whatever the case may be, the U.S. side isn't eligible for the "Not Enough Athletes" excuse, which is reserved for mid- to low-major college basketball teams taking on, say, North Carolina.

To say that most of America's top athletes don't play soccer is an acceptable contention. That would be like saying that more people go out for MTV's Real World than Road Rules nowadays because, seriously, when have we last seen a new Road Rules that wasn't on at 3:00 a.m.

To say that America's top athletes don't play soccer and therefore hinder the sport's levels of success and growth, though, is just wrong and missing the point.

For my money—and I don't put it out there unless I'm sure (except, um, at the track)—soccer or football, depending upon where you are, has the best pound-for-pound athletes in the world.

As much as you would like to knock soccer, you cannot fight the fact that soccer players have to play, without timeouts, for 90 minutes plus. For the best players this means running a 10k or more. I'm sorry, but  I doubt that Kobe Bryant or LeBron James  could keep up into extra-time—Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Michael Ballack could run circles around either of them.

Add supreme eye-foot coordination (odd, yes), body control, and touch to the sheer endurance from above and you have a superior athlete. Looking at any soccer player could tell you that. There is no excess muscle or weight on a soccer player. They simply couldn't get around the pitch with it.

In terms of mental toughness, soccer athletes are not the most impressive. This honor must go to golf, the ultimate head game. Tiger Woods' recent U.S. Open win at Torrey Pines is proof enough. Woods went out with not just a bum knee, but a knee that was barely serviceable, and won the most grueling tournament in the sport. The mental toughness of golfers is beyond doubt.

To speculate what big-time athletes in other sports would make great soccer players is a crap shoot, largely because while the other major sports are in the trend of having BIG players, soccer is still a game in which smaller athletes flourish. (See: Messi, Robinho, Rafael van der Vaart, Cesc Fabregas, and Franck Ribery—all under six feet.)

The best American athletes are, generally, just too big for soccer. To wonder what success a team of Kobe, Reggie Bush, David Eckstein, and Tiger Woods would make is an impossible, pointless task, comparable to predicting the career success of those very same Real World cast members.

What it comes down to (and what you can actually make a case for) is that U.S. soccer has not experienced enough success to create the popularity necessary to lead more athletes to the sport.

The athlete base is there. The U.S. can draw from more talent than can France, England, and Germany combined. The draw is the thing that isn't.

The cultural dynamic will begin to change the day after the U.S. wins the World Cup—until then, it's just paddling upstream.

[This article was originally posted on The Looper.]