Debunking the Myth of ‘If Our Best Athletes Played Soccer, We (They) Would Dominate”

I have often heard the hypothesis that “If the best American athletes chose to play soccer, America would take the world by storm and dominate the existing soccer superpowers”. This is one of the most asinine, unsubstantiated arguments that a surprising number of people seem to believe. I am going to use the following paragraphs to take apart each and every component and/or variation of this myth that I have heard over the years.

“If LeBron/Kobe / Adrian Peterson/ Insert American Athlete Name Played Soccer, They Would Dominate”

The genesis of this myth usually begins with the mention of some top-level American basketball, football, or baseball player and how they would emerge as a superstar if they played soccer, instead of their sport of choice. If LeBron or Kobe or any of these other athletes mentioned played soccer, they would not be good. Soccer (like basketball) is a skill sport, predicated upon technique and mental acuity. This is not to disparage athleticism because it is important. However, athleticism is merely a prerequisite needed to afford a player the base requirements necessary to attempt to compete professionally. The droves of players who meet this precondition are then whittled down based upon their technical and tactical acumen.

A reasonable supporter of this argument may admit that a superstar from another sport could not dominate soccer if they switched to the sport today. However, they typically will argue that if the player was raised and groomed playing soccer from a young age that they would have developed into a star player. This is a nice thought, but has no empirical basis.

Without delving into any of the dozen or so reasons why America has yet to produce a transcendent soccer player (that is a different argument to be discussed another time), it is important to note that none of those reasons would pertain to athleticism. In fact, athleticism and fitness have long been considered one of America’s advantages over other nations around the world. America often exploits its athletic advantages on set pieces, a consistent weapon in the American arsenal.

America does not have the infrastructure in place nor the expertise or experience necessary to produce a world-class player. While the U.S. has implemented numerous structural changes to its youth development program, it has yet to demonstrate that it can develop an elite player. We have had and continue to have elite athletes play soccer and yet no American player has crossed the threshold into superstardom. As mentioned above, the reasons are technical and tactical in nature, not athletic.

Why is the Argument Made?

I believe that the largest drivers of this argument are lack of understanding, laziness, and a bit of arrogance. I have rarely heard a serious soccer fan make this argument and have been able to convince the few that have against their initial position by taking them through the points I elucidate in this article. The vast majority of people who make this argument are not soccer fans, and they do not understand why America does not excel in soccer when it is able to excel in virtually every other sport in which it participates.

It is not uncommon for people to come up with a simplified explanation for something they do not understand. An American sports fan that watches and appreciates an athlete like LeBron James but does not understand soccer finds it impossible to comprehend why his skills would not translate to soccer. Interestingly enough, the things that make America excel at basketball – grassroots youth participation, organized youth development infrastructure, understanding of the game, and exposure to the top levels of competition – are precisely what allow other countries to excel at soccer and inhibit the U.S. from excelling in soccer.

What Makes a Great Athlete?

Before we dig into the meat of this article, let’s discuss what elements comprise a world-class athlete of any sport and how it pertains to soccer. I believe that there are four essential areas that define an athlete’s ability, which are as follows: Technique, Tactics, Athleticism, and Psychology. Technique relates to sport-specific skills and techniques. Tactics relates to sports-specific strategy, IQ, awareness, and decision-making. Athleticism relates to all physical factors, such as speed, strength, flexibility, and grace. Psychology relates to factors such as motivation, work ethic, emotional stability, and resilience.

What Makes a Great Soccer Player?

Instead of focusing on America’s inability to produce a world-class soccer player, let’s investigate the make-up of existing world-class players and what makes them great. All great soccer players, like all great athletes of any sport, excel in each of the four quadrants. While some proponents of the myth may be clammoring to point out the athletic prowess of superstar players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, athleticism is not an end all and be all.

Like in any sport, athleticism may be a factor that separates good players from great players, but it is merely that – a factor in the equation. LeBron James is clearly a rare physical specimen. Combining his athletic abilities with his basketball skills and tactical know-how is the recipe for a world-class basketball player. However, like basketball, soccer has elite players who are merely average athletes yet still reign as superstars.

