Team USA and the State of the (Soccer) Nation

Photo by Thomas Hawk on flickr.com

Among the many common critiques of American soccer is the idea that we’ve managed to invert the traditional roots of the game: in most parts of the world football is a diverse sport of the people, but in the US soccer is a homogenous ‘country club’ sport for the suburban elite.  The US soccer system, according to this popular narrative, restricts the sport’s power structures in ways that exclude our best “athletes” (which is often code for low-income minorities).  I’d like to suggest, however, that after carefully considering the US’s preliminary World Cup roster—the 30 men that ostensibly best “represent” the American system—the actual story is a bit more complicated.

Take, as an example of the popular narrative, ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap introducing an E:60 video segment celebrating Clint Dempsey: “Generally in this country, the soccer players we produce they’re suburbanite kids who played in these regimented leagues.  Clint Dempsey is kind of an altogether different story.  Clint Dempsey comes from very humble origins, Nacogdoches Texas, and the way that he developed required enormous sacrifice on his family’s part…”  Yet, taking nothing away from his dedicated family, the moral of Dempsey’s American soccer story seem to me open to interpretation.

Dempsey’s family was certainly not wealthy.  But neither do they seem desperately poor, nor far outside the American mainstream.  His Dad, we learn in the video segment, worked for a railroad and in construction, his Mom was a nurse, his sister was a high-level tennis player, and Clint eventually hooked up with the Dallas Texans elite youth club before spending three years at Furman University (an excellent private liberal-arts school in South Carolina).  His family did indeed have to make sacrifices, which Clint claims included giving up their boat and selling some of their gun collection, and he did have to scrap to develop his game in the backyards and parks of Nacogdoches.  But overall this could also be spun as a very “normal” American story—a hardworking family leveraging their resources (and spending a lot of time commuting) to provide opportunities for a talented and motivated child who learns to improvise by necessity.

It all depends, I suppose, on what we mean by “normal” for the elite of American soccer—a question I was inspired to ask of the US 30 man roster partially by a short bit in the Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski book Soccernomics.  In that book they address the question of “Why England Loses and Others Win” by analyzing the rosters of recent England World Cup squads to identify what they call “the problem of exclusion:” “The Englishmen who make it to the top [of the football talent pool] are drawn very largely from one single and shrinking social group: the traditional working class.  The country’s middle classes are mostly barred from professional soccer.  That holds back the national team.”

Kuper and Szymanski’s specific tactic was to tabulate the social class origins of England’s recent World Cup players by charting their father’s jobs (see their ‘Figure 2.1’ below).  Out of the thirty-four players Kuper and Szymanski identify that “eighteen players, or more than half the total, were sons of skilled or unskilled manual laborers.”  On the other end of the social class spectrum, “only five players out of thirty-four…fathers seem to have worked in professions that required them to have an education beyond the age of sixteen.  If we define class by education, then only 15 percent of England players of recent years had ‘middle-class’ origins.”  Because these proportions vastly differ from the total English population (Kuper and Szymanski note that “nowadays, more than 70 percent of Britons stay in school past the age of sixteen”), it seems as though England may be systematically excluding a large pool of potential talent.

Figure 2.1 from Kuper and Szymanski: 'Soccernomics'

For the data nerd in me, this kind of analysis seemed like great fun—particularly since Kuper and Szymanski describe a form of exclusion in England that is diametrically opposite of the popular narrative in American soccer.  So with my limited resources (ie, an internet connection and a quiet Friday night) I made an effort to track down some of the same information about Team USA.  Since most American players aren’t public celebrities to the same degree as English World Cup players, it was a challenge to track down parental careers—but the richness of the soccer blogosphere did offer a pretty good data start.  In fact, there was enough information to tabulate a few other demographics that often come up in discussions of the state of American soccer, including our reliance on the college system, our racial/ethnic mix, and our ability to integrate immigrants.   All of these categories are problematic to define, and any conclusions are necessarily incomplete, but I think they do say something about the state of our soccer nation.

The Family Business?

Looking at the ‘father’s job’ list for Team USA does suggest that we have fewer children of manual laborers than Kuper and Szymanski identified among the fathers of English players.  Otherwise, however, the story for Team USA seems to be one of diversity.  Of the public information I could find (which accounted for the parental occupation/social class of 25 of the 30 players), there were few consistent patterns (see my chart labeled ‘2010 US World Cup 30 Player Roster’ below).

