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American Soccer’s Socio-Economic Problem?

02 Jun

A friend of mine sent me this article from The Guardian (thanks, JPG) because it is something we have discussed in more anecdotal terms, and the article does a great job of detailing how white and/or upper-middle-class soccer is (or has become) at the expense of the talent that might / probably exists in less financially advantaged communities, especially those immigrant communities that value and promote soccer in a way that more acclimated communities don’t.

I would add, though, a few points to the article that don’t necessarily fall within its scope.

  • Part of my interest in the subject comes from another friend of mine who lived in England for a while (and whose family is English) and pointed out that soccer is more of a blue collar sport in Europe and seen more as a way out of a current, less advantaged socio-economic background than it is here. To put it another way, soccer in Europe is viewed by those of lower socio-economic status in the same way that football and basketball are viewed here in America, as a way to improve one’s station. His point, though, went beyond mere socio-economics; he pointed out that the necessity of soccer for many European players (again, similar to football and basketball players here) gives them an edge or a chip on their shoulder that motivates them to play in a way that is different from the play of more advantaged players; they simply want it more because they need it more. And his American example was always Clint Dempsey, especially given the way that Dempsey’s play early in his career was viewed as somewhat unique or non-traditional.
  • When soccer was making its first real push in America, back in the early ’90s, ahead of the ’94 World Cup, the most recognizable faces were the the Kearney, NJ trio: Tony Meola, John Harkes, and Tab Ramos (largely, I think, because they all came from the same NJ town). My impression was then (and confirmed by the Wikipedia pages for all three plus the town of Kearney, NJ) that, while they were by no means poor, they were also not the suburban soccer aristocrats that we picture today populating most soccer fields (all three came from immigrant families). Meola and Harkes went to Kearney High, Ramos to St. Benedict’s Prep, a private school, but a non-traditional one, attendance at which, again my impression is, does not suggest a particularly high socio-economic status. (St. Benedict’s was recently featured on 60 Minutes for that very reason, that it caters to a traditionally lower socio-economic class.) These three played because it was the sport of their families but, independent of that, that team of the ’94 World Cup was a product of a much simpler, and I suspect cheaper, (club) system than that of today.
  • The focus on the whiteness of the women’s team is an interesting one, but one that perhaps deserves a bit more attention than it received in the article. One the one hand, the article is certainly correct that the men’s team is, and has been, more diverse than the women’s team. The article is also correct in pointing out that the majority of the men’s diversity comes from the use of foreign-born players, i.e. few of the men’s minority players are home-grown players. That dynamic, however, between the use of home-grown (women) and non-home-grown (men) players is based solely on the successes of the teams. The men utilize foreign players more because they need that talent to compete, i.e. they don’t have the necessary talent coming through the American pipeline to compete at the international level and so need to find that talent elsewhere. The women, on the other hand, have all of the talent they need coming through the American pipeline, and so don’t need to find that talent elsewhere to compete on an international level. To put it another way, if the men had won three World Cups and the women were struggling to make it to the semis, I suspect that the men’s team would be just as white as the women’s team is now and that the women’s team would be more diverse (from casting a wider net to find the necessary talent to compete).
  • One of the bigger picture issues that the article hints at but doesn’t develop (i.e. hints at the role of US Soccer in addressing the issue but doesn’t really get into specifics about how they could or should, again because it goes beyond the scope of the article) is the quality of coaching, especially in bigger communities (urban communities) that need more coaches. I live in such a community and, while I resisted the club scene for my son, I finally went in that direction because I wasn’t satisfied with the coaching he was getting at the local / town / city level. Even if these players are playing organized soccer in their (urban) community, there is no guarantee that they’re getting the coaching that would refine that natural and raw ability into something more compatible with more conventional American soccer.
  • Speaking of conventional American soccer (and coaching), I have for years said that the American focus on team over individual skills (which the article addresses) has stunted our growth as a soccer country. Very few American players have the ability to confidently and consistently take on players 1 v 1 and beat them, and, without this consistent ability, we are rarely playing numbers up in the run of play, i.e. our (lack of) ability prevents us from removing defenders from the equation because we are passing around them more often than we are beating them 1 v 1. A related perspective is the recent comment by Andrea Pirlo on MLS, how its physicality is used to mask a baseline of skill (paraphrased, of course).

Alright. I think I’ve said quite enough about this (if you’re still reading, nicely done). An interesting topic, though, especially with the Copa America looming and such inconsistent hope in how we will fare in it.

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