Take Steve Nash, for example. Steve Nash is an average athlete, if not slightly below average, when compared to the other players in the NBA. However, Nash is an all-time great shooter and passer who has proven to be a basketball virtuoso at running an NBA offense. While a player like Nash is an exception in the NBA, a player of his ilk is more common in soccer. Many elite soccer players, such as Andrea Pirlo, Phillip Lahm, or Xavi, are “average” athletes who outclass their counterparts with superb combinations of skill, knowledge of the game, and mental fortitude.

Johan Cruyff famously said, “Speed is often confused with insight. When I start running earlier than the others, I appear faster”. This quote encapsulates the essence of my argument. Players who are more highly skilled and who have greater field awareness can make-up for athletic deficiencies or exploit athletic advantages with their ability to see plays develop a half second before their opponents. Think of Wayne Gretzky and his quote about skating where the puck was going to be, rather than where the puck is.

Hierarchy of Quadrants

I believe that there is a hierarchy to the four quadrants that may synthesize my thoughts. I believe athleticism should be considered first because it is a prerequisite necessary to compete at the highest levels in any sport. However, as I have argued above, athleticism is just a piece of a larger equation. Surely, Ronaldo, Drogba, and Ibrihimovic are exceptional athletes, but no one would ever doubt their technical and tactical acumen, which allow them to exploit their athletic abilities. Ronaldo’s strength and speed are an incredible asset, but they are only lethal because Ronaldo knows when and where to run and what to do with the ball once he receives it. Without his technical or tactical prowess, his athleticism would be rendered useless. Once a player reaches a certain threshold of athleticism, it is imperative that he or has the technical capacities required to play professional soccer.

The tactical and psychological quadrants are extremely important as well, but they are contingent upon the existence of the aforementioned two quadrants. While athleticism and technique will separate a player from the Premier League versus a player from the first or second division, the players within the Premier League are nearly equal in terms of athleticism and technique. What separates these players are their tactical strength and psychological faculties. Guys like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs last at Manchester United for the better part of two decades because they know the game better than their counterparts from around the world. Even after their physical qualities have deteriorated, both players played an integral part on title-winning sides at Manchester United because they have superior vision, instincts, and decision-making capacities than other players.

Conclusion

Former Colorado Rapids coach Gary Smith, who played and coached professionally in England for a decade, said this when asked about the topic:

You look at Onyewu, Altidore — all of these guys that are competing on the world stage are no different physically than their counterparts in Europe. The big difference is their upbringing. Their exposure to the game at a young age, their coaching environment at a young age, the competition at a young age, and all of those habits, qualities and actual experiences are all things that stand [players from other countries] in good stead as they mature.

This statement sums up the argument perfectly. Would it be nice if more “elite” American athletes played soccer from a young age? Yes, of course. From a numbers standpoint, it is always useful to expand the pool of prospective players. However, America has never lacked in the athletic component of the game. The obvious difference between American soccer players and those from Europe and South America is their upbringing. Players in these parts of the world are trained and coached differently from an extremely young age. These regions emphasize technical and tactical development for young players rather than winning games. Europeans and South Americans would scoff at the American obsession with combines that measure purely physical, non-sport related metrics.

European and South American soccer coaches understand that it is infinitely more difficult to develop a players’ technique or tactical know-how beyond their teenage years and recognize that it is much easier, though still challenging, to work with a player to achieve marginal improvements in their athleticism. Americans certainly seem to have it backwards by endeavouring to transform great athletes into soccer players.

Jurgen Klinsmann recently said the following about Kyle Beckerman following a Gold Cup victory: “He’s somebody that you put your trust in because you know always what you get from Kyle is one thousand percent commitment…I wish I could have had Kyle ten or twelve years ago because as a player I could have helped him reach higher levels” Now as much as that quote may simply invoke Klinsmann’s self-confidence in his abilities as a coach, the fact of the matter is that he is right – at least in terms of timing. Virtually every prominent soccer player in the world was a known commodity by their early twenties, and often many years prior, which underscores the importance of youth development, the area where the U.S. trails its European and South American counterparts.

