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Pundits should stop trying to blame “diversity” for USMNT failures

Diversity is unjustly demonized

FOX Sports 2018 FIFA World Cup Celebration Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for FOX Sports'

In the wake of the U.S. Men’s National Team failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, “diversity” has been used as a scapegoat to blame the results on the field. Having a USMNT that embraces diverse players from different racial, socio-economic, ethnic, and other personal identity backgrounds is typically seen as a positive for the team and a crucial element of ensuring that the best players end up making their way to the highest levels of the sport. However, there is an emerging discussion about the dangers of diversity for U.S. Soccer. After the USMNT lost to Costa Rica in New York there were discussions about why it was a bad venue because of the number of Ticos fans in the stadium. After the U.S. lost to Trinidad & Tobago, diversity is again being blamed for a USMNT loss.

Diversity is great, but…

Alexi Lalas is one of the most, if not the most, prominent soccer voices in the U.S. and has long claimed that diversity is not good for the USMNT. He recently expounded on this view during the Men in Blazer’s live “What Happened?” show in New York City, saying, “What makes our country great can pose challenges to actually building a soccer team.” He went on to say that while diversity makes our country great, “with the size [of America] comes this incredible diversity of thought.” He went on to say that having players from one geographic area might make for a more successful, although more exclusive and less inclusive, team, which is consistent with what he told the New York Times last December.

Bruce Arena added a variation on this theme during his oddly-timed studio appearance during the Fox Sports broadcast of the USMNT friendly against Portugal on Tuesday when he asserted that, “I think our system has to find a way to get younger players on the field. Major League Soccer is predominantly international players now.” When Lalas suggested that MLS create a rule making teams, of which three are in Canada, play those who can represent the USMNT, Arena said, “It’s certainly a thought.”

There are several things about Lalas’ and Arena’s statements that don’t make a lot of sense. For example, Lalas has said that diversity is a strength for America, except for this one, solitary example where it isn’t, which is an odd contradiction that he doesn’t explain. What’s even more puzzling about Lalas’ point is that he is conflating racial, ethnic, and economic diversity with stylistic variety on the field. As he said in the NYT interview, “This has nothing to do with whether you speak English or where you were born or your nationality or ethnic background or anything like that. It’s just, a lot of times, about geography, where you grew up.”

However, where a player is born, their ethnicity, or ability to speak English does not exist within a vacuum. What’s more, who represents the national team, and why, in this country is much more connected to issues of exclusion based on race and wealth, as the Guardian outlined last year, than Lalas acknowledges. He discounts the way that being from an underrepresented background in the upper levels of soccer in the U.S. excludes players by means that are beyond their control. By conflating social diversity and variation in soccer styles, Lalas is masquerading exclusion as colorblindness.

It turns out diversity is great in soccer too…

The evidence is against Lalas and Arena. Before the 2014 World Cup, the Washington Post published a study that concluded, “There is a positive relationship between diversity and performance that is visible even among the very best teams in the world. Teams that eschew international talent to cultivate solely homegrown are likely to come up short on the world’s biggest stage.” The article went on to say, “Surprisingly, we find no evidence of diminishing returns to diversity. It almost always helps to enhance the pool of styles available on the field.”

The study also spoke to Arena’s comments about restricting foreign players in MLS noting, “It is possible, though, that players who compete in national leagues with more culturally diverse teams may benefit from diversity’s spillover effects. If this is the case, then the German national team may have an edge in the competition, as their national league, the Bundesliga, is currently soccer’s most diverse.” If diversity was used as the predictor of who would win the World Cup in 2014, (this article was published before the tournament) it would have accurately picked Germany as a winner with fellow finalists Argentina listed as another country greatly benefiting from diversity. Lalas and Arena seem to have lost sight of this or never thought of considering it at all.

The reason that diversity is a strength, as the Washington Post study illustrates, is that it leverages abilities that one player has against weaknesses of others. The youth system in the U.S. has been criticized for developing big strong athletes and not soccer players. The puzzle that needs to be solved isn’t how to make the team more homogeneous, it is how to put those diverse elements together in a way that best uses what players are good at and compensates for what they are lacking. This is not an easy fix and the youth development system in the U.S. is arguably rigged against making the national team program stronger and more diverse.

Belaboring a factually incorrect point

Lalas and Arena aren’t alone in their opinions. In 2015 Abby Wambach said the U.S. was using foreign-born Americans because the youth system in the country is not as good as it is in Germany and that the foreign-born players do not care about playing for America, comments Landon Donovan sided with. Earlier this year, Tim Howard walked back comments that foreign-born USMNT players weren’t passionate about playing for team.

While they are not only wrong about the foreign-born players, the point that players need to be more passionate or that the youth system needs to be improved could be made without making discriminatory statements. Similarly, Alexi Lalas can make the point that the US needs more cohesion, or identity, or whatever it is he is trying to say without making claims that he has no evidence for while scapegoating diversity.

Whether it is Alexi Lalas, Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Bruce Arena, or Abby Wambach, blaming diversity is clumsy and factually incorrect. Aside from that, it isn’t going to get the U.S. better at soccer. No national team manager is going to call in a roster of only players from Southern California or any other homogeneous geographic area if for no other reason than Christian Pulisic is from Pennsylvania and Weston McKennie is from Texas.

Some fans also fall into this trap too, as Charles Boehm of noted. After the U.S. lost to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena, social media lit up with those claiming that the pro-Ticos crowd in the stadium was why the team lost, even calling for ways to keep those fans out of USMNT matches in the future. These claims underscore how fans may take for granted the contributions of Latinx-Americans and other people from diverse cultures to the sport in this country. Not to mention that soccer would not be where it is today in the country without those past and continuing contributions and would be hurt by turning fans off through excluding people from attending games. The crowd obviously wasn’t why the team lost and the episode was an ugly reminder of how American fans can embrace exclusionary rhetoric just as easily as players, coaches, and pundits.

We must change how we talk about diversity in soccer

There is a better way to talk about improving the USMNT without blaming its struggles on the diversity of the team. This is especially pertinent since the team does a poor job at representing America’s diversity at the national team level.

What is dangerous about saying that diversity is not a strength is that it justifies diverting resources from growing diversity in the sport. Based on Lalas’ ideas about diversity, those resources should not be used to invest in something that is not going to strengthen, and even weakens, the national team. It is not so much that the idea “scares the bejesus out of people,” as Lalas claims, and more that it is factually incorrect and justifies perpetuating the legacy of racial and ethnic discrimination in sports and soccer that MLS and USSF are just now taking steps to remedy.

It is important to step back and think critically about assumptions that exist about issues like diversity, race, gender, class, and how these subjects interact within soccer. Like it or not, they do not simply go away when a ball is kicked and a game begins. Whether it is Alexi Lalas saying that diversity is bad, Bruce Arena calling for a limit to foreign players in MLS, or fans demonizing the entire city of New York for not being American enough, it seems like the deeper implications below surface level reactions aren’t considered.

Thinking about how these sentiments are misguided, confused, and exclusionary at best, and xenophobic and racist at worst is important. It does not seem like Lalas, Arena, or those discussing where the USMNT should play home games, in most cases, are racist. However, it is clear that they aren’t considering how what they are saying is exclusionary and how their statements are harmful to soccer in the U.S. as a whole.