Soccer has been gaining popularity in the US ever since World Cup 1994. Soccer is the most played youth sport in the US. The MLS now averages over 17,100 fans per game, about the same as the NBA and NHL. Seattle’s average attendance is now 36,350 “and would have ranked ninth in the English Premier League, sixth in Spain’s La Liga, second in France’s Ligue 1 and fourth in Italy’s Serie A.” The national team has made some great progress and has started to get better results, advancing to the quarterfinals in 2002 and winning the group in 2010, plus 2nd place in 2009 confederations cup and a win over Spain. But what’s holding the US national team back? The most glaring deficiency is a world class striker.
There has never been a truly great US striker. The closest is Brian McBride, a great player, but not truly world class. The US has produced tons of world class goalkeepers (Casey Keller, Tim Howard, Brad Friedal, Tony Meola), a few midfielders (Claudio Reyna, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey) and good defenders (Alexi Lalas), but no strikers.
It’s maddening to watch many US games. They have a decent buildup, good passing, but then the finish is just lacking. In the US’s 2-0 win against Jamaica today, a real world class striker would have scored at least 4-5 more times. It happens time and time again. The US team is as or more athletic than any team in the world. It has a good midfield, an amazing goalkeeper and a decent defense. The biggest thing missing is a world class striker.
The US has not produced a striker with a nose for goal in the mold of Messi, Rooney, Torres, Teves, Drogba, Eto’o or even a Berbatov. The last goal by a US striker in a World Cup was scored by Brian McBride on June 17 2002 in a 2-0 round of 16 win vs Mexico. Since then, all 8 goals have been scored by midfielders. Charlie Davis could have been that forward, be he almost died in a car crash and is still not back in form 2 years later. Jozy Altidore shows flashes, but does not seem to have that killer, striker instinct.
So why is this? I’ve been playing my whole life and reffing for 12 years now and i have a few theories.
When we start playing in organized leagues at age 4 or 5, the rest of the world is still playing in the park. We play way too many full sided games way too early, don’t practice enough or play enough pickup games. Even when kids are 4 or 5, the point of games is far too often to get a win, not to develop your skills. We are always playing on grass, while the rest of the world grows up playing on pavement, tennis courts, gravel, dirt or artificial surfaces. When young players in the rest of the world move to grass, the ball moves slow and they can do anything. We have too many coaches who stifle our imagination with tactics that work when we are young, at the expense of true technical quality.
The other issue is sportsmanship. When a striker scores a ton in an organized league, the coach takes him out, or puts him in on defense or midfield and tells him not to run up the score. In other countries, the goal scorer keeps on scoring in pickup games. He’s picked first when people are choosing teams. An example. When I was 10, I played on a team with a bunch of my friends. We were really good and rarely lost. My friend Jeremy and I were the leading goal scorers. Every time we got up by a few goals, our coaches would put both of us on defense, or as the goalkeeper. Obviously, neither of us had the talent to be an international, but imagine the true top players in the US who are stopped from scoring at a young age. It kills their killer instinct that strikers need.
So how do we fix it? If i were in charge of youth soccer in the US, here’s what I’d do.
1. Don’t start with organized soccer until kids are older. Instead, get kids together and have them play semi organized pickup games. At the end of the “season” break kids into teams for a quick 2-3 week season to get them used to playing on a real field. Scale back coaching. They mostly stifle creativity.
2. Force young kids to practice on tennis courts, dirt and other artificial surfaces. These surfaces are way faster, so when you go onto grass, everything is slow and you have amazing touch. The typical soccer moms will hate this.
3. Get rid of the sportsmanship excuse. Have less of a focus on winning and losing when kids are young and let a great goal scorer keep scoring to keep developing their skills.