Again acknowledging that social class categories are fuzzy and hard to define (when asked, upwards of 80% of Americans self-identify as ‘middle class’ while less than 1% identify as ‘upper class’), only 7 of the 25 players seem like clear candidates for the high social class end of the scale: Benny Feilhaber and Stuart Holden both had fathers who were oil company executives, Robbie Rogers’ parents were both lawyers, Alejandro Bedoya’s father was a corporate sales director, Brian Ching’s parents seem to have been well-educated researchers, Steve Cherundolo was “raised in upper-middle class north San Diego,” and Oguchi Oneywu’s parents were both successful Howard University graduates.

10 of 25 would seem to better fit in a more familiar middle class, including four with at least one parents who was a school teacher (Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit, Landon Donovan, and Maurice Edu), Jozy Altidore whose father worked as a delivery man for Fed Ex and whose mother was a nurse, Ricardo Clark whose father seems to be a college-educated public works manager, Robbie Findley whose Dad was a computer consultant, Brad Guzan whose father seems to have worked for a suburban Chicago fire department, Jonathan Spector whose father seems to have been a sales rep, and Sacha Kljestan whose father is a construction contractor.

Another 5 of the 25 would seem to better fit in what Kuper and Szymanski define as ‘working class,’ including the aforementioned Clint Dempsey, DeMarcus Beasley’s parents in auto parts manufacturing, Herculez Gomez whose father “works at a car dealership in Las Vegas,” José Francisco Torres—who seems to have been raised in a working class part of Longview Texas based on a ESPN Desportes documentary video, Tim Howard (whose father was a truck driver, and mom a ‘project manager’), and Eddie Johnson who was raised by a single mother employed as a ‘child-care specialist’ while his absent father served in the military.

Finally, there seem to be two full-time soccer fathers: the obvious one being Michael Bradley’s father/US National Team coach, and the other being Edson Buddle’s father Winston—a former player from Jamaica who runs a soccer academy program in New York.

All in all, trying to sort through these statistics to compare with Soccernomics both reminded me of the difficulty of defining social class and made me think US Soccer is less exclusive than I would have previously believed.  This group of US players seems to run the American social class gamut: in between the occasional extremes of an oil executive or a truck driver is a critical mass of teachers, nurses, and salesmen.  That certainly does not mean US soccer can be content with current levels of access and diversity: the future of the game will always depend upon a broad base of players and genuine opportunities for talent to show itself.  But it just might mean US Soccer has made some progress.

College v Pro?

Another peculiar way in which American soccer has looked exclusive is in its globally distinct reliance on college players.  When you ask serious American fans about the 1990 World Cup, for example, the standard excuse is something like: “What could you expect with a team of college boys?”  There is, of course, some truth to that excuse: there was no MLS in 1990, few American success stories in Europe, and most of the team had played most of their competitive soccer in college.  That has changed.

It is still the case that a majority of the US players have attended college for at least one year (the 9 out of 30 who have not include Altidore, Beasley, Bradley, Donovan, Gomez, Howard, Johnson, Spector, and Torres), but only 6 of the 30 actually attended college for all four years (Bedoya, Bornstein, Ching, DeMerit, Findley, and Hahnemann).  For better or worse, the average time in college soccer among all 30 players works out to slightly less than two seasons.  Instead, 14 of the players who skipped college or left early took advantage of the MLS program that used to be called ‘Project-40’ and is now called ‘Generation Adidas.’

In general, however, I’m one who thinks and hopes that the college game will always have some place in American soccer.  Despite being globally odd and obviously flawed, college soccer fits in American culture and seems to me integral to ensuring that players have opportunities to fulfill their potential both on and off the field.  In fact, one of the odd facts I stumbled across in my research for this analysis was that Team USA owes at least an indirect debt to our colleges and universities: several of US players are from immigrant families where the father initially came to the States and played college soccer (including Alejandro Bedoya’s father, who came from Columbia and played at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Ricardo Clark’s father, who came from Guyana by way of Trinidad and played at New York Polytechnic, and Oguchi Onyewu’s father, who came from Nigeria and played at Howard University).

Immigrants and Ethnic Diversity?

Because US Soccer has long had a reputation as a bastion of white privilege, the racial and ethnic make-up of the 2010 World Cup roster also offers some interesting storylines.  Of course, in this age of Barack Obama we all know that racial and ethnic categories are often complicated hybrids—who counts as what often depends more on social identity than on absolute categories.  Nevertheless, the census still collects the data (even if a significant minority mock the question by identifying as ‘Vulcan’).

So if we temporarily ignore the complicated nuances the broad numbers from the 30 man roster include 14 White/Caucasian players (47%), 9 Black/African-American players (30%), 6 with Latino/Hispanic parentage (20%), and 1 Asian-American (Brian Ching is the son of a “Chinese American father and Caucasian American mother”).  In contrast, current estimates of the US population as a whole are 65% White, 15% Latino/Hispanic, 12% Black/African-American, and 4% Asian.  Overall, then, contrary to what you might expect “minorities” are actually disproportionately represented on the US national team.

