September 14, 2014

LINSEY | The State of U.S. Soccer On International Stage

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The United States has produced legendary musicians, artists, politicians, engineers, scientists and thinkers. Some of the world’s best institutions of higher learning are right here in the States. Americans dominate international sports, too. The U.S.A. is a main contender at the Olympics and always finishes well in international hockey, baseball and basketball competitions.

So why can’t we play soccer?

For years, the prominent explanation for why the U.S. couldn’t keep up with the rest of the world was the lack of facilities and opportunities for young children to play the sport.

Recently, though, this has changed dramatically. Soccer is one of the first sports young kids learn to play, including myself. It is also beginning to gain a larger following in the States: soccer terms were atop U.S.A. trends on Twitter during the 2014 World Cup and there was a general level of attention to the tournament that was never seen in the U.S. before.

It hasn’t seemed to fully worked yet, though. The United States, despite a high-profile coach in Jurgen Klinsmann, still can’t keep up with traditional soccer powers like England, Spain or Germany.

Some will be quick to point out that the U.S. actually qualified for the round of 16 at this summer’s World Cup, and England and Spain failed to do the same. However, if the U.S. team from this summer played against England or Spain, a U.S. win would be about as likely as an Ithaca winter without snow.

Others who wonder why the United States can’t compete with top soccer countries may say that American players haven’t been given a chance by the best teams in Europe. If those teams gave our country’s top talents a chance, then maybe our players could progress and make our national team better.

Americans have been given a chance on the big stage, though, and few have managed to stay. Right now, the list of Americans playing for first-division European teams is sparse. Goalkeepers Tim Howard (Everton, ex-Manchester United) and Brad Guzan (Aston Villa) have made reputations as reliable shot-stoppers in England’s Premier League. They remain the exception to the rule. Geoff Cameron of Stoke City in England seemed to hold down a starting spot at right back, but fell out of favor this season and looks set for an inevitable return to the MLS. Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo, also of Stoke, were given a chance to impress a top team and have not done so, as they combined for one appearance last season and zero goals. Nineteen-year-old Julian Green currently plies his trade for Bayern Munich in Germany, one of the best teams in the world, so Green is unlikely to play much at such a young age. If one goes back further into the past, there are plenty more examples of Americans who have been given a chance and not taken advantage of it.

I’d argue that what the U.S. needs to succeed at soccer has nothing to do with a new coach, or more players to be given a chance, or for Americans to call it football. I’d suggest that we need a national identity for our soccer team, which Klinsmann is definitely working towards. For example, Spain has a reputation for flair players and precise passing, while England’s reputation is power and technique. America? The jury’s still out, but Klinsmann seems to be building a quick, resilient, and counterattacking team.

As we’ve seen over the past few years, counterattacking soccer is a very effective strategy, and it just may do wonders for the U.S. There were some positive signs at the World Cup, as some American players showed that they really fit the new system. Clint Dempsey hovered with intent around the penalty box area. DeAndre Yedlin rampaged up and down the flanks, providing good service into the box. Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones kept the midfield neat and tidy, while starting good build-up play.

Klinsmann’s strategy with these players is unique and unprecedented. Klinsmann was a star as a player for Germany, and he has used that name recognition to attract players to play for the U.S. Klinsmann has been getting his staff to convince young German players that they won’t ever be able to crack the German national team; instead they should come to school in the U.S. Over time, this makes these young teens eligible to play for the United States, despite growing up in Germany.

The winning goalscorer for the U.S. against Ghana at the World Cup, John Anthony Brooks, is one of the players Klinsmann recruited in this way. Gedion Zelalem, a young wunderkind in the Arsenal system, is another. Zelalem is yet to earn his first U.S. call-up, as he still needs to become a citizen. The seventeen-year old, who is younger than most Cornell freshmen, could play for the United States soon enough.

Can Klinsmann’s strategy really make the U.S. more relevant at the 2018 World Cup? There’s a common saying: ‘four years is an eternity in soccer,’ and it might apply here. Thomas Muller, the leading goal scorer at the World Cup four years ago, remains a star, but the next top three scorers after him — Wesley Sneijder, Diego Forlan and David Villa — now play in the less glorious soccer leagues of Turkey, Japan and the United States, respectively. It’s definitely a possibility that the U.S. improves at the next World Cup simply through player development.

Jurgen Klinsmann has the United States on course for soccer success. When World Cup 2018 rolls around, maybe America will finally make its long anticipated mark on the soccer world.