Addressing The Cliche: Why Is The USMNT Always “More Athletic?”

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.

Just as much O2 processing as an "athletic American"

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.

Skill first?

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.

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24 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wilson on 2010/05/23 at 11:36 PM

    JS Park can run all day? When? He doesn’t play much. Donovan has quickness the likes of Messi and Ronaldo. Anyways I believe that when USMNT is referef as superb athletic team, means they have
    top-notch speed at speed positions and strength at power positions.
    Not to mention great leaping ability. At all positions, top athleticism the outmatches most teams other then the giants of Europe and South America. I did not forget Africa, Drogba and other that are big EPL players are stronger and faster but really only fast or strong.
    Drogba is strong and benefits with speed. Yobo is fast with power. USMNT players are fast and strong and not as big. Landon Donovan and Charlie Davies are powerful and world class speed at 5’8″.(LD is a finesse and CD is a power player, but they can do both.)

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/05/23 at 11:51 PM

      I will validate that J.S. Park can run all day…for sure, no doubt and that’s his role that makes him valuable for Sir Alex.

      I’m glad Nick took this post on.

      The cliche…and I believe it is such…irks me beyond believe.

      Take a team like Portugal…in a relay race or quickness race I would take take Ronaldo and Nani over Landon and Charlie Davies.

      Heck even Luis Boa Morte…remember him…was probably the fastest—and most average–EPL player for the mid 2000s.

      Yet, when media talk of Portugal and their front-six they don’t speak of athleticism.

      Maybe the US have more fitness–that adage is easily defensible–but media constantly invoke athleticism and I see it as a component for the US…not our main attribute.

      We can all admit that at the bar set for athletes Jay DeMerit or Jonathan Spector are not even close to the most athletic at their position.

      Reply

      • Posted by Shane_K83 on 2010/05/24 at 11:57 AM

        I’ve always admired J.S. Park’s Stamina.. I love the guy honestly and if the US gets Eliminated, South Korea is who I will be pulling for after that..

        Reply

  2. Posted by B-Mac on 2010/05/24 at 12:56 AM

    I don’t think US Soccer is more athletic, but it is a combination of toughness, power, and straightforwardness for the game that give the Yanks their reputation. Players like McBride, Reyna, and Donovan were lauded for being hardnosed team players, willing to hustle and do whatever it takes to make the team better on and off the field, but never accused of having skills lacking in their foreign contemporaries.

    Then you look at other star players like Gerrard, Drogba, and Adebayor, renowned for their talent but each accused of being both divers and bad locker room players. Maybe when we see a superstar American player who acts as many of his peers as a prima donna on and off the field the American stereotype will change. But as long as US players keep the mindset that nothing is given to them and they have to work harder than the next guy to succeed, American players will continue to be defined by their athleticism instead of their class.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Colin on 2010/05/24 at 5:53 AM

    I tend to chalk this up to a complete lack of knowledge by the commentators. For many of them, it could be their first time watching a USA match live or even televised…they dont know much about the team, but they do know that the last guy said they were “athletic”…so they stick with that. Its a stereotype and stereotypes almost always are rooted with ignorance. Not trying to use ignorance as a derogatory word…just a lack of knowledge from whoever is claiming that the USA’s main attribute is their “athleticism”. Next time you hear that…just interpret it as “I really dont know anything about this team, but I think the last guy said they were athletic”

    Reply

  4. […] Why do American players consistently get labeled as “athletic?” Is it a truth or half truth? (The Shin Guardian) […]

    Reply

  5. Posted by SteveM11 on 2010/05/24 at 6:06 AM

    I totally agree with this post. My kid learned soccer in a DC suburb, Beltsville, where all of his teammates were the kids of Caribbeans, Africans, and Central Americans. When their dads coached it was short sided scrimmage, large scrimmage, go home–just play the game. When a white guy or African-American (someone raised in the American sports culture) coaches where we live now it is drill, drill, drill, laps, laps, sprints, and if the kids are lucky a short scrimmage at the end. I’m not saying drills and conditioning don’t have their place, but none of these kids has any creativity with the ball.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Habibi on 2010/05/24 at 7:05 AM

    I’m not trying to start a firestorm here but I hear this all the time by basketball announcers…

    For better or worse, here is a common statement you hear from basketball commentators, especially collegiate announcers: the white player is described in terms of game intelligence/work ethic/studying tapes, whereas the black players are described in terms of their athleticism. I’ve never understood why they always feel the need to make these essentializing statements. It’s obviously not true.