Now for some of the complicated nuance.  Those numbers include as Latino/Hispanic Benny Feilhaber (the son of an Austrian-Brazlian father who is identified as Jewish and Brazilian mother—and Brazilians are often not included as “Hispanic”), Jonathan Bornstein (the son of a White father identified as Jewish and a Mexican mother), Carlos Bocanegra (whose father was born in Mexico but grew up in the US), Alejandro Bedoya (whose father is an American educated Columbian immigrant), and José Francisco Torres (the son of a father born in Mexico and a White/Caucasian mother).  The only one who is relatively straight-forward to define as Latino/Hispanic is Herculez Gomez—the son of two parents born in Mexico.  So while we can all agree that US Soccer needs to do more to integrate the many Latino/Hispanic players that often play outside the conventional player development system, it’s tough to know exactly what that means.

Likewise when thinking about access for Black/African-American players, what should be the metric of progress?  Having a roster with 30% Black/African-American players (9 of 30), compared to a US population that is about 12% Black/African-American sounds pretty good in terms of providing access.  But then you’d have to note that 7 of those 9 are the sons of immigrants from Haiti (Altidore), Jamaica (Buddle), Guyana (Clark), Nigeria (Edu and Onyewu), Trinidad (Findley), and even Hungary (Tim Howard’s mother—though his father is African-American).  Is the US system succeeding at providing opportunities to Black/African-American players, or is it simply relying on the children of immigrants?  And does that difference matter?  (As something of a side-note, that same question is sometimes a topic of controversy in the halls of academia—where many Ivy League schools have produced impressive growth in black student enrollment by relying largely on immigrants and their children)

The success of the children of immigrants is ultimately the most striking pattern in my analysis: the US 30 player roster really does seem to represent the old cliché of America as a melting pot.  By my count 60% of Team USA players (18 of the 30) have at least one parent who was born abroad (even including Landon Donovan—whose father was born in Canada).  In contrast, only two players were themselves born abroad (Stuart Holden, who was born in Scotland, and Benny Feilhaber, who was born in Brazil), and estimates for the whole US suggest the population includes only about 13% foreign-born residents of all types.  So what does that mean?

Interpretations?

Whether looking at social class, education, or racial/ethnic heritage, Team USA looks remarkably like the diverse nation it represents.  Does that mean the story here is one of success, with the US soccer system providing resources and opportunities to a vibrant mix of Americans?  Or is it a story of how soccer’s place firmly outside the mainstream of “American sports’ makes for a somewhat random pattern of access, excessively dependent on a combination of our peculiar college set-up and immigrant parents who’ve figured out how to work the system?  Is Team USA reasonably diverse because of the US soccer system, or in spite of it?

The answer is probably: both.  Comparing the demographics of the US player pool with the stats on English players offered by Kuper and Szymanski offers space for cautious optimism: the American players come from a diverse enough social class background to suggest that there is more than one route to the pinnacle of the US soccer pyramid.  Likewise, comparing the US player pool with the demographics of the US as a whole demonstrates a healthy and somewhat representative blend of races, ethnicities, and immigrants—it is a team I plan on being proud to root for.

But at the same time we all know it is still not good enough.  Despite US Soccer’s 12 year old plan to win the 2010 World Cup, the US is not expected to be a serious contender in South Africa.  We still don’t adequately share the game between all the diverse communities that make us a melting pot, or a mosaic, or whatever metaphor best describes the latest iteration of the American experiment.  We still don’t have enough players like Clint Dempsey.  Whatever that means.

Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.


36 thoughts on “Team USA and the State of the (Soccer) Nation

  1. Andrew

    I’m not sure if that’s a serious question, but I did look again at my table and it is a bit confusing. The articles I found about Tim Howard’s background describe his father as “African-American” and his mother as “a Caucasian woman born in Hungary.” The articles also note he was raised primarily by his mother, but that his father was also present in his life and facilitated his love of sports. So it gets back to that complicated Obama question of identity, and what counts as “black.” That’s a challenging question, well beyond my scope here (which was more to look at diversity writ large), so I suppose I’m guilty of some of the same over-simplifications I like to criticize…

    That’s probably way more than Jeff wants to know, but I don’t want to confuse things.