The fact of the matter is that America has yet to produce any groundbreaking, world-class talents in soccer. Our best players to date (Donovan, Bradley, Altidore, Dempsey, etc…) are all well-renowned athletes. Nobody has ever stated “Imagine how good Landon Donovan (or any other American player) could be, if only he were more athletic”. In fact, the quote from Klinsmann above supports the notion that while American players provide maximum effort they are often lacking in the tactical and technical areas of the game.

America has grown leaps in bounds as a soccer nation in the past two decades and is consistently producing a higher caliber of player. A number of American players are playing in the top leagues in the world and a dozen or so American teenagers are plying their trade in the youth academies of Europe’s top teams. We are nearing the day where America produces a transcendent, world-class player. Those who believe that this player will arrive once America’s “best athletes” begin playing soccer will be disappointed. Only when America adopts the proven model (that of Europe and South America) for cultivating world-class players will America witness the arrival of their first superstar.

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10 thoughts on “Debunking the Myth of ‘If Our Best Athletes Played Soccer, We (They) Would Dominate”

  1. I feel like your entire article could have just been “IF OUR BEST ATHLETES PLAYED SOCCER, WE (THEY) WOULD DOMINATE [IF WE ALSO HAD A SEMBLANCE OF SOCCER INFRASTRUCTURE COMPARABLE TO THE REST OF THE WORLD]“

    • First and foremost, thanks for reading and providing some feedback. I appreciate your thoughts.

      In addressing your comment, the fact of the matter is that 95+% of the best soccer players in the world were developed under the same model where players are groomed from a young age by youth academies of professional teams.

      The point of my article was to dismiss the notion that America needed its “best athletes” to play soccer in order to improve because that is simply not the case.

      I intentionally spoke broadly about the infrastructure because that is an off-shoot topic that deserves its own article. America cannot simply copy the European or South American model for a number of reasons, including our university system, the maturity of our domestic league, our coaching resources, etc…

      Creating a soccer infrastructure capable of producing world-class talent will be a challenging, complex process,but I believe America is on the right track, especially in light of recent structural changes to our youth development system.

      Anyway, thanks again for your comment and please feel free to share more of your thoughts on this or any other article.

  2. Basketball and soccer are not that different, if russell westbrook or chris paul had the same drive they had for basketball to be good at soccer no doubt in my mind they would be great players, how great I don’t know. The positioning and spacing for guards are very similar. Big men would not thrive, but other players like Lebron James who also have great feel for the game could also thrive. When I say feel for the game I am talking about natural athleticism and understanding for a game. It is the same for most sports. Ever see that kid that is better at all the sports than the other kids? That’s the natural athlete and given the right tutelage and drive to succeed no doubt the superior ‘natural athletes’ would thrive.

    • Thanks for commenting. I agree with you on the many parallels between basketball and soccer. However, I believe your conclusions are wrong. If I follow, you believe that Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul would be great soccer players. Then, using the same logic, do you believe Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi would be great basketball players? To me, that doesn’t make any sense (and is evidenced by this video of Bayern Munich playing basketball http://dailym.ai/1hgnw3x).

      All joking aside, let’s look at China, a nation who is batshit crazy for basketball (http://bit.ly/1kHDmTy) for example. They have well over a billion citizens, representing nearly 20% of the world’s population, and, as they demonstrated in Beijing ’08, they produce world-class athletes as well as any country in the world. Despite their population and ability to produce top-notch athletes in a multitude of sports, they are one of the weaker basketball-nations in the world. Why is this?

      I contend that the reason China is not a dominant basketball nation is the same reason why the U.S. is not a dominant soccer nation. Achieving excellence in basketball and soccer require more than national interest, a huge population, and a predisposition for fostering athletic talent. Those things are necessary prerequisites, which is why certain diminutive nations will never be able to compete at the highest levels, but are insufficient to becoming an elite nation in either sport.

      Becoming an elite nation in either sport requires a grassroots playing culture and a development infrastructure (top professional leagues, coaching philosophies, training approaches, etc…). American dominance in basketball illustrates this point. A huge number of American children grow up playing basketball. You’d be hard pressed to find an American who hasn’t shot some hoops growing up. Americans learn the game in driveways and public courts across the nation and begin playing on local teams.

