Why is the U.S. so bad at soccer?

Posted on June 18, 2018

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(Last Updated On: June 18, 2018)

I’m not sure I can give a satisfactory answer to this question, but I do know I can dispel the most commonly given reasons.

This isn’t going to be a rigorous analysis. Just enough to get some points across.

 

“America doesn’t care about soccer. Nobody plays it here.”

  • 1.5 million kids played organized youth soccer in England.
  • THREE MILLION play youth soccer in the United States.
  • 8 million play soccer in some shape or form in England.
  • TWENTY FOUR million play soccer in some shape or form in America.
  • Twenty four million Americans watched the 2010 World Cup Final (same link as above). That was a final that, obviously, did not consist of America. That’s more viewers than 99% of NFL games get.
  • The average attendance of a MLS game is 20,000. Our soccer attendance is 8th in the world.

Populations of,

  • Belgium = 11 million
  • Denmark = 5 million
  • Costa Rica = 5 million
  • Croatia = 4 million
  • Tunisia = 11 million
  • Uruguay = 3 million
  • Iceland = 350,000(!!!)

All those countries qualified for the 2018 World Cup. That total is ~40 million. That is,

  • Basically the size of California
  • There are more, the same, or nearly the same amount of youth soccer players in America than the population of some countries who qualified. 
  • There are over 50 million hispanics in America.

 

“All our best athletes are in other sports” 

There are only about 400 guys in the NBA. About 1,500 in the NFL. What about the millions and millions of all our other athletes??? None of them play soccer?!

550,000 high schoolers play basketball, 490,000 play baseball…450,000 play soccer. It ain’t that big of a difference. And we dominate baseball and basketball. Does anybody really think we’re 40,000 participants away from dominating soccer? Hell no. Again, more high schoolers play soccer in America than there are people in Iceland!

Sure, our absolute BEST might not be in soccer, but you don’t need to be the best athlete to be great at soccer. Soccer isn’t as reliant on pure athleticism. It helps, of course, but Lionel Messi is not the best player in the world because he is so much more athletic than everybody. It’s not like FIFA is full of a bunch of Lebron James (who isn’t even that athletic) yet our versions of him are only in the NBA and NFL.

To be more blunt, soccer is not a sport African Americans dominate. It’s not like track and field, where it’s overly reliant on explosive ability.

A team of Germans can dominate the World Cup. A team of Germans can’t dominate the 4 x100 meter relay.

 

“The U.S. isn’t willing to spend the money”

When it comes to many of the top teams, this is true. The States do not spend as much as say, England or Germany.

However, we do spend a hundred million a year. And again, look at those countries above. Do you really think their budgets are demonstrably larger than ours?

And think about GDP and general level of wealth. How many Americans spend money for their kids to get personalized training, better nutrition, avoid poverty, etc? What America may lack in soccer specific spending we make up for by being the wealthiest country. Sports are a luxury. Americans have more access to this luxury than most. This is why GDP is highly related to World Cup and Olympic performance.

This could be a valid argument for why America isn’t a top team. It is not a valid argument for why we suck.

 

So what’s the reason then?

I find this to be one of the most baffling questions in the history of American sports. I’ve only been able to consistently come to one standout reason: American culture.

I’m no cultural expert, but I have traveled a decent amount. I’ve spent time in six other countries, and have been to something like 40 states here.

Something that stands out about America is our individualism. We tend to have a mindset of willpower can achieve anything. We take self reliance to an extreme.

There are two other clear examples of this. We spend more than every other country on healthcare and education, yet something around 30 other countries live longer and add and subtract better than we do. We have the highest infant and maternal mortality rates of any developed country. Again, despite outspending all other developed countries, and no, our doctors aren’t way less smart than all other doctors.

In contrast to most developed countries, if not all others, Americans (on balance) believe if you get sick, it’s your fault. If you can’t read, write, and do basic arithmetic, you’re lazy.

We simply can’t, as a group, comprehend our systemized approach is flawed in these domains.

We take Darwinism as far as it can go in modern society.

-> I’m not saying this is all bad. America is extreme both ways. We underachieve as much as anybody, outrageously so when you consider how little bang we get for our buck, but in the majority of circumstances, our overachievers can compete with, if not out-compete, anybody too.

Soccer is an unusually team oriented sport. When you watch the Germans play, it’s as if they were born playing together. It’s harmonic.

With Americans, it’s much like our other sports. It’s a bunch of individuals running around at the same time.

Just think about our most popular sports. Using the NBA and NFL again, think about the turnover within them. The New England Patriots played in the Super Bowl in 2015 and 2017. Half the roster was different between those two teams. They played in the Super Bowl yet again in 2018, annnnd half the team was new again. Meanwhile I just watched Switzerland play in the World Cup and 8 out of 11 starters were on the last cup team. The NFL has more turnover in a single season than Switzerland has every four years! The NBA and NFL are team sports, but team chemistry isn’t as big as you might think it would or should be.

Beyond the Warriors and Patriots, you will be hard pressed to even come up with teams who have consistently taken a team first approach. Guys who will take less money so the overall team is better. Despite all the Patriots success, nobody in the NFL copies them. The Patriots refuse to pay a few individual star players massive contracts. Instead, they go for a group of team first guys.

-> Someone might be thinking of the Spurs too. I agree…though that’s largely because of a bunch of foreign players!

Furthermore, winning the World Cup is the ultimate team achievement. Sure, some individual names dominate, but playing for your country is a different feel.

We saw this happen to America in the 2004 Olympics, in basketball. Where the Americans halfassedly put together a bunch of individual players and lost. We saw it when the U.S. hired Jurgen Klinnsmann. By all accounts a mediocre coach at best, yet a big name.

-> I detailed Klinsmann’s inadequacies four years ago.

Our talent (due to a large, diverse sample size to draw from) and money are typically enough to overcome our lack of team play. (Even when we win the olympics in basketball, we’re usually not playing the best team basketball.)

But with soccer, while we aren’t way behind financially or individual talent wise, we’re definitely not way ahead of the pack either. Combine that with our culture, and we get our asses whooped.

So it’s still a combination of factors, but I don’t believe there is any other dominant explanation for why we can’t even easily qualify for the World Cup, besides our general, not soccer specific, attitude.

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