Thursday, December 14, 2006

On US Soccer and Youthful Dreams

I am that rarest of American males -- a soccer fan. I have played the sport most of my life and I love to watch it played, even the pathetically sloppy US version of the Beautiful Game.

When Freddie Adu came on the scene a few years ago as a brilliant 14-year-old, I hoped that things would change. He was left off a US squad that embarrassed itself at this year's World Cup. He never broke into the starting line-up with DC United, his pro team. And now he has been exiled to Real Salt Lake, a second-tier team in a second-tier pro league.

Adu had a much-hyped two-week tryout with Manchester United last month, but this was orchestrated more by Nike than coach Ferguson according to Mark Starr at Newsweek.

Starr writes that Adu was over-hyped, and with him the future of US soccer.
My pal, Boston Globe soccer writer Frank Dell’Apa, says casting off the kid to—even by already low MLS standards—a lesser outpost is the inevitable result of unrealistic expectations created by media hype. “Adu,” writes Dell’Apa, “always had a better chance of ending up with Real Salt Lake than with Real Madrid.” I was, as I have already admitted, part of that hype. A passionate fan of soccer and, like many Americans, a dreamer concerning the potential of the game here, I had heard lots of talk about the coming of this kid, this Ghana-born American Pelé. So I wrote one of the first stories about him to appear in the national media, featuring the 13-year-old Adu in our year-end “Who’s Next?” issue. And if I want to be literal, I was right. He was indeed “next”: soon after came the Nike deal; a big contract with D.C. United, a rare network showcase for his MLS debut, and his anointment, at age 15, as an MLS all-star. Everything pointed to this youngster being something very special.

For three years now, I have watched this boy against men. And my reluctant conclusion is that, while he is quite talented and, at times, dazzling with his feet, Adu is not the magical player that will someday lead American soccer to the Promised Land. He is neither big enough nor fast enough to dominate on the big pitch. And he has shown a bit too much of an NBA-superstar temperament for a still-unproven player. He has groused over playing time and playing position. Granted that playing on the wing rather than in a more creative—and for him more natural—central midfield role, may have limited his effectiveness. Still, 11 goals in 59 games with D.C. United does not resemble a LeBron-like impact.
I agree with this assessment. Adu has all the skills that Michael Jordan had in college (I know soccer and hoops are apples and oranges, but you get my point), but without the heart and the absolute craving to win. Until he gets that heart, he'll be a flashy player with no substance.

US soccer without Adu, or any other young players who can hold their own on the international stage, is looking pretty bleak. We had a chance to sign the brilliant German coach Jürgen Klinsmann to replace Bruce Arena, who took all the blame for the 2006 World Cup collapse, but it didn't happen. An inexperienced Bob Bradley was named interim coach.

US soccer is soft. When I watch the Italian Serie A, or the German Bundisliga, or even the British Premier League, US soccer's MLS looks like the minor leagues in comparison. We are sloppy, disorganized, and we lack any brilliant scorers. Landon Donovan seemed to be the savior a few years ago, a creative passer, a scorer -- but in 2006 he looked afraid. Like Adu, he's too small to play at the international level. A brief stint in Germany with little playing time brought him back to the MLS, where he is an all-star and a former MVP.

This has been said by many soccer fans in the past, but if our best athletes grew up dreaming of World Cup glory the way kids do in Italy, Germany, and Brazil, we would field better teams with better chances. Our best players tend to be smaller guys -- which is what happens when good athletes aren't big enough to play football or basketball, the glory sports -- they play soccer.

When I was growing up I dreamed of World Cup glory. I was an exception in terms of size -- bigger and stronger than many other players -- but I didn't have the professional-level skills. I got to play college ball, and then it was over. A few knee injuries hurried that process along. Until I moved to the desert, I played recreational soccer for fun and fitness, but I don't even do that now.

We need our best athletes to consider playing soccer if we are ever to compete on the world stage. And until we pay them a descent salary, that will never happen. And until US soccer offers a good product, there will never be the fan base to pay the players well.

It's not looking good.

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