The other day I watched the Copa America finals in a bar in rural Idaho. Fearful drunken spews from the older generation - the ranchers, arborists, construction workers - "look at all of these pansies running around. little pieces of shit. pussies," etc. Its the libertarians that hate soccer, and the hate comes from fear; fear of the old America dying; the America that never existed. They are afraid little men that watch American football and don't understand it, watch basketball and call everybody pussies too. Baseball is pure to them. The purest, though none of them could explain why. One stepped through a drunken glaze to address me:
Know why the US sucks at soccer?
Cuz all the people who'd be good at soccer go play sports like basketball and football. Like, imagine if LeBron played soccer instead of basketball?
This is a common justification I hear. If only, IF ONLY! our top athletes decided on soccer as opposed to their other sports. Then we'd be the best soccer nation on Earth. And this is of course false, a hugely simplified and brash notion. Let's first talk about the most obvious contradiction within this idea, the fact that the types of bodies that find success in basketball and American football generally have no business playing the world's game.
The average height of NBA players floats around 6'7". This lanky body type, perhaps with the exception of the awkward and anomalous British forward Peter Crouch, is not a structure that works on the soccer pitch. If there is any unifying athletic quality to professional soccer players, it is quickness. Not pace at full sprint, not a 40-meter time, or speed at analytical measures of agility, but pure acceleration after 20, 40, 80 minutes of play. The level of quickness we see in the top European soccer leagues is a level of agility that folks playing NBA basketball, simply based on their body types, would never be able to achieve. There are of course exceptions - perhaps Westbrook, Iverson, Steph, to name a few - but I intend here only to dispel the notion that I often hear at bars, that "if only LeBron played soccer", then we would be a superpower. This notion is patently false when it comes to basketball. Lebron, like nearly all NBA quality basketball players, would have no chance keeping up at the world's game. A 6'8", 250 lb frame generally just cannot move quick enough to play soccer. The same false idea holds for American football.
The body types that find success in American football are, if there is a unifying theme, specialized. Since football is such a reduced and analytical endeavor, it asks of its players uniqueness when it comes to body type. Now, clearly it should be obvious that the skeletal frames that allow for Offensive and Defensive linemen would never show up in the EPL. Perhaps there is structural crossover between the bodies we see in the Cornerback and Running back role and what we may expect to see in the world's game, but again, the margin is significantly smaller than we probably like to think.
What I mean to say here is not that it wouldn't be great to have some of the wonderful athletes that find success in the esoteric American sports focus more on the world's game, but simply that the type of athlete that finds success in these sports finds success because those sports, basketball and American football, as for such a particular type of body and athlete. And what we must come to understand is that soccer does not ask for a particular type of body, but a more general form of athlete. Further, the problem that we must confront is not that our "athletes" don't care about soccer, but how we can better understand and reinforce those athletes in our country that have the ability to find success in the world's game, but do not fit any of our typical esoteric American definitions of an athlete. In fact, our incapabilities in this country at soccer have nothing to do with Lebron not playing the sport, and everything to do with the fact that we think that he would be successful at it in the first place. In this country, it is our definition of athlete that is our biggest hurdle at the moment, not the lack of adequate talent.
Basketball, American football, and so on, are not drains on the soccer talent pool. They are certainly cultural drains; competitors for time and cultural focus on television and the dreams of our youth, but ultimately the folks that end up finding success at basketball wouldn't stand a chance at even a semi-professional level of soccer. And so, the real problem is the young people that dream of becoming a basketball star but stop growing at 5'8", and instead of moving to focus on soccer, are marginalized and told by our culture that they are not an athlete and never will be. If we are to find success at the world's game we need not for those prototypes of American sport to focus instead on soccer, but to engage the marginalized athletes in America, those who don't fit into the particular shapes and sizes of our reduced American sports. Until we expand our definition of athlete in this country, we will have no chance in competing at the highest level in the world's game.