Why Can't the U.S. Build a Soccer Star?
The National Team's Lousy Play Has Critics Asking
By MATTHEW FUTTERMAN
The United States has won more than 1,000 Olympic gold medals. It has produced 26 British Open champions, 14 No. 1 tennis players and two winners of the Tour de France. It's the birthplace of swimmer Michael Phelps, volleyball legend Karch Kiraly and chess master Bobby Fischer. An American nicknamed "the dump truck" nearly became the grand champion of sumo.
U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan reacts after missing a shot against Guadeloupe during a 1-0 U.S. win in Group C play of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
But there's one feat that this wealthy and populous nation hasn't achieved yet and, if recent events are any indication, won't achieve any time soon.
No American man has ever become a bona fide international soccer superstar.
Most potential arguments to the contrary have been dashed in recent weeks by the U.S. team's hamfisted performance at the Gold Cup, the regional championship it has won four times, most recently in 2007.
After opening with a limp 2-0 win over Canada, there was a lifeless 2-1 upset loss to Panama (the first ever for the U.S. in the opening round) and a shame-inducing 1-0 squeaker against the fearsome force of Guadeloupe (population 452,000).
These hideous flops were punctuated by the fact that the team's best players, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, turned several easy scoring chances into the sorts of gaffes that might cause a junior player to be booed by his own parents. (No orange slices for you!)
The absence of a superstar will become even more glaring if the U.S. manages to make the Gold Cup final, where its likely opponent will be less-populous Mexico, a team led by the slick striker Javier Hernandez. Known as "Chicharito," Hernandez has five goals in three Gold Cup games, which his team has won by a combined score of 14-1. He's emerged as a dazzling star on one of the world's top club teams, Manchester United.
"It doesn't make any sense," said Tommy Smyth, the television analyst. "I go to my local park and there's 10 games going on all day on a Saturday, and you mean to tell me you can't find one jewel in there?" After all, Smyth noted, his native country, Ireland, has produced plenty of top players (Shay Given and Roy Keane among them) even though it has a population of just six million.
The U.S. is quickly running out of excuses. One old line of defense was that there aren't enough American kids playing. But with that number hovering at 15 million, that's no longer a reasonable point. Another argument is that sports like basketball, football and baseball hog the best American athletes—a notion that crumples at the feet of the world's best player, Argentina's Lionel Messi, who's barely 5-foot-7. Whatever deficiencies the U.S. soccer system has, its resources are surely deeper than those in Trinidad, the home of Manchester United's Dwight Yorke or Togo, the home of Real Madrid's Emmanuel Adebayor. The same goes for Samuel Eto'o's Cameroon and Didier Drogba's Cote d'Ivoire.
"It's befuddling," said Charlie Stillitano, the former Major League Soccer executive who now leads the soccer division at talent-agency CAA. "You'd think just by chance alone, nature and God would have combined to produce that sort of thing."
During Tuesday's U.S. match against Guadeloupe, Dempsey, the closest thing the U.S. has to a star, missed point-blank shots and headers. In the second half, he played with the ball in front of an empty net instead of slamming it home. "I wasn't good enough with my chances," Dempsey said after the game. "I just couldn't buy a goal."
There is, of course, no steeper ladder to climb in sports than organized soccer, which is played in some 200 countries and territories. Roughly half the world's seven billion people are under 25 and for most of the male athletes among them, soccer is the obsession. "Britain is a soccer monoculture and so is most of the rest of the world," said Stefan Szymanski, co-author of "Soccernomics." And it's not as if Americans are uniformily lousy: Dempsey had 12 goals for Fulham this year in the English Premier League, the most ever by an American.
Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, said he would have expected a U.S. player to become a stalwart for one of the world's top clubs by now, but that he's not "shocked" it hasn't happened. "There are so few players at that level," he said. "I believe it's something that will happen over time."
Gulati said the U.S. is better off building a broad base of excellence and a system that can nurture greatness rather than enduring a Godot-like wait for an American soccer icon. A country has its best chance of producing a Nobel-prizewinning physicist, he said, if it has a collection of top research universities housing 50 great scientists.
Most critics blame deficiencies in coaching. Eric Wynalda, the former U.S. international, said American players suffer from too much tutoring. "We are a country of overcoaches," he said. "The talents and abilities of our players now exceed the knowledge of the coaching, so the result is stagnation."
"We just don't have the infrastructure," said Ben Alamar, founding editor of the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports. "Who would a potential U.S. superstar even play against here to get to the point where they can be at a high level in Europe?"
Perhaps the best American-born player is Giuseppe Rossi, who was raised in New Jersey. But after he became one of the best youth players in the country, his Italian father decided his son's best chance at a pro career was to move to Parma to train with that city's youth club team. Rossi, now 24, plays for Villareal in Spain's La Liga and has scored 93 goals as a professional. Rossi turned down several chances to play for the U.S. national team. He chose Italy instead.
Matthew Futterman at firstname.lastname@example.org