Energy and persistence conquer all things. – Ben Franklin
Often times when watching a game it can be heard (though I’ve never found it documented in writing) that the American players are very physically fit and the main attribute that they bring to the table is raw athleticism. Sometimes the commentators go so far as to insinuate that our players are more physically fit than the other team. Aside from Clint Dempsey (who has been described as having that special combination of audacity and je ne sais quoi), why are US players reduced to the physical traits that all athletes, regardless of sport, possess?
My first thoughts when Matthew allowed me to pen this piece were that this statement is a backhanded compliment, and to some extent it is, but there is as well a lot of truth in it. As I mentioned here, we have a history of producing the top athletes at the Olympics, so it makes sense that our soccer players are the most athletic as well.
However, it stands to reason that any player playing for a national team ranked within the top 100 (give or take 20) of FIFA’s screwed-up rankings is a pretty serious athlete; get into FIFA’s top 20 national teams and you can bet your ass that all of the players in the pool are professional players that possess no more athleticism than the next guy.
But it’s the Yanks’ athleticism that is consistently lauded when an announcer attempts to compliment a nattie that’s playing somewhat well.
Jozy Altidore (whose potential is unfulfilled to date) is gargantuan of a player whose strength and speed cause defenses problems, but wait so is Didier Drogba.
Landon Donovan is fast and can run forever, but so can Ji Sung “Three Lung” Park.
Oguchi Onyewu is built like an NFL Linebacker, so sayeth Alejandro Bedoya, and is still fleet footed enough to play at a high level, but so is….well Onyewu is somewhat of an anomaly though Omar Gonzalez looks to be hot on his heals. You get the idea; for every American soccer player that possess other-worldly athletic talents, there’s someone else who’s very similar who plays ball wearing the colors of a different nation.
So why is Landon Donovan’s “athleticism” lauded when Ji Sung Park’s isn’t even mentioned during a Manchester United Telecast? My guess is that it’s a result of our 200 year old culture (Forgive me here because I recently finished reading Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer). The gem of puritan wisdom that I lead this piece off with defines the American ethos in all facets of life; though most immigrant cultures in this country are very different from the buckle-shoe wearing, Mayflower voyaging original immigrants, the prevailing philosophy in this country remains “he who works hardest will be victorious.” This ideal has infiltrated our long work weeks and lack of vacation days in the corporate world, our schools that still feel like their systematically brainwashing you to regurgitate the correct response instead of figuring out why it was the right one, and, as Jeremy Schaap mentions in his E:60 piece on Clint Dempsey, our regimented youth sports leagues(especially youth soccer).
Our culture is a results based one. Period. Think about your current job, whatever it is, if you don’t perform to a certain expectation you’re dumped unceremoniously on your ass. We do the same with our sports. Quick, pick out the top athlete in each of the Big 5 sports (thanks to Tiger golf is currently sitting at #5 in the sports world) in the US from 50 years ago and then for today, those whose jerseys sell the most replicas of anyone. I’m guessing you named the following:
NBA: Bob Cousy/Michael Jordan
NHL: Gordie Howe/Wayne Gretzky
NFL (we’ll focus on quarterbacks from the last 30 years only since they’ve only become integral in that time period): Dan Marino/Brett Favre
MLB: Ted Williams/Albert Pujols
PGA: Jack Nicklaus/Tiger Woods
What do all of them have in common? They hold the records; the scoring records, the number of championship records, the biggest and the bestest records. So we look to these gods among men and devise ways to make our children just like them. Notice anything else about these progressions? The Marino to Favre transition is the only one where we have a the modern-day athlete who has risen to the upper echelons of his sport via a goofy grin and the swashbuckling attitude of a playground marauder, otherwise the modern athletes are obsessive-compulsives about perfecting their skills.
In this vein we have youth coaches who attempt to sculpt the “athlete” into the ideal player with the appropriate skills for their sports. Thus, the bigger, stronger, faster kid who can perform XYZ four times out of ten is often preferred to the shorter, thinner, slower kid who can perform XYZ seven times out of ten. While it is true for most sports that teaching the bigger, stronger, faster kid the necessary skills will yield a better end product, the same is not always true for soccer; take Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez as examples, no one would say their 5ft 7in frames are physically imposing, yet both are revered as being masters of their crafts. Yet, for soccer clubs in the US, raw physicality and athleticism have always won out when it comes to selecting players. Want proof?
Exhibit A) The president of a club I coached for once said during a tryout; “Look for the biggest and fastest players, we can teach them to kick a soccer ball, but we can’t teach speed.” By that sentiment, all we would need is a “sexy” European coach to take over the National Team and Youth System for the USSF and we’d be all set, right…?
Exhibit B) Prior to Germany ’06 Andrea Canales penned this piece about how the LA Galaxy, USMNT, and German National Team (due to adopted Californian Jurgen Klinsmann running the show) have all enlisted the help of an exercise science company called Athlete’s Performance to ensure that they are getting the most athleticism out of their athletes.
Exhibit C) The venerable This Is American Soccer’s interview with Ray Hudson. Jump down to the question about him being a supporter of the USMNT over England, which contains this interesting observation:
I’ve seen first hand so many of the times these wonderful instructors allowing the kids to express themselves and have fun with the ball be basically hit on the head and told that that is not what is required. “We want more athletic football” has turned too many people off in this country.
Exhibit D) And TIAS scores an interview/autobiography style post by one of the top 100 freshman to watch in college soccer (from December 20007) with this little nugget:
The transition from high school to college is not easy to deal with; it is literally a whole new ball game. The sport is more physical, players are much more athletic, and the expectations of both players and coaches are much higher. Constant effort and commitment are a must; work ethic and desire can overshadow good soccer and technique.
Exhibit E) An article on the NSCAA website from 2003 that discusses the emerging American style, which the writer argues should be built around our athleticism and work rate.
Whether the announcers who’ve uttered this phrase intend it as a backhanded compliment or actual praise, only they’ll know. The truth of it is our professionals are not more athletic than any other nations’, though we probably do tend to (currently) focus more on that side of player development when it comes to soccer (an all sports really).
This is just the beginning of our discussion today…they’ll be a follow-up with your commentary from below integrated. Have at it.