Soccer: Stop Calling for a Savior in the United States

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Soccer: Stop Calling for a Savior in the United States
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I recently read an article that asked if Juan Agudelo was the savior of U.S. soccer.

The thought behind the piece began, as it always does, by listing the names of players who have not lived up to expectations. It then goes on to say that maybe this time we had found the one.

Agudelo is an impressive player, and hopefully he continues to play well, but this style of writing needs to end. It’s lazy writing and accomplishes nothing. It is, in fact, the type of writing that makes the audience resent the media; building a character up in order to tear him down even harder.

The article linked to above isn’t the only one that deploys this technique, it is just the most recent I’ve seen.

The names of “failures” are the typical ones mentioned: Charlie Davies, Jozy Altidore, Eddie Johnson, and, of course, Freddy Adu. This isn’t to say they haven’t been disappointing, or that we shouldn’t expect more from them. But why must every young, talented American soccer player be a savior?

The writers make knee-jerk reactions to good, and are just as quick to criticize and devalue through times that are not as fortunate.

The first problem with the “soccer savior” story is how it originates. Far too often a potential savior is pulled from an extremely small sample size.

The majority of Juan Agudelo’s mainstream hype has come from an entire three games with the U.S National Team; his third appearance against Argentina in March was, at the time, one more game than he had played in with the New York Red Bulls total.

Jozy Altidore made 43 total appearances with the Red Bulls, his first professional club team. That’s just over one full MLS season. Eddie Johnson’s most impressive run with the National Team was for his seven goals in six World Cup qualifiers.  And Freddy Adu had never played in a professional match in his life when the media firestorm anointed him the chosen one.

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How can greatness be judged in a handful of games? You can learn some things about a player, but his eventual career path has so many active variables that you just can never tell that soon. The media justifies these responses by saying things like, “The American public is hungry for its own soccer superstar.”  Really, it is sports writers hungry for a quick easy story. One that is framed around little information and could very well turn out wrong, but even then it would create another story.

There is a good reason the sample size is so small—the age of the players.

Adu and Altidore are 21 years old, Davies is 24, and Agudelo is only 18. Johnson is the oldest of the aforementioned players, at 27, but even so, the tipping point of his success came roughly seven years ago (making Johnson a mere 20 years old.)

The point is that all these players burst onto the scene at a very young age—they couldn’t even legally buy a beer. Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Wayne Rooney became superstars at equally young ages and have become the biggest names in the sport. But that doesn’t mean that if these American players haven’t reached their peak at the same age then they are failures.

For starters, the youth development programs in the country are notoriously not as strong as those overseas. Places like the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida and MLS academies are helping to close the gap, but it’s not there yet. Therefore it takes more time for players to properly develop.

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Bob Bradley, the head coach of the USMNT, has brought players like Altidore, Adu and Agudelo in for developmental purposes. In order to make the team more successful (and in doing so helping the sport become more popular in the country) Bradley’s philosophy was to make the available player pool deeper. That has meant expanding the pool to bring in younger players and bring them along at the senior level. Some, like Agudelo, flourish in the early stages. It is a process, however.

By no means is Agudelo a complete player because of his good showings in three international matches. And Adu not making a World Cup team thus far does not mean that he never will. There is still a lot of time for both of these players to hit their primes and until then they will be learning the game, improving their skills and becoming good soccer players, regardless of the superstardom they achieve.

One thing that halts these players is the moves they make in the transfer seasons. With a little help from the media hype that surrounds them, the players’ profiles grow attracting them to big name teams. They move but are not ready to see the field and get buried on the bench.

Bought by Fulham in 2008, Johnson has only made 20 total appearances for the English Premier League club. He’s been loaned out three separate times. Altidore, after signing with Spanish giant Villareal, is on his third loan and Adu is on his fourth loan from parent club Benfica in Portugal.

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The problem is that the players aren’t allowed to develop at the proper rates. Even the teams they are loaned to are in top flight leagues around the world and are looking to win games, not develop another team’s talent.

While these young players are training at high levels and learning what it means to be a professional, at the end of the day they have to crack the lineup and see the field. Otherwise they are no longer fit for games, their confidence gets shaken and they get rusty, dulling their once dazzling talents.

Then the media swoon over them like vultures, declaring their careers all but over.

The media is not at fault for player’s choosing the wrong team to transfer to. But for some reason the lack of proper time to develop gets lost in the coverage.

There is nothing wrong with being excited for a young player’s success. And if that player will help lead soccer to a higher status on and off the pitch then that’s great. But expectations need to be kept in
check.

The soccer savior theme needs to be put to an end. It’s beyond hyperbole now, it’s a cliché. Anytime a young player has a good run of form, even for only a handful of games, he becomes the new flavor of the week. And then when the hot streak cools and the player must work through adversity—an essential part of a player’s development—the media turns their back on him, labeling him a failure.

It’s a tired form of writing and accomplishes nothing other than squeezing as many headlines out of a buzz worthy player as possible. It makes it look like writers are not out to cover the beautiful game but rather essentially create and manipulate their own stories.

Besides, with the USMNT improving its quality of play on the pitch, MLS becoming a financially stable establishment and pure interest in the global game on the rise (i.e. sales for the FIFA video game, TV ratings for the World Cup and English Premier League matches) is a savior really needed?

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