  2. FootballMS

    I don’t agree with this article, IN my opinion childeren in UK have a footballing upringing regardless of their social class or fathers careers. i think the issue is more that different upringings leads to different mental strengths

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  5. Don

    Great article. I do have some reservations about the conclusions. Professional sports are dominated by those from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds, whether class or ethnically based, while “amateur” sports such as rowing, lacrosse, squash, etc are dominated by those from relatively privileged backgrounds.. Why should this be so? To succeed in professional sports has great rewards, but is a very risky choice. Professional sports tends to be what some economists called “winner take all”. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to choose the sports course, because they generally have fewer alternative options available to them. We pride ourselves (rightfully I think) on the opportunity structure, esp. education, available to the disadvantaged. However, the reality is that eveyone may be equal, but some are more equal than others, which is why higher education, for example, is dominated by the children of highly educated parents and the professions are dominated by the children of professionals. In other words, those from relatively privileged backgrounds are likely to put there efforts into these more assured payoffs. What is clearly evident is that when one compares our players to those from Brazil, Argentina, England, Scotland, Italy, etc., those countries draw much more heavily from their relatively disadvantaged.

  6. Matthew N

    I couldn’t get past the very first premise the article is based on. No one says that the USSF or any entity “restricts” entry into the sport’s power structures. The reason there aren’t more low income or minority players is because those individuals are playing American football, baseball, or basketball. I don’t mean to degrade your work since you obviously put some into it, but by setting up your argument with a clearly false premise, you are making an argument that doesn’t need to be made.

  7. Matthew N

    Reading more of it (which I didn’t want to do because of the premise this article is based on), I find your conclusions to be wholly disingenuous. This article could not be more off the mark in my opinion.

  8. Matthew N

    Sorry to clog up the comments, but from someone identified as an academic, I would really expect more. It seems as if you are tailoring your argument (and the data you use) to fit a predetermined conclusion. As scientists, we must resist the urge to speculate on the results of our study and instead objectively analyze our real data. I believe many would question the way in which you paired profession with social class. I also am not sure how I feel about the Anglocentric presentation of race (although I suppose you must keep your audience in mind). Normally I really dig your stuff, Andrew, but this feels like something that was designed to feel academic, but clearly feels amateur.

  9. Andrew

    Don- excellent points. I don’t disagree with your disagreements. The only thing I would say is that the fact other countries rely more on their “disadvantaged” populations to feed the national team raises interesting questions about what it means to “represent” a country. And it may in an odd way limit the player pool–at least that was the point Kuper and Szymanski make about England.

    Matthew N- no problem if you disagree with what I present as a “popular narrative” and “common critique” of the US soccer system, but I’m a bit confused by some of your other comments. You seem to be saying that you didn’t really read the article because you disagree with what you assume the article will say, and then criticize the article for making assumptions. I actually tabulated the data with a pretty open mind, and was genuinely surprised by two things: one, that the team was actually more diverse than one might think considering the reputation of soccer in America (as I noted towards the end of the article, “Team USA looks remarkably like the diverse nation it represents”); and two, the high proporation of second generation immigrants. For me, those conclusions came only from making an effort to “objectively analyze real data.”

    I do note several times that the data and the categories are imperfect. I realize I tread a bit of a thin line by soccer blogging as a hobby, and identifying as an academic by profession. But I don’t ever mean to suggest that these blog posts–put together over a week-end–are the types of rigorous work I’d present as real scholarship. I do try to draw on social science in my soccer blogging in an effort to offer a potentially interesting perspective, but maybe I need to do more thinking about how I could unintentionally blur the lines.

    To some of the other points, in my experience lots of people do think that soccer in America is somewhat restricted–perhaps not intentionally or explicitly, but as just one example have you ever heard people critique the ODP system? I’ve heard and read many complaints that to make a state team as a youth player you have to already be playing with the ‘right’ club team, that Latino players have historically be ignored, that it costs too much to travel for try-outs and practices, etc., etc.. One might disagree with that–but it is a ‘popular narrative’ out there in soccer circles.

    On the use of profession as a proxy for social class–that’s actually pretty common in social science. But as I note in the piece, social class is notoriously difficult to define. And, in fact, I explain that the main reason I used ‘father’s job’ was because it allowed for a comparison with the way Kuper and Szymanski analyze England in their book ‘Soccernomics.’ I consider it like many social science variables, unquestionably imperfect but also interesting enough to be worth interpretation and discussion.

    And I do appreciate the chance to discuss alternative interpretations–the only thing that kind of stings here is being called ‘disingenuous’ as if I have some cynical motivation. I write these kinds of things because I’m genuinely curious about what matters for youth development, particularly related to cultures of the game, and I feel pretty confident that my motivation is simple: to “adequately share the game between all [America's] diverse communities” and to be a tiny little part of a US soccer system that works well.

