Whenever US Soccer fans hear the question, "what if our best athletes played soccer", presumably most of them steam up with anger. While as an entry point posit for non-soccer diehards it might prove to be useful in understanding why the US can't compete with the world's elite teams, for the rest of us every time that question is asked we all wonder whether the true ills of US Soccer's still scatterbrain and mostly broken development can ever be fixed.
With huge popularity across the globe, why don't elite American athletes want to play soccer? pic.twitter.com/fHf6kYkCCR— First Take (@FirstTake) June 30, 2016
First, asking that question assumes that US Soccer players aren't already amazing athletes in their own right, which is patently false. No one who has watched DeAndre Yedlin play at his variety of clubs or for his country has ever thought "what if he was more athletic", for instance. The feats of amazing athletic accomplishment on a soccer field don't show up in the same way they might on a basketball court or a football field, because soccer is as much a test of endurance as it anything else. Just because LeBron James is a freak athlete doesn't mean that he'd fit on a soccer field, or that Usain Bolt would be quality on the pitch because he can run at blazing speed over short distances and at short times. Athleticism is one part of the equation in creating a great soccer player, but it isn't the only element, though in this country, it seems to be valued over tactical and technical acumen, as the theory that "if our best athletes played soccer, we'd win" shows.
"Just because you're a great athlete doesn't mean you're going to transform yourself into a great soccer player," Earthquakes coach Dominic Kinnear told Howler Magazine in April. US teams of the past were certainly physically capable, and their endurance and athleticism proved tough to crack for teams that were more set in their ways and susceptible on the counter. The 2002 World Cup Team with young DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, and the 2009 Confederations Cup runners-up, the two most successful US national teams in recent history, were athletic specimens compared to their opposition, and it was that which propelled them forward. But, as with any soccer nation, it's become time for US soccer as a whole to evolve it's style away from endurance, defending and counter-attacking.
In each of the four major American sports, there are prototypical builds and figures for what those athletes should look like. But in soccer, in one game someone can go from watching Peter Crouch to Sebastian Giovinco and never bat an eye once. All sports inherently blend athleticism and a mental capacity to think and read the game, but in soccer, that mental game is now more important than ever. As Johan Cruyff once said, "You play football with your head. Using your feet won't be sufficient."
Thanks to what is valued in sports in this country, naturally, the first question asked of US Soccer when it fails to achieve the level this country does in other major sports is, "what would happen if LeBron James, or Cam Newton, or Bryce Harper played soccer?", with the immediate (and wrong) assumption that the US would be dominant coming soon after. No one has ever watched Lionel Messi, Thomas Muller, Andrea Pirlo or Xavi and thought these players weren't athletic specimens in their own right, but that combination of brain and brawn has propelled them to becoming transcendent in their sport. Certainly, players like Ronaldo, Raheem Sterling or on the other end of the spectrum Romelu Lukaku are athletic freaks of their own but they can process the game at levels that those with similar builds or athletic gifts can't, which is why they are successful. Not every soccer player has to be an Olympic sprinter and a marathon runner combined to be successful, because not every coach is Marcelo Bielsa and demands his team run for each and every of the 90 minutes in a game.
As the sport permeates more and more in this country, better coaching will come to academies and clubs that demand it. Those who are at those clubs and academies will receive better coaching and training from coaches and technical directors that weren't present before, and since this country is 325 million people deep, the odds of finding players that aren't "athletic" in the conventional sense is small. For so long at youth levels, US soccer has been buoyed by great athletes who lose their way once they face players of better technical and tactical training. That's changing, albeit slowly, but once those athletes get the training players around the world are receiving, what might that combination look like?
Which brings the discussion back to the essential question: why do soccer fans safter every major tournament exit still have to see the statement, "what if our best athletes played soccer?" bandied about without any care to cover context or differences between sports. Getting to the highest level of any sport requires a baseline amount of insane athleticism that no mere mortal will be able to touch, and it doesn't matter what sport that is. And to assume that this lack of freak athleticism on the part of the US' best players is the reason why they do not succeed is throwing darts at the wrong target. Players like Yedlin, Sterling are certainly useful, but when the sport is dominated by Messi's, Muller's, Xavi's, etc. the brain becomes mightier than brawn, because at the top level, all players are transcendent athletes anyway.
Based on what the American construction of freak athleticism is, i.e. Bo Jackson or Odell Beckham (the former soccer player), it is not surprising that media who aren't covering soccer every day would try to transpose those ideals and the theory that the best athletes win almost all the time, even in soccer.
It doesn't make them any less wrong.