The loss by the United States in the World Cup this week should not have come as a surprise. The U.S. will never win at the highest level of international soccer. The sport is captive to over-organization, a disease that also cripples youth baseball.
In the countries where soccer is king, the impetus is from the bottom. Kids play soccer in the streets as soon as they can stand up. Sometimes, they don’t even have a ball; they kick a rolled-up sock instead. Because it’s something they choose to do, not something they’re told to do, they have a lifelong passion for the sport.
In this country, it starts at the top, with suburban parents, usually the soccer moms, who transport their kids back and forth to well-manicured fields. Nothing wrong with that, because soccer is a great youth sport where kids seldom get injured and there’s very little pressure. But it doesn’t breed passion for the sport. It’s just an enjoyable pastime that many of the players put behind them when they get to high school.
Baseball has the same problem. The Bay Area istypical. At one time, there were many major leaguers from here. Going way back, the New York Yankees alone had Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Frank Crosetti, Tony Lazzeri and Lefty Gomez.
In the mid-20th century, after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the East Bay had Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan, Willie Stargell, Vada Pinson and Curt Flood; the first three are in the Hall of Fame.
In those periods, kids played baseball all the time, but it was seldom supervised. They’d just head to the nearest playground and play until it was dark.
Now, it’s all supervised, starting with Little League, and the passion is gone. The percentage of American-born players in the major leagues has gone down steadily.
The passion for the game is now in Latin America, as we saw with the World Baseball Classic. More than 30 percent of major leaguers now are Latinos and the percentage is even higher in the minors.
There is no Little League baseball in Latin America. The only organized activity is the baseball academies that major league clubs finance. But by the time the Latino players get there, they’ve been playing unsupervised in the streets for years.
The change is especially notable with American blacks, who have turned away from baseball. The black athletes are playing basketball, usually unsupervised, whenever they can. That’s where their passion has gone.
Imagine what U.S. soccer would look like if these players, with their great athletic ability, were going to soccer instead of basketball? Soccer is a game that requires great skill to play well and you only acquire that skill by playing it from a very early age. You don’t get it in organized youth soccer programs.
Professional soccer leagues have been in the U.S. almost 40 years, since 1967; I covered the first team in Oakland. The plan was always to establish the professional sport and encourage youth soccer. But afternearly 40 years of youth soccer programs, the U.S. still lags far behind.
What will it take for the U.S. to reach that top international level? When I see 3-year-olds playing soccer in American city streets, I’ll believe there’s a chance.