Why Americans suck at soccer (well, the men)

September 2, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


Andrew Helms and Matt Pentz wrote “Own Goal:
The Inside Story of how the US Men’s National Team Missed The World Cup.” The actual own goal that doomed the US in
2018 becomes a metaphor for bad mismanagement, poor development, and infighting that doomed
the US Men’s bid to qualify in the World Cup. That analysis and reporting is great and it hits at the big problems with American soccer today. But the US soccer problem goes back a lot
further than that. This chart shows US Men’s National Team’s
World Cup record. At the top are the best finishes. The highest dot? It’s third place. At the bottom, 16th place. And all these dots? These are times the third most populous country,
with the largest global wealth, failed to even qualify. This is bigger than an own goal. And it’s not because soccer isn’t as American
as apple pie. We have proof. Americans suck at the game they call soccer. But they’re also the best in the world. These are the US women’s World Cup performances
since play started in 1991. Champs, champs, champs. It’s not about American culture. It’s about the American men’s game. When you stop looking at the present and start
looking to the past, You find a lost golden age of American soccer. You also find the reason it’s been doomed
for almost a hundred years. In 1926, 46,000 Americans crowded into a Manhattan
stadium to see Hakoah, an All-Star European soccer team, lose to Americans. In the paper that same day? A season high Yankees baseball game – that
4,000 fewer people went to see. The 1920s was American soccer’s golden age. But to understand it, you have to go even
further back. In the 1860s, soccer and rugby existed on
a bit of a continuum — people played a little bit of everything. In 1863, rules were finally established in
England to build a game that played more like the soccer we know. The US diverged from the English soccer game
with the first Harvard-Yale football game — which would quickly turn into American
football. Until then, Ivy league colleges had played
a more soccer-like game, but Harvard challenged Yale to a rugby-style game they’d learned
from McGill in Canada. That game was a hit, and Ivies like Princeton
quickly picked it up. That was the first split between European
and American football culture. By 1905, soccer was still being “tested”
in America as “college football” took off. But the tragedy of World War I slowed down
European sports culture. In the 20s, America started catching up in
soccer. In 1925, for example, when Cincinnati built
a new stadium, they assumed baseball and soccer would both be part of the mix. Americans even stole British and Scottish
talent — “enticing players” for The Coming International Sport. English stadiums had the biggest crowds, but
the US was part of the growing international audience for the sport. The 20s saw a formidable soccer presence in
the US, with big attendance numbers. That development helped America score a third
place finish in the World Cup in 1930. But that was the beginning of the end. American soccer always had a weird structure,
with a league – the ASL or American Soccer League, and a governing association: the
USFA, or United States Football Association. The USFA was American soccer’s liason to
FIFA and the international community. The USFA and ASL had a long feud that was
resolved one day only to pick up again the next. The ASL wanted to change soccer rules and
add ideas that were uniquely American at the time, like substitutions and a penalty box. The USFA didn’t. Not clear enough? Just look at the names. These two organizations couldn’t even agree
on what to call the game. And this? This is what happens when acronyms take over
your sport. FIFA’s at the top. They threatened to kick out the USFA because
the ASL was recruiting those European players. FIFA didn’t like that at all. USFA agreed to sanctions. ASL got mad and pulled out of a big USFA tournament. Three ASL teams went over and played anyway,
which got them kicked out by the ASL. They whined to the USFA, which kicked out
the ASL. So then the ASL played without USFA approval,
so the USFA made a new league with their own teams. Yeah. All this acronym infighting split soccer teams,
players, and fans in half. Civil Wars: they are not fun. They patched things up again in 1929, but
it was too late. The Great Depression hit the financial system. Teams were already weakened. The Depression forced many of them to fold. The United States entered a soccer dark ages
while Europe and South America steadily built the sophisticated leagues that people wish
America had today. Short-lived American leagues have had cash
– but the mass enthusiasm was stuck in the 1920. For women, a small fan base and lack of private
development wasn’t a problem — development of the women’s game was behind the men’s
game across the world. In the absence of a significant league business,
federal programs like Title 9 in America effectively mandated a women’s team in schools wherever
there was a men’s team. But for men? You can rightly talk about development leagues,
and bad coaching, and own goals. But when you see a pie like this, you don’t
blame the crust, or the apple orchard, or the textured aluminum wrap. You blame the thing that smashed it. The soccer wars put the United States on the sidelines,
during a crucial half century in which global sports acquired fans, talent, and cash. Can American men catch up today? Maybe. But it’s a long shot. So, if you want a slightly less depressing
look at American soccer, check out this video from our friends at SB Nation. They chronicled the historic 1999 US Women’s
National Team Victory. It’s pretty amazing. I’m gonna take a shower now.