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American soccer’s tone-deaf approach to Latino inclusion is hitting critical mass

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Paul Gardner wants U.S. Soccer to incorporate more Latino players and coaches, which is great. But if we’re going to do that, we should probably stop talking about them like they can’t hear us.

Trinidad & Tobago v United States - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Soccer scouting in America has always been about one major question: how in the world will we find all the talent in this hilariously huge country with so few resources? The answer to that question for decades has been simple: we don’t. We go to the big tournaments around the country that all the traveling youth clubs come to and hope that some day we can bring in more scouts to get a wider net.

This is a poor plan, and the illusion of organization at the youth level in the United States has been one of U.S. Soccer’s greatest achievements. But the thin scouting ranks USSF, MLS, and NCAA soccer combine to create have in large part failed to identify talent across the board, and many, many lower-income and minority players have rushed through the cracks like water through a butterfly net. These are the players who can’t afford to play on a travel team or youth club, where pay-to-play structures price out most non-affluent players, so they don’t get noticed. There isn’t enough money put into talent identification and there aren’t enough scouts.

This is the problem that lies at the heart of the issue Paul Gardner is driving at in his well-intentioned piece for SoccerAmerica. You wouldn’t know it, mostly because Gardner blames the lack of Latino players suiting up for the U.S. on the lack of Latino coaches in the U.S. set-up and the “stylistic” divide that Latino players represent. He ascribes “creativity” as the predominant characteristic of Latino players, while most of American soccer relies on a “Northern European” game that values physical workrate and bruising play. According to Gardner, the failure to incorporate the inherent creativity of Latino players is one of Jurgen Klinsmann’s biggest and most disappointing legacies that he leaves with the U.S. men’s national team.

Fair play to Gardner and everyone else who thinks that Latino players and coaches should be more heavily incorporated into the coaching and development systems of U.S. Soccer and the ranks of professional and amateur teams that fall under its umbrella. They should be. But can we please, for the love of Joe Gaetjens, stop assuming that every single player with a Latin-sounding last name is an attacking midfielder and/or winger that likes to dribble around a bunch, and that we can just magically say the word, hire Latino coaches, and suddenly the U.S. will have a “creative” team?

The main driving force behind the exclusion of many Latino players, in addition to most low-income players of any particular race in the U.S., is economics. The pay-to-play structure has made a lot of money for a lot of different youth clubs, and there has been no great wave of MLS academies or USSF-led development systems that invert that structure to dissuade clubs from keeping pay-to-play in the States. Most of the time, the people who can afford to play (and if they are playing, to be seen and have access to better development structures) are from affluent families. Most of the time, they are white. The “stylistic nuisance” of Latinos having better ball skills and wanting to play a more technical game seems like a red herring. While I can think of many coaches in the U.S. who value things like work rate and “grit,” I also can’t think of many who don’t want players that can move the ball around well. If there are roving packs of youth coaches that don’t want those darn Latinos because their ball skills are so much better than the rest of their gritty team, I must have missed them.

This isn’t an argument about Paul Gardner or anyone else being right or wrong. This is an argument about words, rhetoric, and how we choose to talk about people.

In 2016 America, I can’t overstate the importance of words and how saying something and meaning something are not equivalent. Bruce Arena has been learning this lesson over and over again during the past month. The reason reporters and fans keep bringing up his comments on dual-national players and having an American coach the national team, or making sure everyone is patriotic enough in their decision to play at the international level, is because what his intentions were with those comments (stated after the fact) did not completely align with his words. Everyone listening is forced to either accept his explanation at face value or wonder if he meant everything he said he did the first time. Is that fair? It isn’t fair or un-fair. It’s just the way words work.

Now, with a president-elect who was partially elected on a promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico in order to keep out all the “rapists and murderers” immigrating North, words matter more than ever. If the USSF and the American soccersphere at large is to make an actual push to live up to that “One Nation, One Team” branding they’ve been using for the better part of three years now, and try to consistently include women, Latinos, African-Americans, and any other historically marginalized and disenfranchised group of people, they’re going to have to drop the stereotypes and really examine the things that they say and do.

Just like Gardner said, many MLS teams have seen the light of an exciting Latino attacking midfielder. Many others have seen the benefits of having Latino defenders, and holding midfielders, and goalkeepers as well. You want to see a greater inclusion of Latino influence on the national team? Hire more Latino coaches. Hire more scouts. Tweak and change your development systems that de-emphasize skill and creativity on the field. Bring them all into the fold.

But let’s also talk about Latinos like they’re actually people, too, as opposed to a horde of creatively attack-minded number 10s that U.S. Soccer can co-opt to glory. Maybe if we’re willing to include them not just on the field, but also in the conversation at large, they’ll want to play for the U.S., too.