Somewhere in Rio de Janeiro a little boy kicks a ball of tape between the legs of a chair. He punches the air and mimics the roar of 100,000 fans. He’s dreaming someday it will be him scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final for Brazil.
His counterparts in Munich, Milan, Barcelona, Buenos Aires and Montevideo will have the same dream while watching the World Cup unfold over the next month.
The American kid in Phoenix? Maybe he’s dreaming about a World Series-winning home run or a Super Bowl-clinching touchdown.
Every four years the arrival of the planet’s biggest sporting event prompts navel-gazing in this country that doesn’t happen in the soccer powerhouses. Americans want to know what’s so exciting about a low-scoring, imported sport, or if it has a place beside any of the big home-grown sports.
The numbers show the questions are moot. Attendance at Major League Soccer games, television ratings, active participation and even the success of the U.S. National Team all say soccer has arrived.
The real question, experts say, should be: What would it take for the U.S. to win the World Cup? What makes that kid in Phoenix dream of becoming the American Pelé? And what hinders that dream?
The 2014 World Cup marks the seventh consecutive appearance for the U.S. Only six countries, most of them soccer elite, boast longer streaks. The U.S., on merit, is firmly anchored in the top 20 rankings by FIFA, the sport’s international governing body.
“I have no doubt in my mind that we will see a U.S. team in the final in our lifetime,” said Rick Tilmans, a native of the Netherlands and former Dutch soccer international player who is training director for Desert Foothills Soccer Club, a north Valley academy for kids. “It might take years, if not a generation.”
For now, the U.S. is held back from becoming a world-beater by differences in philosophy and structure. For instance:
–The development of young players. Budding soccer stars are identified early in Europe and South America and already are in the pro pipeline at a time when American kids are playing in high school or college.
–The structure of our pro league, the MLS, which did not develop organically but was imposed by FIFA as a condition of being awarded the 1994 World Cup. Teams in foreign pro leagues have layers that extend all the way to preteens; MLS is only starting down this path.
–The very traditions surrounding the sport. It’s not the street sport that offers a ticket out of poverty, as elsewhere. Here it remains a pastime.
The U.S. has pulled off some impressive wins in its history, including arguably the greatest upset in World Cup history, but those feats have not resonated here the way they would have around the globe.
But that quantum leap to the top level might be just over the horizon.
“I think it’s still a good bit away, maybe three or four World Cups away,” said former Scottish international player David Robertson, who is executive director of Arizona’s most successful academy, Sereno Soccer Club. “But it’s getting there.”
Stars played in streets
Soccer in Europe and South America share the same roots and attraction as baseball in the U.S. Even today, kids playing in the streets and parks can still become top soccer stars.
Pelé, who played professionally from 1956 to 1974 and is widely accepted as soccer’s all-time greatest player, famously practiced ball skills with a grapefruit when he was a young boy. By age 17, he became a worldwide star in the 1958 World Cup, scoring 5 goals in the final two games for victorious Brazil.
Lionel Messi, a pro since 2003, was the son of a steelworker in Argentina. He started playing for his local club when he was 5 and was signed three years later by a team in the top Argentine league. In 2009, at 22, he won the first of four consecutive awards as the best player in the world.
The captains of Germany, England, Portugal and Spain, among the world’s best players, also got their starts for youth teams with professional teams, some as young as 9.
In the U.S., generations of athletes picked to play overseas or for the national team came from the college ranks. By then, they are already years behind in development compared with their international peers.
When Alexi Lalas, the ginger-haired icon of the 1994 U.S. World Cup team, first played for his country he had never played a professional game and had no aspirations to, he told sports website Grantland.com in 2012. Most of the U.S. World Cup players in that era were college athletes with little or no opportunity to play professionally.
Before the MLS, the North American Soccer League flourished in the 1970s. It was designed to bring past-their-prime international superstars to NFL-sized stadiums. Crowds loved to see Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer on the same team, but the league couldn’t sustain itself.
Burdened by high salaries, the NASL ceased operating after the 1984 season. But the league did inspire a generation of kids to kick the round ball. Before long, it seemed every parent had a boy or girl playing youth soccer. The term “soccer mom” was coined to define a political force in America.
Soccer here became a largely middle-class and often middle-school pastime. It was organized and regulated, rather than the organic street soccer of the powerhouse countries. Instead of a ticket out of poverty, soccer was a social thing for kids, or a possible stepping-stone to college.
The leagues developed in uniquely American ways, with different rules to spice up the sport. It led to players who were tactically out of step on the world stage.
Today, talented younger players are being spotted earlier and groomed for international-level play.
U.S. Soccer created a Development Academy in 2007 as a partnership with the top youth clubs in America to try to produce the next generation of national team players. One of the sites, Real Salt Lake AZ, is based in Casa Grande and is affiliated with the MLS’ club Real Salt Lake.
Steady rise of U.S. league
The seismic change to U.S. soccer came in 1988, when FIFA announced that the 1994 World Cup would be awarded to America. The U.S. qualified for the last slot in the 1990 World Cup, for the first time in 40 years.
After the financially successful 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, FIFA sensed a great opportunity. MLS was created as part of the deal and began play in 1996.
Since 1990, the U.S. has qualified for every World Cup, and has advanced past opening round-robin play in half of those tournaments. In regional contests, the U.S. has excelled. It reached the final of the bi-annual Gold Cup, the championship for North and Central America and the Caribbean, in every tournament but two. Before 1990 the U.S. had only qualified twice. Likewise, the U.S. had only beaten rival Mexico once since World War II. After 1990, the U.S. has 16 wins over Mexico, with 9 losses.
