This week I was walking my dogs on the Western Prom in Portland and witnessed a rarity: a pickup soccer game. The 5 boys were in the 10-12 year range, and were playing a makeshift half-field contest, 2-on-2 with 1 goalie.
As best I could tell, 3 boys were African and 2 Hispanic or Middle Eastern, as they all chattered back and forth in accented English. One of them might be the future of American soccer, but we might never know.
Seeing this impromptu match reminded me that I began playing competitive soccer at age 7 and mentally, have never stopped.
I use the word “competitive” with great purpose, because amongst Americans, I’m an anomaly. I spent most of my formative years in Europe, playing formally and informally every moment I could, before returning stateside for college.
Once back, the American way interfered, and my physical saturation in the game ended – even though I continued to play in one manner or another until my early 40s, when my knees could no longer take it.
But that’s the environment foreign players grow up with, and U.S. national men’s team coach Jurgen Klinsmann knows we can never replicate it here. The only thing close is our inner city culture of playground basketball.
Past that, American youth soccer players are too organized, too planned, too coached, too class-stratified and too focused on getting a college scholarship. Eventually, an overwhelming majority lose interest in playing.
Globally, though, kids play day, night, at school during recesses, on weekends and vacations from dawn to dusk. There are no meddling parents, no megalomaniac coaches, no participation fees, uniform fees, travelling fees, etc.
Young boys seek out games involving adults, and beg to be included. It’s not uncommon to see a weekend or summer pick up contest with 12 year olds taking it right to 30 year olds, and celebrating the inevitable merciless rough housing as a rite of passage, and a respectful salute that they belong.
Importantly, every match – whether a 6 hour midsummer marathon played on an empty dirt lot or a 20 minute neighborhood skirmish in the street while dodging passing cars – is played with the urgency and passion of a World Cup final.
Debates linger for weeks afterward. Manhood challenges persist. Gauntlets are dropped. Then the cycle starts over.
Klinsmann instinctively grasps we will never get THERE.
Still, he is keenly aware that American society’s orientation toward athletic competition and seemingly bottomless resources can be a plus toward making quick progress to growing better quality field players - just as Americans are acknowledged for developing world-class goalkeepers such as World Cup face-saver, Tim Howard.
In short, to build a stronger national team, we need … better players.
While this subject can fill volumes, I examine in brief how Klinsmann can do this in my Portland Sun weekly column, “The vindication of Jurgen Klinsmann.”
Since we will never engender the country-wide spontaneity of the global pick up game, we must then use the matchless American predilection toward organization and structure to develop our best young players in youth soccer academies.
Now, the irony isn’t escaping me, and I can already hear the naysayers: “Telly, you just told us the pickup game is the way overseas, and now you’re telling us they have super organized youth academies, too, and we need those here?”
And the best players from the sandlot, or my beloved Western Prom, are plucked for junior programs, but somehow make their way to play back in the ‘hood, because it’s a way of life. Your village is still your village. Your people are still your people. No pro team’s youth farm ever trumps that.
Those are the 1%. And we need to take our 1%, whatever their ethnic backgrounds and economic situations, and get them in programs where they can flourish.
What do you think? Forget duplicating societal passion; let’s talk results.
The Belgians, typically a mediocre European national team, revamped their entire youth development system in the last 15 years and we saw the stark difference in their abilities as they knocked the U.S. out of the World Cup during last week’s round of 16.
Importantly, their roster was a refection of central Europe’s emerging ethnic and racial diversity. And they don’t look mediocre anymore.
Can Klinsmann make this work in the U.S., or will he run into the same paternalistic obstructionism as we have seen in the NCAA and college sports? Or, as I found 35 years ago as a freshman college walk-on, despite my years of overseas experience and excellence in open tryouts?
While many of our “experts” here are already criticizing Klinsmann for his World Cup coaching, the Brits – where soccer was born – are watching this incomprehensible treatment and already wondering how to pry Klinsmann away from us to turn their team around.
The time for change is now. Wise up, U.S. Soccer, or we may continue to reap the mediocrity we’ve been sowing.