  10. Matthew N

    I think I let my strong reaction to the first claim color my response to the rest. I really did think for a moment (I think it is because this is a blog and not an “official” sort of site) that you did have a cynical motivation, although of what I am not sure. Sorry for being unnecessarily critical. Even though I disagree with what your analysis, the raw data is certainly cool to know.

  11. MH

    Hey Andrew,

    I say f*ck MatthewN. He can’t even put his thoughts together

    in

    one

    entry.

    So maybe your article isn’t perfect. It was thought provoking and interesting. I think your methodology is sound and you obviously had to make a few assumptions to parallel Kuper and Szymanski’s work. That’s not a crime.

    Next time, please include footnotes in either MLA or Chicago style and provide a full bibliography so we, who reside in the lunatic fringe of the blog-o-sphere, can verify your sources. Your tenure will be riding on it.

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  13. GoEarthquakes

    Really really really good post. This belongs in Sports Illustrated or FourFourTwo. Keep up the good work.

  14. Blake

    I read Soccernomics, and the problem of exclusion was one of the weakest chapters. No one is excluding anyone from soccer, either here or in the England. It’s just that many disenfranchised British kids see soccer as the only way out, whereas more privileged kids pick the easier route, college. Same goes for NBA and NFL here and the high number of middle-class college grads. No exclusion. Rather, the so-called “excluded” simply lack the faith to train and compete against different-looking people.

  15. timmyg

    Blake — true, no one person is excluding anyone from soccer, or American football, or any other sport. However, things called time and money are.

    I don’t know enough about the European sporting system, but all American sports outside of those associated with public schools are pay to play in various capacities.

    Sports like lacrosse are quite expensive because of equipment, tournament, league, and camp costs. Ice Hockey is also equally expensive, but also requires a huge time commitment because of 530am and such practice times. Soccer, basketball and baseball require little equipment costs, but if you want to play AAU or club or anything high calibre, you have to may league and travel costs — again, time and money.

    What soccernomics should have done in the “excluded” chapter was find kids who wanted to play soccer but couldn’t because their parents or guardians couldn’t support it. It would have been extremely time consuming but quite revealing.

  16. Seth

    We also have to look at the ethnic/socioeconomic breakdown in comparison with where the players are from. Most are from soccer hot beds (Cali, Florida, midatlantic region, North Texas). It’s also interesting to look at the fact that Hercules Gomez being considered the only through and through hispanic, and Brian Ching being the only Chinese-American are from outside those traditional hotbeds (Nevada and Hawaii respectively). The real question is how well do these areas incorporate immigrates and people of non-white backgrounds? In the end, I feel like these hotbed areas are the ones that support the idea of “big, privileged, mostly-white clubs.” A very interesting piece, about a very complicated and often ill defined subject matter. Well done.

  17. CameronM

    Thank you so much for putting this together. I’ve been pondering this same issue for years. This is most likely due to the fact that I’m a traditional (10th generation or something) white guy who married a girl from Costa Rica and now we have two boys that I’d love to have play soccer. So, it got me thinking about the players in the national team pool and how they are disproportionately born of at least one foreign parent. I would have loved for you to explore this issue more as it relates to the future of US Soccer.

    If the distribution of players now is a reflection of our immigrant past (say 20 to 40 years), then what will the team look like in 20 years from now? Will the team be “better” than we are now or “worse?” It would be easy to conclude that our success now is due to the foreign influence of the parents of the players. But, like you, I’m not entirely sure that’s true. But if it is true, you could conclude that if the rates of immigration go down (which seem like a reasonable prediction especially after what’s happening in AZ), the US MNT will be less successful than we are now.

    Of course, you could also say that the success of players with foreign parents now is due to filling the gap that existed for the last 20 years in soccer infrastructure in this country. That gap has been slowly filled with the youth program in Bradenton as well as countless programs across the country.

    One last comment to the negative commenters, YES the soccer programs in this country are excluding kids. Its actually been well documented. You only need to look at some of the USSF programs designed to combat this.

    Anyway, just some more thoughts and questions. This is a fascinating topic and I’m glad you wrote it.

  18. Sgc

    Too easy to get hung up on the terminology. “Exclusion” is of course not literally true, and maybe the term should be thrown out as an exaggeration–but in the US (so goes the popular narrative), the infrastructure seems to exist for the middle and upper income kids to play soccer (especially competitively) moreso than the poorer kids, whereas in England it seems to be almost the reverse.

    On the one hand, highly competitive soccer in the US seems to schedule around and take a definite backseat to education, whereas in England it doesn’t. Conversely, in England you don’t have to ‘pay to play’ at competitive levels, where in the US, classically, you do.