      As children mature, the most promising individuals are funneled into the appropriate developmental channels where their talents and abilities can be sharpened and allowed to flourish. It is important to note that talent is cultivated at the local level where kids have the freedom to experiment with their game. Young athletes hone their skills informally via practice and pick-up games where they can explore the nuances of their sport and exercise creativity as they refine their understanding of the game. Once an individual’s talent garners recognition, he or she is placed into the proper developmental system and afforded the opportunity to blossom into a world-class talent.

      In China, this infrastructure is not in place. Instead, children whose x-rays (http://nyti.ms/1hxlnVy) indicate a strong likelihood of growing to be tall are sent to government-sponsored sport schools where they learn how to play basketball. Unsurprisingly, this methodology has been ineffective. China has not yet realized that you cannot force basketball greatness upon a genetic predisposition for height.

      What are 3.4, 10.5, 11.1, and 16.8? Those are the populations (in millions) of Uruguay, Portugal, Belgium, and the Netherlands, respectively. These are four of the ten strongest soccer nations in the world and are each favored to advance further than the U.S. at the World Cup in Brazil. How do these nations, whose populations’ pale in comparison to the U.S., outperform us in soccer?

      Consistent with the points mentioned above, elite athletic prowess is borne from nations who have a grassroots playing culture that nurture fosters talent and a development infrastructure that can translate promising talents into finished products. Why do you think New Zealand, a country of 4.5 million people, can consistently dominate the U.S. (and the rest of the world) in rugby?

      Countries like the U.S. and China can take a tiny fraction of their population, which would still dwarf, smaller nations, and train them day and night with the objective of defeating countries like Portugal and Uruguay in soccer or New Zealand in rugby, but it will not work. Why am I so confident? Because it is happening now (China in basketball and U.S. in soccer) and it is not working!!

      Interestingly enough, China’s basketball development appear to mirror the U.S’s. soccer development but on a twenty year lag. The U.S. has begun to realize their shortcomings and has taken measures to adopt the proven infrastructure system utilized by Europe and South America for developing elite soccer players. China has not yet reached that maturity point (or frustration level) where they adopt the system of the cornerstone of basketball development – the U.S. – but I would be shocked if they did not start mimicking the American model in the coming years.

      The fact of the matter is that Spain, Brazil, Germany, and Argentina are favored to win the World Cup because of the reasons described throughout this post and not their physical superiority. In fact, Spain, the reigning world champions, have directly opposed that notion by playing a style predicated upon ball control and numerical advantages that caters to less physically dominating players who are more technically gifted. These nations have surpassed their peers through technical and tactical acumen, not physical dominance.

      When you watch the World Cup in a few weeks time, notice the decision-making, field awareness, and team integration of the best teams and players. You’ll observe that these are the areas in which we trail the global superpowers. That being said, it is not all gloom and doom. The U.S. has been making steady strides in the right direction and has all of the resources at their disposal to become a soccer power. But it will not happen overnight, so be patient.