    As mentioned in the article, and in commentary, all pro (let’s not kid ourselves, collegiate athletes are essentially pro) athletes are inherently “athletic”. Race has nothing to do with work ethic, game tape understanding or being able to run do wind sprints (or in our context, nationality). So why the need to make the dichotomy?

    I think it goes back to what was mentioned in the article, it could be a backhanded compliment, but I think it’s mostly ignorance. If an announcer has no substantive knowledge about the team or players, yet they want to add commentary that sounds informed they need to pick out something that sounds somewhat on-point/good and can explain the success of the team/player without demeaning their own side/others. It’s not just something that gets thrown at Americans v. Other nations though, it happens within our sports culture too.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Thomas on 2010/05/24 at 7:07 AM

    As a licensed USSF coach I completely agree with this post and more specifically with the comments regarding how our youth are taught the game. Far to often I watch coaches focus on what it takes to win rather than develop the individual player. This is why the repeated long-ball strategy is so prevalent at the youth levels [and has saturated even the college ranks]. This also hampers the publicity of the sport here in America. Kids try to imitate what they see on tv, which is why we see a flood of children on city basketball courts doing what they just saw Lebron do. For a good example look at the new Nike *Write The Future* ad. Rolindino is highlighted for his foot skills and yet didn’t even make the Brasilian WC squad. Where as the two American’s shown in the spot are reading the newspaper and grinning. Now understanding the global game I admit that is kind of funny, but what American soccer child is going to get inspired by that? Until we allow the soccer youth of this country to be creative with the ball for the enjoyment of it, we as a soccer nation will probably always be labeled as “athletes” rather than “players”.

    Reply

  8. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/05/24 at 7:16 AM

    It would piss me off a treat if I was American and I heard this drivel time and again. All this nonsense about “hustle” – yes, that’s one important part of the game, but the team can play. And on their day, they can be a match for anyone. Just highlighting the athletic aspect of the USMNT is somewhat condescending, and overlooks the skill and the progress that the team and US football has actually made.

    I feel that what is lacking here is ‘recognised the evolution of football in the USA’. Go back 20-odd years and chart the USA’s progress. Let’s start at 1990 for argument’s sake. At this point in time, I would say that the skill level on the team was quite sporadic, so the most obvious trait was physicality and fitness as the players were chasing the ball for the majority of the game (against the better teams). If we took a snap shot at 2000, the picture looks different. They players are equally as fit but the USA possess more players who are good and can actually play (at a high level). Fast forward to today, then you can see by the players that have been produced, their skill level, the club teams they play for and the fact that the USA are on the bubble to go to the next level. To suggest that this can be achieved on raw athleticism is naive and points to ignorance. The team has evolved – why can’t the analysis and commentary?

    Reply

  9. Posted by John on 2010/05/24 at 7:37 AM

    The players change from the 80s to the 90s and the 00s, but the commentary stays the same because the people who report don’t retire when they can’t run wind sprints anymore. While we do have some abysmal youth coaching (at the very young level), even that will change.

    Our reporting, information distribution, and general media viewpoint is still rooted firmly in the grasp of the bullish “power and hustle” media. That in and of itself takes quite a bit longer to change than teaching a 15 year old to have a great step over.

    Reply

  10. Posted by dude on 2010/05/24 at 8:25 AM

    It’s part European bias, part truth. It all has to do with how the players learn the game. How many times do you think the words “artistry” and “skill” are used in American soccer at the youngest levels? Almost never. All you have to do is run harder, be faster than the other team, most of whom will never be athletes again. From there, it’s narrowed. The only way we get skill is through anomaly’s like Dempsey and Torres, or young infusions like Adu (who our sports media of results immediately ruined).

    But I still think America isn’t given credit for the skill that Bob Bradley allows to be on the field.

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  11. Posted by alan miller on 2010/05/24 at 9:17 AM

    i think we are taking ourselves a little seriously here. donovan is a great player but to compare him to messi is unfair. i think references to our athleticism are based on the fact that there is not much else to say about us. donovan and dempsey are good epl players, certainly not elite at this point. no one else is close, aside from goalkeeping, where the world regularly recognizes our surplus of excellent talent. i wonder what the english would give for a friedel or howard? on the other hand i can not think of another player for the usa that could break the english starting 11.

    we lack the skill and creativity that exist in teams like spain, brazil and holland or the tactical prowess of the italians and germans. this is not a knock, as those are elite teams. unfortunately, we have not produced those sorts of players, much less teams, yet.

    why fall short in producing the end product and how we can change that is an interesting question. there are many answers. certainly, the dutch have done it with coaching. as football become more a part of american culture perhaps we will attract more of the country’s best athletes and hopefully the coaching will be in place to groom them for success at the highest level (or at least funnel them to a system that can do it for us). it will be interesting to watch.