    Question is, looking at the Senior National Teams, is there anything that bears it out at that level? Interestingly I’d say schoolteachers probably qualify more in the blue-collar/working-class bracket (it’s quite debatable of course–your average teacher needs a lot more in the way of education than your average auto mechanic, which suggests white collar, but it doesn’t pay all that well and you spend a lot of time standing up, etc), which would mean even more. (Side note, I’d bet some arm of the US Government has quasi-’official’ breakdowns of what jobs tend to earn and which qualify as ‘blue-collar’ for research purposes.)

    Of course, what’s the breakdown of class (and ethnicity, though you talk about that one more) once you ‘factor out’ the immigrants? Methodologically, we probably don’t get enough data from one World Cup cycle to answer the questions. But I’d like to keep tabs on this and do some multi-cycle analyses, when you might get yourself a clearer answer.

  19. Badgerbreeze

    Andrew, Great bits of information. I do take exception to your comment about the ODP program. This US Youth Soccer ODP program has been under attack by the “super clubs” for years. There are clubs who offer comparisons related to cost and what they consider “on field ” training time. They often fail to address the diverse competitions and travel experiences the ODP program offers the regional pool players.
    The state teams have demonstrated a greater level of minority participation. This has resulted in a much larger number of minority players on the various age group regional teams. These numbers have shown a considerable increase in Latin and African American players. The pool of players who have become a part of the US Youth programs is more diverse than it was just a few short years ago.
    Players will make their own decision how far they want to take their game, with more television exposure, MLS expansion and if we see more national team success interest in top level play may be better understood by the soccer population. I fail to see what a father or mother do for a living as a measure that contributes to this success, the skill, training and exposure to various levels of age appropriate competitions will drive interest. These players will be discovered be it by their US Youth Soccer, Academies, clubs or college participation. More eyes are watching now than any other time in American soccer history.

  20. soccerreform

    From this article, I’d say you could write a killer piece on why MLS lags so far behind the popularity of the game in the USA.

    There’s only one way to the top of the pyramid here in the land of the free $40 million and a wink and a nod from NFL minders at MLS. It’s closed to everyone else.

  21. Andrew

    Thanks to everyone for the continued interesting comments. And thanks to Sgc particularly for pointing out that some of the disagreement here may come down to terminology and phrasing. Whether true or not, there is a “popular narrative” out there suggesting American soccer has historically been homogeneous. I wanted to use the US roster to test that out (though as Sgc and CameronM also point out, one WC cycle alone only provides a little bit of data–it would be more interesting to look over different cycles. I’d also think it might differ some at the youth national team level, and — as Seth suggests — to look by locale according to who actually plays soccer in this country. But that would all take time and resources to test–maybe someday…).

    In the end I was actually surprised to find more heterogeneity than I expected. Which led me to offer some tentative credit to our progress (I explicitly say there seems to be “more than one route to the pinnacle of the US soccer pyramid”), while also noting there is room for improvement. I think of that as really a pretty moderate position. But maybe I didn’t use terminology that made that clear to everyone.

    Badgerbreeze also makes an interesting point about ODP having the potential to be more equal opportunity than many elite youth clubs. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it makes sense as a possibility when ODP is working well. It does, however, take some attention and some awareness to make sure it does work well (something that is true of all social systems and soccer cultures). I would just note that my earlier comment was merely using ODP as one of many possible examples of a target for criticism (a part of that “popular narrative”). In the comment I wasn’t necessarily endorsing or contradicting that criticism–just noting that it exists.

  22. KT

    And every single thing ever written, spoken, or thought about can be brought back around to soccerreform’s premise that MLS is bad and that once you “open the pyramid,” we’re all sitting on rainbows and unicorns.

    Which is, of course, complete and utter bullshit.

  23. Earl of WA

    Read Soccernomics, so had to read this article and I really enjoyed the comparisons being made. I was surprised at the results of your research as well.

    One other thing to consider, and a possible bit to research as well, it that when looking at the youth development systems here in the USA, there is often some confusion between the men’s game and the women’s game. I think the stereotypes indicated in this posting about soccer being more a higher class opportunity is more relevant to girls than boys. It would be interesting to compare the data between the women’s national team to the men’s national team and see what it shows.

    Being the father of a teenage daughter currently going through the college-recruiting gamut, there is a difference in the youth systems for girls and boys. The pipeline for the women’s game seems to be happy the way it is because they’re #1 in the world, but the pipeline for the men’s game is constantly re-evaulating and changing because the USA is far behind the top dogs.

    Regardless, enjoyed this piece and for the sake of healthy discussion and dialogue, always agree to disagree.