The success of the U.S. national team was not luck. As the team cemented its place on the global stage, it increasingly drew from deeper roots. Young players who grew up abroad or with dual nationalities started opting to play for Uncle Sam. Stateside players started catching the eyes of coaches in Europe. The trickle to smaller foreign clubs swelled to starting spots, then captaincies and starring roles in big clubs.
“When I left Holland, U.S. soccer was seen as a bit of a joke. Europeans don’t joke about the U.S. team now,” said Tilmans, the training director for Desert Foothills.
After growing pains, early financial losses and two failing franchises, the MLS has evolved and matured. Clubs are now attracting top foreign players, the most famous being England’s David Beckham, and just last week as Spain’s all-time top scorer, David Villa. Some MLS clubs, such as Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA, have forged partnerships with some of the biggest clubs in the world, meaning developing U.S. players can get scooped up and mature in the top leagues.
By next year, there will be 21 MLS teams, more than twice as many as in the league’s debut season. MLS has seen many of its teams move out of big football stadiums into more intimate soccer-specific venues. Last year, Forbes valued eight franchises at more than $100 million. By contrast, Italian side Napoli, worth $296 million, is the 20th most valuable soccer club in the world.
In recent years, the player-development pipeline has evolved, too. In addition to working with U.S. soccer or starting their own junior teams and academies, they also draw from semipro leagues such as the third-tier USL Pro League, which includes Peoria-based Arizona United.
Scouts from MLS teams are aware of the top youth clubs, and academies have entered partnerships with some of the world’s biggest clubs. Sereno has a relationship with English Premier League giant Chelsea, for instance.
Tradition of teamwork
The size of the U.S., and the lack of a common soccer culture that made other New World countries soccer titans, created a hodgepodge system of disjointed leagues. There are four tiers of pro soccer under MLS, and none has much relation to the other, each being established by different organizations.
In the rest of the world, typically one governing body manages all the leagues in each country, and teams can climb or fall along the hierarchy through promotion and relegation. That makes it easier for top clubs to scout developing players in the lower leagues. It makes for a more systematic pipeline.
Tilmans sees head-hunters promising trophies and scholarships, to the detriment of building better players.
“There are no ethics in recruitment here. It’s almost open-hunting season,” Tilman said. “We have organizations working against each other. Everybody is hoarding their own players.
“We have organizations working against each other,” he said.
Robertson said that lack of soccer sophistication at the junior levels retards the development of America’s would-be future Pelé.
“The U.S. is a competitive country, but it’s more about individualism rather than teamwork,” he said
“I think the system is working in America, but it’s not the best for development. They don’t watch enough soccer on TV,” he noted, and when they do they focus on highlight clips, spectacular goals or clever tricks, not the bread-and-butter of positional sense or overall tactics.
But times are changing.
Before 1990, it was hard to find soccer on TV. Fans turned to Spanish-language stations to watch the World Cup.
Today, all of the top leagues can be watched on cable or satellite TV every week. With streaming video, it’s possible to watch almost any top game around the world.
Need for more U.S. stars
All of the conditions seem to be in place for soccer to take that final step into the U.S. mainstream consciousness. Systematically building from its foundation, it’s now all about evolution, not revolution, for U.S. soccer.
In years past, hope often rested on a single spark, like the impressively deep run in the 2002 World Cup to the quarterfinals, or the emergence of a single superstar.
Don’t expect either at this year’s World Cup. The U.S. drew a first-round group with perennial world power Germany, Ronaldo’s Portugal and U.S. nemesis Ghana. Bookmakers tip the U.S. as most likely to finish dead last in the quartet.
Late last month, U.S. national coach Jurgen Klinsmann dropped his only player who approaches superstar status, Landon Donovan.
Klinsmann’s hopes are more pinned to players like 19-year-old Julian Green, a dual-citizen product of German soccer who could have played for that country but instead chose the U.S.
Green symbolizes Klinsmann’s priority of looking ahead to the 2016 Olympics by setting up camps, recruiting more dual nationals, and working with MLS to develop players before they reach 21.
“We want to improve the competition,” said Klinsmann, a former German star who will coach the U.S. at least through the 2018 World Cup. “We want to improve the quality of the players. A big topic from us, on our end, is that we have to find ways to give playing time to kids coming out of the youth system,” Klinsmann said.
He advocates extending the seasons, making kids play up to 50 games a year, “which they badly need in order to grow and in order to reach their highest potential one day. Because if they miss out on one or two years and only sit on the bench or are not playing at all, being loaned out or whatever, they miss a big chunk of their development and therefore will never reach their highest level.”
Sereno’s Robertson agrees, and thinks Klinsmann is on the right track.
“At the age of 14, I was playing in the reserves. In Scotland, if you don’t leave school at 16, you’ll lose development,” he said.
Twenty years ago, coaches like Tilmans and Robertson would see kids come to their camps wearing jerseys of foreign superstars. These days, the names are American: Donovan, Dempsey, Howard.
The U.S. will become a soccer power only when that kid in Phoenix can picture himself holding the World Cup trophy, or becoming America’s Pelé.
Key soccer year
1990 was a crucial year for U.S. soccer. A look at how U.S. soccer fortunes have changed:
World Cup wins and draws
Before 1990 – 3
1990 and later – 9
CONCACAF Gold Cup titles
Before 1990 – none
1990 and later – 5
Summer Olympics wins and draws
Before 1990 – 6
1990 and later – 10
Wins vs. Mexico
Before 1990 – 4 (in 32 matches)
1990 and later – 16 (in 37 matches)
Sources: USA Soccer, 11v11.com