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/05/24 at 11:00 AM

      All valid points, but it’s not a binary equation. Perhaps, the USA do not have the players of the Elite teams, but for people to imply that there is hardly any skill on the team is going too far. I said that the USA is a team on the bubble (of breaking into the top 10), and you don’t acheive that by not having very good players. Maybe you lack world class talent, but you are no mugs by any means.

      Reply

  12. Posted by soccerdad on 2010/05/24 at 9:43 AM

    If you’ve watched a lot of youth games, and not just the town travel teams but even at the academy level, it’s true that you see very little creativity, if any. that’s why the US doesn’t have a creative CM or a great striker. nothing against Jozy, but he epitomizes how strikers at the youth level are groomed. the big, fast kid that can control the ball, and has a big shot are brought along. but how many times have you seen a US striker — from academy level to USMNT — score because they made a creative diagonal run, or because they faced up a defender, and outmaneuvered them; they use their strength and speed to beat them, not their cunning and elusiveness (think earl campbell vs. walter payton). that’s not to say it’s a bad thing. if that’s the U.S. style, so be it. maybe eventually we’ll get a striker that has so much speed and strength (imagine if bo jackson played soccer!) that he won’t need the footskill torres or messi have to be great.

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  13. Posted by kaya on 2010/05/24 at 9:45 AM

    Like everything, I think there’s a partial truth to the “fitness stereotype.” The Germans’ 2006 run and the fitness training (and home court advantage) got them farther than their skills would’ve taken them in my mind (and some luck against Argentina.) We watched Rotundo lose some weight in the group stages and Brazil get knocked out by Zidane/lack of defensive discipline, your pick. Spain matched their underachieving stereotype. African teams were a threat due to their athleticism…. a variation of both the american attribute/insult and the stereotyping of black vs white american athletes that Habibi points out. People like to categorize.
    Since most of the matches I get to watch are streaming, I’ve ended up with a lot of German, Polish and Romanian and don’t understand whatever bias is being proffered by the commentators. Is it really that ubiquitous of a generalization? I can’t imagine how anyone would take Donovan as an example of fitness over Park. (If anything, I thought his disappearing acts were well enough documented to preclude that.)
    Anyhow, to go back to what a lot of people here are repeating: we also need to stop reinforcing that stereotype starting with coaching. I played soccer when I was young because that’s what you played if you were a girl who was at all athletically inclined. However, what I was taught was an entirely different sport than what I saw when I watched my first international soccer match many years later.
    But from here you get caught in a chicken vs egg argument as it is absolutely in the american ethos to count sporting statistics and it’ll take a big brother reeducation act to get a sizeable % of american borns to appreciate good ball handling skills and a well built up attempt at goal.

    Reply

  14. Posted by kaya on 2010/05/24 at 10:23 AM

    FYI, there’s no mention of who the author is within the post, and only the first sentence of the 2nd paragraph indicates this isn’t by Matt. Prolly makes sense to make an acct for contributor written pieces.

    Reply

  15. Thanks to everyone for chiming in with excellent commentary. This post was a tough one to tackle, I didn’t intend for it to devolve into blaming the coaching and youth structure in this country (since we the community already beat that horse, even after it came back from the glue factory, after Clauio’s appointment) but I think it is influenced by our national culture, and does influence our soccer culture.

    Since this comment is oft heard but never written, it was tough to find specific examples of who said this and in reference to who, when trying to make a point one way or the other. After re-reading what I’ve written and the commentary, I still believe it is a bit of a back-handed compliment by those foreign announcers who haven’t done the appropriate leg work to research the US players. There is also an elemnet of truth in the statement; we do produce very athletic and hard-nosed players for all sports but we also have some players in our stable that have some decent footskills and don’t just rely on their athleticism.

    I’ll be keeping an ear open today to see how Martin Tyler and Bryan Robson describe the Mexican team as they take on the English.

    Reply

  16. Posted by Colin on 2010/05/24 at 1:10 PM

    So…I think we can all agree that describing the US team as “athletic” is stating the obvious and really isnt a compliment at all.

    The question is…what would we like better? What would be a more accurate word to describe the US squad?

    Reply

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