By Trey Mongrue
About a month ago, I wrote a column about the 2002 World Cup and how it basically solidified my relationship with this wonderful but confounding game that some call soccer.
The United States made a Cinderella run to the quarterfinals in that tournament before Germany and the dubious hand of Torsten Frings sent it home. Following a 2-1 extra time loss to Belgium in last week’s round of 16 match, America is still looking to match that success of 12 years ago.
While the overwhelming response from those residing in the States in the wake of the elimination has been largely positive, the question that always pops up following a World Cup is here once again.
Where does soccer belong in the United States, and where is it heading?
Looking at it through the lens that this tournament provides us every four years, there are people arguing that not much has changed. 2002 as the assumed outlier, the United States made it to the Round of 16 back in 1994 and again just four years ago.
To those that may only turn their attention to this sport every four years, that may seem like minimal – if any – improvement. After all, America didn’t even have a top-flight professional league in 1994 and the team that went to the World Cup was a weird mix of collegiate and indoor players with a few guys playing in Europe sprinkled in.
I’m here to tell you that this sport has grown exponentially in the time since this country hosted the World Cup back in ’94. We’ve since seen the creation of MLS, more media coverage, and most importantly, our players are getting more chances to play in the top leagues in Europe.
However, if there is one real lesson that we can take away from the United States’ stay in Brazil, it is that we still have a ways to go in terms of legitimately competing with the best.
Yes, I know that we were a Chris Wondolowski tap-in from a ticket to the quarterfinals, and I also know that playing the bulk of the tournament without Jozy Altidore was like trying to golf without a putter in the bag.
But, let’s be honest, in our heart of hearts, as much as we may have not liked the comment, Jurgen Klinsmann was dead-on about the United States’ chances to win the whole thing.
Those last two matches against Germany (out possessed 67 percent to 33) and Belgium (out shot on goal 26 to 9) should’ve given us all a pretty good idea.
We are not there yet. Naturally, the follow-up question is, how do we get “there?”
The argument about this country’s best athletes is valid, but only to a certain point. While it would be nice to have LeBron James as a defensive midfielder, athleticism is not really the problem for the United States.
Hamstring injuries aside, the United States was one of the more physically fit teams in the field. In the three group stage games, Michael Bradley covered more ground than any other player in the tournament, while Fabian Johnson was clocked as the third fastest player.
In truth, it doesn’t matter which Americans choose soccer as their sport, our youth development programs are not yet in position to unleash the full potential of the young athletes that go through it.
Sure there have been movements like Project 2010 and Generation Adidas, and MLS has placed different youth academies around the country, but it is still nowhere near the well-oiled machines that are churning out new talents seemingly every year in Europe.
A lot of that has to do with collegiate athletics.
Klinsmann alluded to this back in 2010 as an ESPN World Cup analyst:
“You are the only country in the world that has the pyramid upside down,” he said, speaking to Americans. “You pay to have your kid play soccer because the goal is not that the kid becomes a professional soccer player, the goal is to get a college scholarship, which is completely opposite from the rest of the world.”
Even with Title IX, men’s college soccer won’t ever go away, but it should be a place for late-bloomers, not relied on to produce our future World Cup talent. An ideal youth system has players ready to sign professional contracts by the time they are 18, 19 and 20 years old.
The silver lining – our rapidly expanding youth system seems to be on the right track. A few days ago, the United States National Under-17 team called in 38 boys for a July training camp – 22 of them are currently in the U.S. Soccer Residency program, while four others are already signed to the youth programs of foreign clubs.
How much of an impact that will make in 2018, 2022 or 2026? There is really no way to tell. But, it’s just another bullet point that shows America is getting more and more serious about soccer.
It will just take some time.