Why the U.S. team doesn't need 'better athletes' to win a World Cup

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

The United States men’s national team does not need better athletes. Its roster is purely “athletic” enough to win the World Cup, which may stun people to hear considering the team just failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Watch international soccer though and the players aren’t running past, leaping over or muscling through the Americans. Our players look like their players. Lionel Messi is 5-foot-7. Cristiano Ronaldo weighs 175 pounds.

The best U.S. player, perhaps ever, is Christian Pulisic. He is a 5-8, 139-pound 19-year-old.

The game is about skill, strategy and creativity, not just being bigger and faster. If anything, our classically American concept of needing to be bigger and faster has led us to be bigger, faster and less skilled, less tactical, less dangerous. We’ve been flailing about on the international stage for decades now by chasing athletes.

Make no mistake, there is no excuse for failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. The Americans shouldn’t have lost 2-1 to lowly Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday, or even put themselves in a spot where they needed a result in the final qualifying game. It’s embarrassing. The U.S. should always be good enough to qualify. Yet even if the USMNT were going to Russia in June, they weren’t going to do much. The team was painfully limited. Per usual.

Low standards, weak accountability and administrative cheerleading have allowed the U.S. to claim success when there really wasn’t any – such as the 2014 World Cup where simply limping out of group play was deemed acceptable by organization president Sunil Gulati.

The truth is the U.S. has won just two games in the past three World Cups: nothing in 2006, a 1-0 victory over Algeria in 2010 and a 2-1 win against Ghana in 2014. That’s it. The two-victory run will now stretch to four World Cups, since you can’t win if aren’t even in. The team usually battles hard and occasionally survives, but it is of no threat to anybody good. Grit and Tim Howard in goal was not much of a plan. It was all we had though.

The solution isn’t to somehow get the next generation of Russell Westbrooks or Odell Beckham Jr.’s to play soccer. It’s certainly possible that they could have been tremendous players if they dedicated themselves to the sport, but that so many Americans view that as the answer is actually the problem.

Everything else is the problem. Yet it may be in the process of being fixed.

Youth soccer in America has forever been a disorganized mess, a hodgepodge of systems and styles that rarely taught the game the proper way and never developed a truly elite international-level player. That it was based on pay-for-play – expensive travel teams – priced out certain talent. That it was concentrated in big cities all but eliminated rural kids. That the goal of most players and their parents was simply to earn a college scholarship didn’t help.

The best countries and clubs develop talent for years using a consistent concept of how the game should be taught and played to pull out the very best in an athlete. Technical skills, flair and creativity are paramount. Having 10 different coaches from youth through college destroys that.

A couple things, however, have happened of late. The rise of Major League Soccer hasn’t just created more fans in the States, it’s created players. Each team has established a developmental academy that often pulls in the best boys and girls talent in the region and provides exceptional, and purposeful, training. It’s how European clubs are modeled.

The USMNT Under-17 team, for instance, is very competitive on the world stage and is full of great players. They are already 2-0 in their World Cup, which continues Thursday when they take on Colombia in India. The majority of the team has come up through MLS system. You can see the results. The U-20 team is similar and reached the quarterfinals of their World Cup.

USMNT soccer fans will have to sit this World Cup out, but good news may be on the way. (Getty)

Moreover, European clubs, seeking to cash in on the millions of young Americans who play the game, have begun setting up their own satellite developmental teams in the U.S. Liverpool FC out of the English Premier League, to name one of many, created the “International Academy America” in seven states. The curriculum they use and philosophy they adhere to is the same as its academies in Great Britain. Thus the practice for an U-11 team in North Texas on a specific day is the same as it is for a U-11 team in Central England.

The result of professional teams, both domestic and foreign, taking over elite travel soccer in America will almost assuredly continue to create class. For once, Americans are offered a level playing field. So too will great talents embracing training as a profession and not something that needs to be shoehorned into the American concept of scholastic and collegiate sports.

Pulisic grew up in Michigan and Pennsylvania but as the son of a soccer coach, he and his family knew he needed to head to Germany at age 16 to embrace the game and learn under the club system of Dortmund, a top pro team in that country. Had he stayed in Hershey, Pennsylvania, been content to try to win a state high school title and then sign with an American college he wouldn’t be what he is, or what he will become. Going forward, he and the majority of U.S. players need to be in the major leagues of Europe, not in the MLS, where the competition is weaker.

Yes, the U.S. wins big in women’s soccer, but that is an entirely different equation. Due to Title IX, our country long ago embraced and encouraged girls to participate in sports, something very few other nations did. That gave us a major head start that carries us to today, even as others are trying to catch up. That bears no relation to boy’s/men’s soccer.

If there is one true tragedy of the USMNT missing the World Cup, it is the lost opportunity for Pulisic to show what an American player can be. His days are coming, as the star of the next wave of the national team that will be filled with those promising U-17s and U-20s.

He won’t become a breakout sensation in the States because he is the biggest, strongest or fastest guy out there. No one would call him an elite athlete. He is a skinny, slight teenager. His game is a game of skill and vision and possibilities though, like all the great players in the world.

That’s what the U.S. needs to become a legit soccer power. More Pulisics. More intense development. More organized teaching.

It doesn’t need the next LeBron James to kick a ball. We have the athletes, plenty of them. It’s everything else that needs to come … and very well may be on the way.

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