  24. Andrew

    I’m glad that Earl of WA brings up the contrast with the US women’s game—I agree that it looks to be significantly less diverse than the men’s game, and I actually did an analysis of WPS rosters a few weeks ago that came to a similar conclusion:

    http://pitchinvasion.net/blog/2010/04/12/per-capita-player-production-in-american-women%E2%80%99s-soccer-on-wps-rosters-and-soccer-opportunities/
    (I still haven’t figured out how to hyperlink in these comments–sorry)

    And I agree that part of it may be the relative positions in world soccer—the US women can afford to be more complacent. But I also think another really interesting factor is the immigrant influence. In many (though certainly not all) immigrant communities it is normative for boys to play soccer, but not for girls. I have a sense that this ends up making a pretty significant difference for contrasts in the diversity of the men’s and women’s game (I also have some data supporting this from HS sports in my home state—but it’s not yet ready for public consumption!).

  25. DocMagoo

    It’s true what an earlier poster said about all kids (males) in England exposed to playing football. I think every boy from 5 years old onwards plays football at school in PE at a minimum until an age they are able to opt out….teens. Anyway, I feel that the reason why so many English national team players are from working class backgrounds is due to their parents and their ‘guidance’. Most ‘middle class’ parents push their kids to do well in school and aim for university and a career, etc, and to not put too much hope in becoming a pro athlete. Also, many middle class families have more money and therefore can expose there kids to more expensive past times (football is essentially free in the UK to play and only a small cost to join a local club outside of school). So a lot of the middle/upper class pool get distracted into other sports (cricket, rugby, athletics (track and field), rowing, sailing, tennis, golf, etc, etc) that they are relatively good in (because less people do it) and just as fun and perhaps less social (you need to have a fair few friends to play footy in the streets, etc, but not so much to play golf, tennis, etc!!) and competitive/violent (as a kid it can get pretty rough especially if you haven’t had a growth spurt yet…..at least it was when I was in school in the 90s). Plus these other traditional English sports have a historically middle/upper class background (cricket, rugby union, etc) for numerous reasons and so tend to exclude the working classes. For example, most schools don’t play cricket for example (public (termed private in the USA), selective schools (e.g. grammar schools) and a few others that have the space and money, etc)….and this is similar for rugby union (cheap to play but is associated with the same ‘class’ and educational institutions as cricket). Due to the class system in the UK this will also translate to the local clubs i.e. the rugby/cricket/tennis/golf club will be dominated by middle/upper class kids and their parents which is generally a deterrent for the working classes. This also results in football being almost the only ‘escape route’ for the working classes.

    This is where I think highlights why the American system is flawed. The great European players have basically dedicated themselves from a very young age to practicing and living football and as a result sacrificing education in most cases to become good (and this is not considered a big deal in their social history/background….look at the educational background for the current English squad. I would be surprised if any of them passed 5+ GCSEs, and reckon none have any A-Levels (normally need these to get to uni)). The American system favours kids going through college and when they come out (20+ years of age) they are basically ‘old’ and still have not been exposed to playing with and against great players. You will find it very hard to find a pro (even the yanks, as most opted out of college…Spector, Howard, Altidore…..Dempsey a notable exception) in the premiership that has not been exposed to professional level football from the mid teens onwards (i.e. affiliated with a pro club and getting exposure to seeing the first team players around, etc, playing for the reserves (teams that are probably better than most, if not all, MLS teams and often include superstars coming back from injury))…..in the US this doesn’t happen until they are in their 20s in most cases. This is too late because it is another few years for them to ‘learn’ what English, Italian, Spanish, etc, kids have been learning since 15 or so…..and even then they won’t peak until mid-late 20s.

    I think another problem is/was the lack youth programs at your MLS clubs. If a kid ‘knows’ at the age of 16, 17, 18 that he is going to make it (most will know by 18) then they can dedicate their life to their future profession. For a kid to go to college get a degree see that he can make 100,000 working for Pfizer or less than 30,000 for NY Red Bulls to go in to their squad and maybe make it, most will take the mainstream route. Plus, it is a different kettle of fish……a superstar college player doesn’t mean he is going to make it, look at the NBA, NFL, etc, drafts…..I don’t know too much about these sports but I have noticed that a lot of the top picks (first round or whatever) flop in the big time whereas a fair few from lower down thrive. So basically, after college the US system is back to the state of a 16 year old kid in Europe fighting for his survival in the big time…..only they are 6 years older.

    Thought the blog was very interesting reading and it can all be read so many different ways. BTW, I am an Englishman, born & bred, but have lived in NYC for the last 5+ years and play a lot (4-5 days a week) here and so these observations are from what I have seen here and learnt from friends.

