There’s little doubt that the United States Men’s Soccer team has come far in the past 25 years. From not qualifying for a single World Cup in 4 decades, the team has reached each of the last seven. We’ve progressed through the group stage in three of the past four World Cups, proving that our team is quite good. But that final step is often the toughest. How can America go from being a decent team to one that regularly contends for and actually wins the World Cup?
Outside of truly elite nations like Brazil, Germany, Italy, France, Argentina, Spain (and England and Uruguay half a century ago), nobody else has claimed the World Cup. Let’s take a look at those nations and what makes them so special in the sport. First off, they have a passionate fan base that loves the game of soccer far above anything else. Their nations’ entire youth grow up playing the sport, and they’re hundreds of soccer clubs placing the top talent into development programs from the age of 10! With thousands of kids all gunning for professional careers, only the best will make the national team.
In America, young athletes have a wide array of options. Football, basketball, and baseball often prize away our top athletes. Only recently has the MLS grown in stature and popularity to the point where it can inspire our youth to play the sport. As a nation, America actually has the greatest potential for building a World Cup contender. Our population greatly exceeds most competitors, and our multi-cultured environment welcomes immigrants from all over the world. Top talent can certainly be within our grasp, as we’ve seen recently with foreign-born USA internationals like John Brooks and Jermaine Jones. But ultimately, to become great, we must foster a crop of stars from our soil.
Players with exceptional talent need to be focused on the sport from a young age in their own localities. America does have an impressive youth sports training program through IMG (which has produced stars like DaMarcus Beasley and Aron Johannson), but it requires players to be sent away to Florida and is quite expensive. Local players would benefit most from focused programs close to their home at lower prices. MLS clubs are doing just that and have been expanding their youth options. This is great, but ultimately we’ll just have to be patient and see if solid pro players develop from such programs.
The good thing to point out is that we are on the right path, and there have been solid American performances at major tournaments, including five Gold Cup titles. The World Cup is something different though, and the USA needs superstars to win such an event. Right now the only such player who could even be argued for as such is goalkeeper Tim Howard, who’s proven his worth for over a decade playing in the English Premier League. He had a record-breaking performance at the 2014 World Cup, saving 15 shots in a single game against Belgium, though as evidenced by the 2-1 loss, he simply cannot do it alone. Given his advanced age, his career is nearing its end and America will soon lose this hero. To win a World Cup, we’d need at least five players of that caliber.
In a certain way it’s unfortunate that our top stars like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore recently came back to the MLS. While it’s exciting for fans and could help long term by inspiring more kids to play the sport, to become elite we need stars at major European clubs competing week in and week out against only the best. It raises their level of play and prepares them for the biggest of games.
There are great American prospects playing in Europe like Brooks, Johannson, Julian Green, and Timothy Chandler. However, they need to get from the fringes of such European clubs to become regular first-teamers and impact players. As long as the majority of our American soccer stars continue to have mediocre professional club careers, ultimately such will be the result of our national team.
Lastly, I feel there is the issue of belief amongst the American squad when it comes to the World Cup. This isn’t just an American issue; it affects all those top 20 (but not top 5) nations worldwide. Whenever it comes to a major match against a heavyweight, the jersey across the field intimidates them, and they simply cannot beat them. I understand; I’m sure it would be terrifying to line up against a Germany or Brazil with the World Cup on the line, but until our team beats one of these guys in the knockout rounds, or even just the decent team we need to beat in order to get into that match, then we’ll always be a step below elite. Sure, we’re fighters, and can sometimes scrape out a draw or win in a friendly against a major nation, but we need players ready to step up on the big stage who can challenge the elite on skill level alone. That’s when our fighter’s mentality will push us over the top.I feel Jurgen Klinsmann is getting the team in the right direction, especially with his own personal success on the biggest stage. American soccer must be patient. Our developing youth system is improving and we’ll one day see the results of such persistence. Our day will come; it’s just a matter of wh