  3. This article is silly. You bring up valid points about the youth system and that simply putting American athletes into soccer won’t just make them great. However, athletes previously named such as lebron are far and away the best athletes on the planet. Put lebron, Calvin Johnson, Chris Paul etc. through La Masia and America is winning most world tournaments. Obviously different sports have different tactics and also have similarities but putting all of that aside, mental power and athleticism do run the game as you mentioned. Now a lot of American athletes are not the smartest most knowledgeable people but they do have understanding for their respective sport which makes them great. Sure Ronaldo is tall and fast and has a cannon shot but imagine someone with the build (physically), speed, and determination of a lebron or someone else. They would dominate without a doubt. The American youth system is still a work in progress and though we have plenty of good athletes play soccer they simply do not compare to the athletes that choose basketball and football. The comparison of altidore and onyewu to other athletes is void outside of soccer because sure they are strong, fast, and have great verticals but they do not come close to the natural athleticism born in Americas top athletes. Lebron James is a freak of nature and has been scouted by NFL scouts in which at least 2 out of 3 or 4 said he would dominate the league with 1 month of Practice… Suppose he begins soccer as a child and doesn’t get signed by an international youth team, in this case he is raised in the American system and has more raw talent than any other American to ever play but probably still lacks the technique’s bred in Spanish, English, and the German youth systems. Also of note the American athletes have a tendency to be more balotelli esq off their respective fields. They fall under the money spell and don’t make the wisest decisions. However they can do this and still do because they know they are better than majority of their counterparts and don’t care about others opinions. Your article is very well written and has some points I have never thought of but for you to claim no true soccer fans should think this is outrageous and arrogant in itself (though not directly quoted it’s the implied feeling I got as a strong soccer supporter). The only way soccer’s youth system in America is going to improve is if larger amounts of revenue are made. Large College football programs fund their respective university and not the other way around which is unreal. People want to pay to see the best athletes compete which is a large but not the whole reason for this. To conclude briefly, of course youth systems and techniques are of great importance to the sport of soccer but Americas athletes are far and beyond greater than those around the world (no argument there). I will say if American athletes were raised in youth systems such as those in Europe then there is an indisputable fact that our national team would dominate year in and year out.

    • Thanks for commenting. I appreciate having a dialogue and discussion about this topic. That being said, I believe you are missing the key points of this article and spewing speculative remarks that are unsupported by any facts or evidence.

      Let’s examine your points by topic. For instance, you state, “…if American athletes were raised in youth systems such as those in Europe then there is an indisputable fact that our national team would dominate year in and year out”. Doesn’t that self-defeat your argument? If American athletes are required to participate in European youth systems to dominate, doesn’t that prove that the characteristics cultivated by European youth systems (technical skill, decision-making, tactical understanding, etc..) trump athleticism when it comes to excelling in soccer?

      You even mention La Masia so I’m surprised by the inference you make. If a large pool of American athletes were raised and developed in a European youth soccer system, I do believe that a portion of those individuals would emerge as world class players. However, I would not peg LeBron James as the prototype. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Fabregas, Pedro, and Thiago are La Masia’s most famous alumni. With the exception of Messi, none of those players would ever be characterized as “athletic” under your definition of the word, and Messi is 5’7″ and 150 pounds. The best teams in the world are saturated with players who would not be considered athletic by typical American standards. Chile, one of the most impressive teams at the World Cup so far, has played a line-up featuring no player taller than 5’11”.

      Let’s examine LeBron’s ability to dominate other sports. I personally do not factor football into the equation because it is a sport played by a small fraction (less than ten million participants) of the population of a single country. If you consider any global sport (Soccer, Hockey, Tennis, Baseball, Golf, etc…), could you see LeBron excelling in any of those? I cannot.

      The notion of the interchangeability of athletic prowess is a disservice to each respective global sport. It belittles the expertise required to dominate in a sport to say LeBron could dominate in some other sport. It would be just as illogical to say Neymar would dominate the NBA if he was raised in America.

      • I think you’re missing the idea of what I was saying. It is not a contradictory argument I’m simply stating that tecnique and development are very very important however if all world competitors were raised in the same youth system then Americans would come out on top because of athleticism. And the neymar argument is different because he is not nearly as athletic as lebron. Football is also played in Canada and Europe just FYI, and rugby which is quite similar is played in many other world countries. So I’m not saying your points were all wrong I’m stating that yes, Americans could not dominate if they just switched sports on the spot. I think you’d be surprised how well they would compete though. What I am saying is if lebron was raised in la Masia he would rival some of the other stars raised there purely due to his genetics and athletic dominance.

