Failing On The Pitch

by Rich on October 16, 2017

Here we are in the middle of October, knee deep in the sweet spot of sports. Multiple leagues are playing and a couple are about to tip off (literally): Major League Baseball, professional and college football, the NHL, and even golf and NASCAR are still going.

So naturally I want to talk about soccer.

This week the U.S. Men’s Team (USMT) failed to qualify for the global tournament known as the FIFA World Cup. It’s the first time since the Reagan administration that we, as a country, have not been in the tournament. On the men’s side. The ladies are doing just fine, thank you very much. They regularly compete and have even won the thing 3 times. But the USMT? Well…not so much.

I am not going to pretend to be an expert on soccer, but I do have a few thoughts about this current development (or lack thereof, as the case may be). Why, you ask? Because this is America. And even though I may not care about a certain sport, when a team represents my country, I want it to do well, or at the very least be present to compete. Whether you like soccer or not, it’s a pretty big part of the sports landscape, and it isn’t going anywhere.

So why can’t we field a men’s team that’s consistently competitive? Especially when our women’s team continues to play at a high level? Here are my thoughts (I told you I had some. You were warned): grassroots, Title IX, and cultural arrogance.

The problem starts at the bottom. Kids play soccer on a pretty level playing field until a certain age, and then, if they show promise, may be offered a tryout for a travel team. That costs a great deal of  money. But if they don’t play on the travel team (which isn’t underwritten by shoe companies), the chances of making their high school team drops to almost nil. And if they do, their opportunities to play at the college level drop off even more since less than half of the Power Five conference schools offer men’s soccer. It’s a matter of incentive. Both for the player and the pipeline.

Ironically, Title IX has created a great demand for women’s soccer programs, and thus both player and pipeline are very motivated to have robust programs. That means that more women have more opportunity, producing better players and coaches. But that doesn’t mean the guys can’t compete as well. Which leads me to the third leg of this stool.

There is a fairly clear line of demarcation in the world of sports fandom when it comes to soccer, and the amount of cultural arrogance on both sides hurt the game’s development. Many hard core American sports fans take great pleasure in deriding soccer as a foreign (read: lesser) game, perfectly fine for the non-cheerleader girls to play, but not for real guys. But soccer fans often don’t do the sport any favors either. Many take equal pleasure in berating those who don’t love the game as neanderthalic buffoons who aren’t smart enough to appreciate it’s nuances. Both positions are equally wrong. Soccer is a great game, and it’s o.k. to either like it or not. It doesn’t make you smarter to love it or a simpleton to not. I can like football and soccer. Those aren’t mutually exclusive positions.

Grassroots development, more opportunity, and a general acceptance of the men’s game will ultimately create a foundation that will produce a USMT that we can all be proud of, fan and nonfan alike.

 

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