Last night’s 4–0 drubbing of USA by Argentina in the semi-finals of Copa America in Houston once again underscored in bold typeface how far U.S. Soccer has to go to be on par with the world’s best. It was literally no match. Not just four goals to nil, but 10 shots on goal to 0, four corner kicks to one, and 67% time of possession to 33%. You can’t get a much more dominant scorecard than that. For most of the contest it looked like the college All-Stars versus the Super Bowl champs.
Still, the game was hugely hyped, and that is the one positive to take away. But when Los Gauchos scored on a simple give-and-go in the third minute, well, the balloon pretty much popped right there. Then when the glorious Lionel Messi showcased his other-worldly talent in the 32nd minute by bending the ball like a light wave into the top right corner of the goal off a 28-meter penalty kick, lasering it mere centimeters out of the reach of the USA keeper, the deal was sealed.
Here’s the thing. You go anywhere in the developing world and you’ll see kids kicking around make shift soccer balls, even if that constitutes a wad of paper scrunched together and held in the round by tape. Just like kids in the U.S. used to hold old beat up baseballs together with tape just so they could keep playing.
American high school sports these days are mostly pay-to-play, and the expense of games like football and baseball are prohibitive. But soccer only requires a single ball in an open field or street, which makes it accessible to the vast majority of the world’s population.
But in America soccer is more a rich kids’ game with travel squads and the potential for college scholarships. And in the halls of the nations’ high schools it’s still football and basketball players who get dates with the prom queen not soccer players or track stars. In fact you don’t see much news about high school soccer at all, just AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization).
Certain sports are bootstrap sports, boxing, athletics, and soccer fall into that category. But individual sports develop talents quite differently in different parts of the world. Generations of players growing up with soccer develop foot-to-eye coordination while American games are primarily of the hand-to-eye variety.
Another thing, as I watched King LeBron James lead his Cleveland Cavaliers to their first NBA title this past week I wondered: are America’s best sprinters, jumpers, throwers and vaulters really in the sport of track and field? Or are they scattered around in America’s pro sports teams? Same for soccer. Can you imagine if guys like Kyrie Irving played soccer his whole life instead of basketball?
There was a good article in Sports Illustrated today by Emily Kaplan about Marquise Goodwin’s attempt to make the Olympic team in the long jump while sacrificing preseason preparation for the Buffalo Bills where he plays wide receiver in the NFL.
While Marquise is a medal contender in the long jump (if he makes the US team in Eugene in a few weeks – he made the 2012 London squad while still at the University of Texas, but finished a disappointing 10th in the final), he’s a back-up wide receiver for the Bills. That Coach Rex Ryan encouraged Goodwin to go for his Olympic dream only reinforces the fact that is not an integral part of the Bills’ offense. You think a top-notch wide receiver would be given this leeway?
We’ve seen it before, most famously with the great 110-meter high hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah who played wide-out for the San Francisco 49ers from 1982-`84. But Skeets never did really make an impact in the pro football game, catching just 43 passes in three years. Willie Gault also went from track to football, playing 11 seasons for the Chicago Bears and L.A. Raiders after being a member of the boycotting 1980 Olympic team.
But the only power house track guy to go on to fame in football was Bullet Bob Hayes, the 1964 Olympic gold-medalist and 100 meter world record holder, who then had a Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys as wide-receiver.
In a November 2014 SI article, Marquise Goodwin explained why he chose football over track following his NCAA winning long jump career as a Texas Longhorn. At the time any major shoe company would have been lucky to sign the seven-time All-America. But Marquise chose the life of hard knocks over fast starts.
“I always knew I was going to choose football,” the 23-year-old Texas native was quoted as saying. “Just statistically, the things I wanted to do for my family financially, I knew I could do them with football. But that’s not the only reason I chose football. I also wanted to be around my family and not traveling out of the country as a track athlete.”
Essentially, the message is “notwithstanding the long-term health risks associated with football, I can’t provide for my family through track like I can in football, nor can I find work in my own country.”
That is a tough-love message track needs to hear and reconcile if it ever hopes to regain the lost ground in publicity and prestige it has given up over the last generation.