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.
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.