  4. I think your argument about youth development is good but after that I have to disagree with you generally. Plus it seemed that you suggested that the prototypical best soccer player would be more like Messi and Xavi physically (if that’s what you mean). I think that if Americans played soccer under similar conditions the best player would be American. Maybe he wouldn’t be Lebron James at 6’8″ but there’s plenty of other smaller Americans who are just as athletic but perhaps smaller, more agile etc (probably football players) and would have been incredible at soccer. Also, they wouldn’t be like Messi or Xavi, those other countries dont have a bunch of world class athletes in general to choose from, so of course their best players aren’t 6’8″, built like Lebron James, and super fast and strong, because nobody in their country is 6’8″ and super athletic and skilled. That was never a possibility in Argentina, Spain, Germany, or China, hell or even the African countries (Drogba is a far cry in athleticism from even the average NFL player), or hardly any other country for that matter.Most American sports change and require more athletic players over time. Even 10-15 years ago, many point guards were under 6’2 and many were 5’10, now that taller players developed the same skills as the 5’10-6’0” players you can barely find a PG under 6’2 in the NBA. Same with NFL receivers who keep getting taller. If a player had Messi’s skills and Lebron’s size he would probably be better than Messi at 5’7. If not, we would have someone with the size of Johnny Manziel, Chris Paul, or Tavon Austin at 5’9″ whose agility and field awareness is literally insane. We could have athletes that have everything they they have in terms of skills, intelligence etc. and they would be faster, stronger, more agile. The problem is culture, infrastructure, and passion. Also, saying Lebron couldnt excel in hockey is absurd, golf is for rich people so no, the best athletes dont even try to play so you cant compare that. As for tennis, that’s mostly for rich people too, but Lebron would probably murder people in Tennis like Venus and Serena did for a while. Lebron would probably be great at baseball too are you serious?

    • Need I remind people about Michael Jordan and baseball? Being a superstar athlete in one sport rarely translates to other sports.

      Here are the facts. LeBron James is a phenomenal athletic specimen. LeBron James is a transcendent, all-time great basketball player. Not all athletic specimens are all-time great basketball players. Thus, athletic prowess does not equate to dominance in a sport. LeBron, like any world-class sportsman, combines a blend of attributes (skill, “sport IQ”, desire, etc…), which include athleticism, to become great.

      Saying LeBron would dominate in other sports discounts his basketball abilities. LeBron is more than just an athlete. He is one of the best passers and readers of the game. These abilities, coupled with his athletic gifts, allow him to be great. Without his other faculties, LeBron would be more akin to Josh Smith.

      In terms of your point about the prototypical soccer player, that is not a suggestion. It is reality. The best players, time and time again, share certain characteristics, and elite athleticism is not one of them. Vision, technique, anticipation are the skills all great players share.

      Take the Germany – U.S. game played earlier today, which exemplified the gap between us and soccer’s elite. In moments, the U.S. showed it was capable of competing with the best, but over the course of ninety minutes, Germany’s sophistication prevailed. The U.S. did not lack athleticism, rather it lacked tactical integration, technique in the final third, understanding of how to attack in between the lines, and the ability to dictate the pace of the game.

      To your point on athleticism, I think it’s misguided. The countries you mention do produce large athletes, though not to the extent of the U.S. Take Spain for example. They boast the second best basketball team in the world, the best tennis players (Nadal plus the most in the top 50), and the best soccer players in the world. The reason none of their players are 6’8″ is not due to the lack of large athletes of that size (see their basketball team) but because soccer favors players who are quick with low centers of gravity that have skill and tactical acumen.

      Athleticism is a terrific tool, and I even say that a base level of athleticism is a prerequisite to play professional sports. However. I believe, among the pool of athletes with a certain floor of athletic ability, the factors that separate one player from another are non-physical.

      I will reiterate my main points once again. I think the influence of athleticism is overstated in sports and that the influence of the mental aspect of sports is understated. The simple reason for this discrepancy is the observability of these features. Athleticism jumps off the screen whereas mental skills are subtle and require nuance to analyze properly.

      If all of the best athletes from the U.S. played soccer, we would certainly be better because we would be able to choose from a larger, more diverse group of players. However, the biggest improvement to be made is in U.S. soccer is in our youth development infrastructure and the continued evolution of our domestic league. As the U.S. emerges as a soccer power, it will be because of the development of the two systems mentioned above and because more of our young players will be cultivated in the proven systems of Europe and South America.

  5. Pingback: the93rdminute | Top College Football Recruit Picks Soccer Over Football

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