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Aug 26, 2009

Luring more athletes to play soccer the answer?

It's a theory that has achieved almost gospel-like status in the United States. If only the best athletes in the country played soccer, then the most sports-crazed nation on earth would surely dominate the soccer landscape. But is it really that simple, or are there more difficult obstacles facing the advancement of the game in this country?

The assertion attempts to answer the age-old questions of: Why isn't the U.S. among the world's elite soccer-playing nations? And why hasn't the U.S. produced a globally recognized player on par with Lionel Messi or Kaka? Given the money and attention placed on basketball, baseball, hockey and American football in the U.S., as well as the country's success in various Olympic sports, the competition for athletes is no doubt intense. And some conclude that even in a country of more than 300 million people and 3.9 million registered youth players, soccer is missing out on the best of the country's athletic gene pool.

"I think when you look at a lot of other countries, [soccer does] get the best athletes in most cases, whereas for us, it's not always the case," said Seattle Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid, who has also coached the U.S. U-20 men's national team. "If you're looking at guys who are point guards in the NBA, or guys who are running backs, defensive backs or wide receivers in the NFL, those are guys who in soccer, athletically, would be a little bit better."

U.S. men's schedule
Sept. 5
U.S. vs. El Salvador
Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

Sept. 9
U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Hasely Crawford Stadium; Port of Spain, Trinidad
7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic

This leaves soccer observers of all stripes to engage in a kind of trans-sport fantasy league in which a never-ending game of "What if?" ensues. This is especially true when the names of basketball stars like Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd come up. Both played soccer in their youth and are lamented as the ones who got away, even while ignoring for a moment the income disparity between soccer and basketball players in this country.

But while it makes for an interesting barroom discussion, to assume that attracting better athletes would automatically lead to a better national team makes several additional assumptions that are open to debate. One is that if given the necessary raw material, the still-pricey U.S. player development system, even with the help of well-received initiatives like its Development Academy, would automatically produce better players. Another is that great athletes automatically make great soccer players. Schmid readily concedes that "athleticism isn't always the answer," a point echoed by U.S. national team manager Bob Bradley.

"Whatever the number of good athletes that choose soccer, would we love it if the number was even higher? Yeah, based upon the percentages that would be great," said Bradley. "But even if the numbers were higher, that wouldn't guarantee anything, because unless we do everything better -- from their entrance into the game right on through the different [player development] steps -- then certainly having enough athletes isn't going to solve everything."

Another curious outgrowth of the Better Athlete Theory is the implication that athleticism is where the U.S. national team is falling short. Yet for all of the weaknesses the Yanks have, perceived and otherwise, athletic ability is generally regarded as one of the team's strengths.

It's inconceivable that the U.S. could have reached the final of the Confederations Cup -- a run that included a 2-0 win over European champion Spain -- without having some serious athletes in its squad, be it speedsters like Charlie Davies and Landon Donovan, or more powerful players like Jozy Altidore and Oguchi Onyewu. And would the likes of Steve Cherundolo and Michael Bradley -- who are hardly the most imposing physical specimens -- be able to survive in the German Bundesliga if they weren't athletic?

Colorado Rapids coach Gary Smith, who played professionally and coached in England for a decade, is among those who think that at the international level, athleticism isn't the issue for the Yanks. It's more the absence of a soccer culture that constantly lives, breathes and nurtures interest in the game.

"You look at Onyewu, Altidore -- all of these guys that are competing on the world stage are no different physically than their counterparts in Europe," said Smith. "The big difference is their upbringing. Their exposure to the game at a young age, their coaching environment at a young age, the competition at a young age, and all of those habits, qualities and actual experiences are all things that stand [players from other countries] in good stead as they mature.

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"But athletically, physically, they have no problems. You can see by just the result against Spain, the U.S. was on the receiving end of a lot of pressure, but there's no problems physically and athletically to shut people down."

All of this raises the question of what exactly constitutes athleticism, and could more of it have pushed the U.S. past Brazil in the Confederations Cup final? Is it composed only of visible physical attributes like speed, strength and size, or do less obvious traits like endurance, agility and technical ability come into play?

The answer, of course, is that when it comes to the best soccer players, other traits like vision and decision-making -- attributes that don't necessarily fall under the purview of athleticism -- must also be factored into the equation. And it is this entire package that allows elite players to come in all shapes and sizes, and from different backgrounds. It explains why a player like Spanish international Xavi -- who at 5-foot-7 looks more like an accountant -- can be mentioned in the same breath as a genetic freak like Barcelona teammate Thierry Henry.

"The amount of qualities you need to be successful at the top level are extreme," said Smith. "That's why the best are paid so much money, because all of those qualities come together in one human being."

Can such qualities come together in an American player and by extension the U.S. national team? And will getting better athletes help the U.S. get there?

"There are so many parts to the puzzle," said Bradley. "I don't think the answer lies in one part. It's the whole package."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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