The United States soccer team’s 2-1 defeat to Ghana on Thursday won’t put a long-term hurt on soccer in America—postponing the USA’s inevitable flameout by a few days would hardly lead to the sport’s Great Leap Forward. The delay of our long-awaited soccer boom has nothing to do with what happened in Germany. It has everything to do with the shortsighted thinking of this country’s soccer leadership.
Let’s begin by stipulating that the national team’s success will be the most critical factor in growing the game domestically. Let’s also assume that the sport’s growth will depend on developing star players. That leads us to Landon Donovan, U.S. Soccer’s poster boy, and first among the flops at the World Cup. After his breakout performance four years ago, Donovan quickly established himself as the best player in our domestic league, Major League Soccer. In 2005, he moved to Germany’s top-notch Bundesliga. His time there perfectly presaged the red, white, and blue’s journey through the 2006 World Cup: Donovan looked thoroughly outmatched. Even worse than his performance was his demeanor. He clearly wanted no part of the brutal competition of top-flight European football.
Instead of sticking it out and forging an improved game in Deutschland, Landon scurried home to Manhattan Beach and rejoined MLS. This was a move roughly equivalent to leaving the NBA to play in the Philippines, and it earned Landon such nicknames as “PrimaDonovan.”
Far be it from me to tell a guy how to live his life. More to the point, though, is that someone from U.S. Soccer (the sport’s American governing body) should have told Landon how to live his life. You can blame Bruce Arena for questionable tactics and poor preparation of his charges. But I blame him most for not insisting that Donovan and other MLSers with the talent to play overseas—Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, Taylor Twellman—do so, forthwith. That is the role of a national team manager, much more than selecting a 4-4-2 formation on game day. The coach must get the team he wants, how he wants them.
What truly ails American players is their lack of experience against the best. The Ghanaian team, for example, is largely composed of players for whom the intensity of a World Cup is not altogether different from their weekly club battles in Europe. Until the day when the majority of American players get paid in Euros—not just a handful—we’ll never sniff the World Cup title.
Major League Soccer helps spread the game by building soccer-specific stadia in major metropolitan areas. But what will really cause the game to explode here is huge World Cup success. And there’s no doubt that MLS hinders the building of a decent national team. The only world-class international tournament the United States participates in is the World Cup, which happens every four years. The rest of the world competes in a massive international soccer tournament every two years—whether it’s Copa America, the European Championships, the African Nations Cup, or the Asian Cup. The United States has been asked to participate in Copa America multiple times, only to be refused because of MLS commitments. The benefits of reducing the time between to-the-death competitions would be incalculable, but U.S. Soccer stubbornly refuses, saying it prefers to build the domestic league.
The mere presence of MLS on national television hurts more than it helps—the inferiority of the product does nothing to lure the next generation of athletes to the sport. The passionless, dull affairs stand in stark contrast to the awesome atmospheres in the English Premiership, La Liga, Serie A, etc. Create a steady outlet for that kind of show, especially with Americans involved, and elite athletes will start choosing soccer.
MLS isn’t the only problem. I also have a beef with the businesses that are peddling us soccer—in particular, Nike. The shoe company longs to catch rival Adidas in the soccer market, and has bet heavily on U.S. Soccer making a leap in popularity. The Swoosh is screwing up big-time, though, by plastering Donovan’s face on billboards. It should think of the long-term and lean on him play in Europe. Perhaps Nike should also threaten U.S. Soccer with a withdrawal of seed money unless it sends a squad to Copa America in 2008. And it should approach ESPN and offer a mammoth ad buy if the network secures rights to the English Premier League.
Various news outlets have reported rumors that Nike reps leaned on Brazil to start Ronaldo in the 1998 World Cup final (with disastrous results, it should be noted). It says here the company can pull any strings they choose within U.S. Soccer. For the sake of “the future of the sport,” or merely saving some face in South Africa four years hence, they need to just do it.