I try to keep these missives non-topical in order to give them an evergreen quality. But last night's loss by the men's U.S. national soccer team to Trinidad-Tobago needs to be addressed. The immediate sense of confusion is that America will not have a team playing in the World Cup next year — not that anyone will miss them. They are three and out at best, a nice sideshow to the real competition.
The question of how a nation like the United States could lose to a small island nation — "America versus a country the size of San Diego," as Dan Patrick called it this morning — is the next big question. The quick answer offered by soccer apologists is that if all of America's best athletes played soccer, as they do in many countries around the world, we would surely be a major threat on the international stage. But that begs the question of how a nation of more than 300 million people, of whom less than thousands make it the pro level in football, basketball and baseball, should at least have a few more thousand who might play the beautiful game. It also makes me wonder how the World Track and Field Championships just showcased America's distance running talent — and let's face it, when it comes to picking a sport, most US athletes aren't lining up to run the steeple.
My favorite excuse was that there isn't enough soccer in the urban areas. It isn't enough that the game takes over entire playing fields in the suburbs, pushing out every other youth sport imaginable, installing soccer nets that remain there year round, and convincing young children and their parents that fealty to soccer is the one true path to a college scholarship. Suddenly, these kids are wanting.
I'm a patriot. Tear up every time the National Anthem is played. I'd never dream of taking a knee. But the truth is I'm not torn up about the fortunes of American soccer. As a high school distance coach of many years standing, I know soccer's foundation is deeply flawed. The problem is not at the national level, but at the lowest levels, where it's more about making a buck than building athletes. Youth club soccer coaches lie without apology to children about their futures and push a burnout practice pace that puts evening soccer over family meals and homework.
One commentator this morning lamented that America needs more kids to commit to the sport at a young age, ignorant of the fact that two-sport athletes are the backbone of professional sports. Yet the soccer community swears that children eschew all other sports, even ones with their friends.
In this world of pay-for-play college basketball scandals and myriad other NCAA shockers, I find the soccer community to be the bottom feeders. The truth is that the United States played with arrogance and entitlement against Trinidad-Tobago. They moved at half speed. They scored a goal against themselves, and got what they deserved. But why should last night have been any different than any other day of their competitive lives? These same athletes have been coddled by their club and academy world since the time they first began playing sports, believing the misguided hype that to be among the best in America is to be among the best in the world.
I've lost far too many distance runners to the world of soccer, with both athletes and parents using the excuse that their club coach won't allow them to run. The parents, especially, say it with a subtle smirk on their faces each and every time, as if it is mutually recognized that their child is among the select few that will somehow emerge from youth sports as the shining star. Then they get into their luxury automobile and motor off to soccer practice. I let them go without a fight. Being a great distance runner is about hard work, not entitlement. If a kid doesn't have what it takes to make my team, it's better that he follow the far easier road into soccer, where a mom and dad with a full wallet and the ability to toe the party line will be rewarded with ample playing time for their child. In running it's the stopwatch that does the talking, not the checkbook.
The best kids, the ones I love most, are the ones who try to balance the soccer world and distance running. They're few and far between. Not many can do both. But I love that they try — and I do everything I can to keep them around.
I find it hard to imagine this sort of selection process taking place in Trinidad-Tobago. I just can't. I imagine a world with little entitlement, dusty red dirt soccer pitches, and kids who play the game with hustle and soul, just because they love it.
I can root for that.