Why US Mens’ Soccer Struggles

I hear lots theories of why US Mens’ soccer doesn’t dominate on the world stage.  I think below is the key reason.

Kids playing soccer in Argentina:

Argentina Soccer

Kids playing soccer in the US:

US Soccer

As a side note, I coach some 10 and 11 year-olds in soccer. I’ve tried for years to get them to learn to juggle. They have plenty of excuses for not doing it. It’s boring. It’s too hard. I was too busy. The weather was bad. 

On a jog a few months ago, I passed a house with an 8-year-old Hispanic kid in the front yard playing. It looked like he was with his Dad as his Dad was doing some work for a homeowner inside. He was juggling a tape measure. Yes, a tape measure. He was holding it by the tape and dangling it and using his feet to juggle the case of the tape measure.

He wanted to learn to juggle because he thought it was cool, not because an adult coach told him to do it. He didn’t have a ball, so he improvised.

Just like the kids in the above picture in Argentina, they didn’t need a $100 ball to kick around on a million dollar sports field with a licensed coach leading them in drills. They improvised. Plastic bottles in the street will do.

Kids in the US don’t improvise. Soccer is something they do in practice. The ball stays in the garage at home, until the next practice. If they play soccer on their own, it’s the FIFA video game.

UPDATE: I’d like to add that the 5-year-old on the right side of the Argentina picture displays some elements in driving (i.e. kicking) form that average 10-year-olds in the U.S. do not have.

First, he’s holding his hand opposite of kicking foot high in the air. This keeps his chest up, maintains balance and squares his body weight to the ball so more of his body’s momentum gets transferred into the ball on the strike.

The average 10-year-old the States keeps that arm down and folds their opposite shoulder over as they strike the ball, losing all the momentum from the opposite side of their body and thus losing power on their shot.

Second, he’s loading his striking leg (pulling it way back), before the kick. This ensures that his foot strikes the ball at maximum speed on the swing. The average 10-year-old in the States, pulls the kicking leg back a few inches before kicking, and usually strikes the ball when the leg is somewhere between a quarter or half max speed.

Third, he’s looking at the bottle he’s about to kick. This helps him make good contact. Like any swinging form, golf or baseball bats, good contact is the key. The average 10-year-old in the states is looking where he wants to kick at this stage, instead of looking at the ball.

The question I have is how did that 5-year-old learn this? By watching and emulating his favorites? By being ridiculed by friends in the street when he did it wrong? I’m guessing a little of both. Who knows, maybe they even teach it at school. Or, perhaps, he just happens to be an exceptional Argentinean kid? Maybe.

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5 thoughts on “Why US Mens’ Soccer Struggles

  1. Hey Seth – Here’s something to ponder. In most South & Central American countries (and in much of Europe), what we call soccer is the most popular sport and it draws there best athletes (at least the ones that have the ability to play at the elite level). Now, there is most certainly an overlap of athletes with potential to play at the elite level in soccer (SoccerEp) with FootballEp and BaseballEp etc. The question – as it pertains to why the US men aren’t competitive at the international level – is: given our population numbers, do we still have SoccerEp after we strip out the kids who elect to play elite level football, baseball, basketball, etc. or is it simply that our SoccerEp kids don’t get up off the couch and fulfill their potential.

    • Hi Mike – I’ve heard the ‘best athlete’ theory. There may be something to that. But, I’d contend that we still have a good pool of best athletes in our 3 million registered soccer players and that athletically (however you’d like to measure that), our top soccer players, are well-matched with the rest of the world’s soccer players.

      I’m not exactly saying they don’t get off the couch to fulfill their potential. What I’m saying I plan to cover it in a few blog posts.

      The gap, imo, is skill level and creativity. US vs Argentina game illustrated this very well.

      I think there are several contributing factors to that gap, but I believe one is that our kids aren’t kicking plastic bottles around in the dirt when they have nothing better to do and thus, they aren’t developing their foot skills at an early age (like from age 2), so our pool of best athletes start 4 or more years behind their international counterparts.

      Compare that baseball and basketball, where a lot of future elite (and non-elite) are building those skills from an early age in simple games that are embedded in our culture, like playing catch in the backyard or shooting hoops in the driveway.

  2. One of the best soccer player I ever competed with was a kid from South America (I think he was from either Chile or Argentina) of Chinese ancestry. He controlled the ball while running like it was fastened to his shoes with Velcro.

    • Hi Mike – That’s precisely my point. From where he’s from that’s an unremarkable skill called dribbling. It’s as unremarkable to them as dribbling a basketball is to us.

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