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  27. Guvna

    Nice article. I sort of have a complaint similar to Mathews though. I could write a thesis on why England never wins the euros or wc, and I dont think it has anything to do with whose father was a coal miner, lorry driver, etc. I would imagine the same goes for team USA. Diversity isnt the reason either, as most will agree that the UK team has become very diverse. Rather, I think we have to look at the successful teams and see what helps them the most. The FA discarded their youth academy. the youth treatment in england is thus left in the hands of the various schools, clubs and private groups. Their scouting boils down to looking for the biggest and quickest kids who can kick the ball and exert some type of control over the game relative to their smaller weaker counterparts. Nowehere near enough time is spent on technical work, and the smaller kids and weaker kids are not given the attention they need. End result? The english technique is noticeably lower than their continental counterparts. You even see it in the EPL where brute force and longballs are the bread and butter of the league.

    Contrast that to France and Spain. Very technical players, produced by well established top notch youth academies. They place a premium on precise, and fast ball movement, not power and size. This makes sense because while kids eventually grow up, thus taking care of the power and size issue, technique must be taught.

    The US soccer authorities would do well to follow this model. get kids to learn technique at the earliest time possible, and develop them from there with tactical lessons. All things will flow from there. If the kid grows up to be physically big and fast, he/she will be a superstar since he/she already learned superior technique and tactics at an early age. Without the technique, he/she will just be another big clumsy player with limited use.

    You cant rely on local soccer academies, because they are under too much pressure from parents who simply want their kids to “play” football, as opposed to spending hours leanring the various ways to trap the ball/change direction/head/pivot/etc.

    Just my thoughts. again, a nice article. got me thinking.

  28. footy

    Some thoughts from a Canadian perspective …

    According to Statistics Canada(1)
    1. “sports participation is most prevalent among children from high-income households”.
    2. “Soccer is Number One with kids”

    So, you would think that we here in Canada, we would be producing more soccer player than hockey players in the near future (albeit from well to do families).
    So, I did some digging … I looked at 2008 “Canadian Soccer Association Demographics Report” (2) and Hockey Canada’s 2009 Annual Report (3) and compared the
    player registrations by age groups (U-06/Novice to U-17/Midget) for Male and Females.

    Some observations ..
    - For U-06 Males, soccer registration is very high compared to Hockey (92,681 vs 60,883).
    - By U-08 the participation rate is about equal 65,229 vs 64,850.
    - The situation changes quite dramatically after U10-U17.
    - Hockey continues to grow in numbers – peaking at 83,920 by U-17
    - Soccer participation rates continues to drop after U-10; by U-17 it’s at 52,393

    What this suggests to me is, Hockey will remain the #1 sport in Canada for young males even-though it can cost 3 to 4 times as much as soccer.
    Here in Toronto, soccer clubs charge around $400-$600 for rep teams; whereas for hockey, A/AA teams fees are around $2400-$3000 (AAA – over $5000).

    My thinking is at the earlier ages, ( < U-10) parents are registering their kids into both sports soccer (summer) and hockey (winter), but at some point when they have to make a commitment to select one of sport – they choose hockey over soccer.
    I know for many young hockey players (and their parents), soccer is seen a sport to keep fit during the summer months.

    My general feeling is, that here in Canada and US, our kids are exposed to many sports at the early ages, and once it become competitive, they have make a decision to choose one. If the choice is between soccer and baseball,/basketball/football (American)/hockey, they take one of those over soccer.
    In the rest on the world, soccer is the #1 sport in popularity by fair margin, the best young athletes will gravitate towards soccer.

    1. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-008-x/2008001/article/10573-eng.htm#a2,.
    2. http://www.canadasoccer.com/documents/demographics/2008_demographics_report.pdf
    3. http://www.hockeycanada.ca/index.php/ci_id/63038/la_id/1.htm

  29. Andrea

    Interesting to see how the father’s jobs are a factor. People should never underestimate the value of strong work ethics carried down to the next generation. Now if only I could get my daughter to find a little more ambition!

  30. Lanterne Rouge

    A brilliant article – a far more nuanced analysis than the one on which it is based from the Kuper/Szymanski book. One should also remember that college in the US is a very different part of the social structure than in England. Undergraduate education seems to involve a broad palate of options in the liberal arts style with serious specialization only kicking in at graduate level. UK students tend to concentrate on one academic field as soon as they get to university. Hence, a larger percentage of Americans attend college.

    Also, likely international players are usually identified far earlier and hence rarely get the chance to go to university. Frank Lampard for instance, attended a prestigious school (largely due to the finances garnered from his father being a professional player) but never attended college. He may yet after he retires I guess.

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  33. MOUF

    thank you for using black instead of African-American. it is a judgement based purely off the color of skin so it good to just say it. Its more offensive to assume someones roots by the color of their skin in the first place.