Soccer will never make it as a big-time sport in the U.S. There, I said it.
But imagine the possibilities if our top athletes grew up dreaming of World Cup glory instead of Super Bowl rings? I don’t mean to disrespect the current members of the U.S. soccer team, but even they would probably admit that better American athletes are playing other sports.
So, I decided to peruse the ranks of the major U.S. sports leagues—the NFL, MLB, NBA—plus the NHL, and tried to figure out exactly what our national team would look like if soccer were as popular here as it is in, say, Brazil.
(One note: This is assuming the following players spent their entire lives playing soccer. I don’t want to hear about how basketball players would get too many handballs and wouldn’t know how to use their feet. If they had the motivation and drive to make it as pros in one sport, they certainly could have learned the skills to play soccer).
Since defense wins championships, I built my team from the net out using a 4-4-2 formation. Soccer goalies need to read and react to the play in a split-second, and occasionally make spectacular diving saves. Torii Hunter, one of baseball’s best defensive centerfielders, would have been perfect. He can read the trajectory of a baseball more than two hundred feet away, and has a penchant for making leaping or diving catches. Of course, he would be a constant threat to knock himself out running into the goal post to make a save, but at least that would be entertaining.
On defense, how about a tall guy with a good sense of body position and how to get to the ball in mid-air—the sort of skills needed to rebound a basketball? At 6’7” Shawn Marion towers over most soccer players. Marion is also one of the best rebounders in the NBA, and a standout defensive player. I can also picture Brian Urlacher as a world-class central defender. His combination of size and speed would certainly intimidate many attackers, especially if he assumed tackling means the same thing in soccer as it does in the NFL.
Cornerbacks are used to defending one-on-one, and tend to be some of the fastest players on the field. With his closing speed, lateral quickness and mental toughness, Champ Bailey could have been an excellent outside fullback. Ronde Barber might not have Bailey’s physical gifts, but he has great instincts and probably would have developed a high soccer IQ.
(You might wonder why I didn’t pick DeAngelo Hall or Pacman Jones. Frankly, they are too crazy. Although the thought of Pacman getting involved in a bizarre off field incident at the World Cup and embarrassing the entire country is exciting. But I digress.)
Many teams employ at least one defensive-minded midfielder to lock down on the other team’s best player. Bruce Bowen is the NBA’s premier lockdown defender, a guy whose only task each game is to make the opposing team’s top scorer miserable. He is relentless, tireless and a little dirty. Given the number of NBA players who want to punch him out, Bowen likely would have been the recipient of Zidane's headbutt if he were a soccer player.
The midfield also needs a playmaker, someone who controls the pace of the game and directs the offense. Much like a great point guard, the best midfielders are guys who not only score goals, but also create chances for their teammates. Seeing as Chris Paul is unstoppable off the dribble in basketball, it’s not a stretch to see him as a midfield wizard, controlling the ball as if it was tied to his foot on a string, probing the defense for weaknesses, and setting his teammates up for opportunities to score.
Most Americans have never heard of Patrick Kane—or think he is Canadian—because he plays hockey. Well, hockey shares many of soccer’s concepts of teamwork and ball (or puck) movement, and Kane showed a lot of creativity and finishing skills en route to winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie. Kane and Zach Parise, a winger who specializes in hard work and scoring goals, would both have made excellent attacking midfielders in another life. And since soccer is number one in this fantasy world, they might actually get some recognition.
Up front, it’s all about finding someone who can put the ball in the net, and I can’t imagine anyone making a better attacker than Floyd Mayweather, Jr. A boxer might seem like an odd choice, until you realize Mayweather possesses incredible hand-eye coordination (read: foot-eye coordination), superhuman stamina, and some of the best footwork in the world. For a striker, we might have tapped Randy Moss, who could have learned to use his high-leaping, body-contorting skills to get his head to those high crosses. With all of the prima donnas in soccer, Floyd and Randy would fit right in.
Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on your perspective—soccer does not hold the appeal in the U.S. that it does abroad, for a number of reasons. The best leagues are in Europe. The best players are foreign. There is limited coverage in the States. While soccer matches are fun to attend in person, the pace of the game seems slow on television. The World Cup only happens once every four years. Most Americans grow up playing catch, touch football, or pickup hoops. Inner-city kids see a way out in a basketball and a pair of sneakers, not a soccer ball and a pair of cleats. Most importantly, the U.S. has never had a breakthrough star to bring soccer into the mainstream. Basketball had Jordan. Baseball had Ruth. Even hockey had Gretzky. Soccer? Pele did his best work overseas. So did Beckham. We need somebody to come up here, someone with mass-marketing appeal who plays the game at a level it has never been played before in front of the home crowd. Until then, our best athletes will continue to shun soccer.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to go shoot some hoops.