Why the United States Failed at Soccer

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Issue 17, Volume 110

By Nakib Abedin 

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The United States is known around the world for producing great athletes. From Muhammad Ali to Michael Jordan to Serena Williams to Michael Phelps, America has produced some of the best players in history for almost every major sport. However, the United States has failed to find the same success in soccer.

The United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) was unable to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia despite having some of their best players in decades. The United States needed to simply draw against Trinidad and Tobago, the lowest-ranked team in their group. The game began with an own-goal, an omen of what was to come. USMNT defender Omar Gonzalez missed a clearance and inadvertently chipped the ball over USMNT’s Tim Howard. Twenty minutes later, Trinidad’s Alvin Jones scored a stunner from long range to put a premature end to USMNT’s World Cup campaign. Though USMNT’s Christian Pulisic scored in the beginning of the second half, it was not enough to save the United States from getting knocked out. So, what went wrong?

One of the primary reasons why the United States has not been able to produce world-class athletes in soccer is simply because the sport is not nearly as popular here compared to the rest of the world. Sports such as football and basketball are far more popular in America. Due to this disparity, players in the NBA and NFL earn higher salaries than players in the MLS. According to the MLS Players’ Union, the average base salary for a non-designated MLS player is $345,867. On the other hand, CNBC reports that the average NBA player salary is $7.7 million. When high school athletes choose which sport to pursue, this huge difference in earnings can easily dissuade them from selecting soccer. The USMNT loses many gifted athletes each year to more popular—and consequently higher-paying—sports.

In addition, America has failed to support soccer youth development across the country. Though there are plenty of soccer leagues capable of developing young players, there is one glaring issue: they can be very expensive. To play for Metropolitan Oval, a New York City FC Youth Affiliate, for just one season, a player has to pay $2,750, making it virtually impossible for athletes who come from poor families to be able to play for these clubs. Unfortunately, this means America loses many passionate soccer players. Pele had to polish shoes to support his family, Luis Suarez supported his family by sweeping the streets, and Arturo Vidal pursued soccer to support his family. Some of the most passionate and most gifted soccer players come from poor families and America has missed out due to our pricey soccer clubs. Comparatively, countless players across England can pay a small fraction of the amount U.S. soccer players pay, and consequently, England finished fourth in the 2018 World Cup. America should attempt to use England’s model in order to perform better on the international stage.

Even though the USMNT has failed to perform, it is important to note that the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) has been one of the best teams in the world, with four World Cup wins and four Olympic gold medals despite only being founded in 1985. One of the major factors behind the success of women’s soccer in America is increased involvement over the last few decades. Business Insider reports that in 1971 there were only 700 high school girl soccer players throughout the whole country. By 2014, there were almost 376,000 high school girl soccer players across America. This stark increase in the number of players is due to schools providing more sports opportunities for girls. Providing girls’ soccer teams is a great way to do so because each team can have up to 23 players. Having more soccer teams in high schools exposes more players to the sport, allowing America to scout for new talents, something the USMNT should be pursuing to improve their squad.

In spite of all the problems with soccer in the United States, the future is bright. The USWNT’s success has created a surge in popularity of the sport, which may be attributed to players such as Lille OSC’s Timothy Weah and Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic. These young talents are taking the soccer world by storm and impressing fans all across the world. America’s focus now should be on encouraging youth involvement in soccer. This can be done with implementing more recreational leagues, encouraging schools to offer a soccer team, or by converting football fields into multipurpose fields to install soccer goal posts behind each end zone. Such changes will increase involvement in the sport, which will produce more talent for the USMNT in the long run, potentially bringing the team out of its current, longtime slump.