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.


Comments are closed.