Over-reaction to the US loss and Chicharito

Why Can't the U.S. Build a Soccer Star - WSJ.com

Funny thing about the emergence of Chicharito for Manchester United and Mexico.  Somehow the presence of one exceptional forward has given everyone the impression that the entire US system of player development is broken because, as the above article says, we haven't developed a superstar (which I'm pretty sure is code for dominant goal-scoring forward).  The implication is also that Mexico has it all figured out now that they've developed Hernandez and he is starting for one of the top few clubs in the world at a young age.  Here's the thing, if you look around the world, no one seems to have figured out the secret to regularly producing exceptional goal-scoring talent.  The implication seems to be that there is an assembly line of Chicharito clones ready to invade the football world while the US is turning out players who are barely good enough for MLS.  The evidence just doesn't point to this being the case.


1. Our Chicharito is Playing for Italy

If Guiseppi Rossi had decided to play for the USA instead of Italy, he'd be our answer to Chicharito, a prolific forward being courted by the best clubs in the world.  He didn't make that decision but if he had, are we even having this conversation?  If you add in players like Hangeland and Subotic who also grew up in the States and have gone on to excellent careers for other countries, the argument gets even weaker. 

2. Better Depth

Outside of Hernandez, I'd argue that the US has produced more talent for the top European leagues than Mexico has.  Friedel, Keller, Howard, McBride, Dempsey, Reyna, Harkes, Lalas, Holden, Churendolo, etc. have created a tradition of high quality American exports that Mexico can't match for quantity of quality beyond Chicharito and Marquez.  The "next wave" of players like Guardado, dos Santos, Castillo, etc. haven't been able to make the grade overseas despite being good enough to dominate in CONCACAF play and the Mexican league.

3. Chance

The production of high quality, international star forwards is a spotty thing.  The fact that tiny Belgium may have two young ones on their hands while a bigger country like France has struggled since Henry, Anelka, et al have passed their prime.  The fact that the author of the linked article references one exceptional forward from a bunch of emerging or smaller soccer nations proves the point. They haven't cracked some code, they've just gotten that one lucky confluence of skill, opportunity, and athletic talent all coming together in the right package.  We've only REALLY been trying to develop soccer stars for a generation or two. Sometimes the luck of the draw works in your favor and sometimes it doesn't.

4. Best Athletes

Lets not dismiss the "our best athletes" don't play soccer theory just because the best soccer player in the world is 5'7". There are plenty of exceptional athletes of that stature who play baseball (usually as middle infielders) or basketball (as undersized point guards - Mugsy Boges anyone? Spud Webb?).  I'd imagine we're just getting to the point that those with extremely high end athletic talent (and I mean the entire package - physical capability and the mental side) consider soccer a reasonable alternative to more traditional sporting pursuits like football, basketball, and baseball.  The fact that we know that things are changing doesn't mean that the same environment applied to players of Chicharito's generation who are at the early stages of their professional careers.  The real question is whether the system (and all of the alternative routes to stardom) is serving the young players of TODAY. By and large there isn't much that we can likely to do change the fortunes of anyone 18 years and older. It is also worth noting that the "Best Soccer Player in the World" was mostly trained in a country other than his own from a pretty early age.


I'm not saying that the US is doing a great job of player development or that there aren't lots of places we could improve.  What I am saying is that the fact that Mexico has one really good forward doesn't mean that we've suddenly fallen horribly behind our biggest rival (or anyone else) in player development. It just means that this happens to be their turn to have an exceptional player on the world stage. Remember, we could be equally fortunate if we did a better job of selling the USMNT program to Rossi, Hangeland, and Subotic. 

My guess is that two things will rapidly improve the ability of the US to produce extremely high quality players - MLS acdemies, and the improving reputation of American soccer. 

MLS academies present the best opportunity.  Clubs will understand that it is in their best interest to develop inexpensive talent over the long term rather than push youth players to win individual matches.  With local options that will likely do a better job of placating parents about educational quality and staying closer to home, combined with a stronger motivation to develop talent as opposed to win matches, MLS academies will increase the volume of high quality player development as compared to the high school/regional club/college system (too focused on winning and not intensive enough) or the US development program (not big enough).  Indeed, players like Juan Agedulo and Andy Najar highlight the impact that MLS academies are already having on club and national teams.

The other best option will be players, like Messi or Rossi, leaving their native country to train at the best places in the world (like Barca) and then coming home to represent the US. And that will only happen when US soccer is seen on par with the more established soccer-playing nations. Maybe we'll never compete with Italy or Argentina for a world-class player's allegiances, but the US needs to be in the mix with the next tier of nations.


  1. Anonymous4:09 PM

    The stereotype about American players is they run all day without doing anything brilliant. Second Division Germans. I think it's a fair observation and a serious problem. Rossi went to Italy when he was 12 - claiming him as a US success is like claiming Andy Murray for the LTA. I think it's telling that you get immigrants from everywhere but they emerge from the US youth system as cookie cutter 'athletes'.

  2. Two responses to @Anonymous above:

    First, I think that stereotype of US players is a bit dated. I'm not saying that the US is producing nothing but exceptional technical players by the boatload but saying that the US produces clueless runners is as dated as saying we don't care about the game as a nation.

    Second, by your logic Messi isn't Argentine, Drogba isn't Ivorian (he grew up and trained as a youth almost entirely in France), and Eto'o might or might not be Cameroonian (he went to train in Spain in 10th grade) to name only a few of the best forwards in the world playing their national team football for emerging footballing nations. How is that different than if Rossi had gone to Italy to train/play professionally and then represented the US?

  3. I must admit that when the Gold Cup started I figured Mexico would win. I was pretty pissed I was right, especially after we went up 2-0. I do believe it is time for Bob Bradley to move on. As a nation we seem to keep our National Coaches much to long. Yes there is a need for consistency but it is hard for the players to grow playing under the same coach for that many years. It is very rare at the National level. And, aside from Sir Alex, very rare at the club level too.

  4. i think talent is cyclical, so i would not draw any conclusions about the lack of american development. look at germany, now. a few years ago, they did not have any youth players to speak of and now they are gushing with them.

    i agree that the americans are a bit robotic and it comes down to coaching and the fact that kids play every other sport too. i am one of those robotic players. i was a kid with dutch-born parents. i played at all of the normal club team levels and never got good enough to be anywhere near a youth national team. i got to some regional teams, though.
    me and every other player got the same level of coaching and it is pretty basic. learning from books on how to train. most kids teams have a parent that becomes a coach because there is not enough coaches. there was no classes for coaching, etc. we learned the drills, but never had the fire that 99% of the world has for football.
    i played every other american sport, as well, including american football. so that means the athletes do not spend every minute of every day playing soccer. little boys dribble basketballs to school. down here in brasil, the little boys dribble cans or 2 liter bottles to school. they try to see if they can make it from their home to school without it hitting the ground.

    so now i am hoping my 2 boys and 1 girl learn how to really play, down here, so that they can play for the USMNT and USWNT. if they choose to play for holland or brasil, that would be ok i guess.

  5. Anonymous1:55 AM

    The reason america doesnt produce prolific "soccer" stars is beacause of all the distractions this country has such as other sports. The improvement in american soccer has been dramatic since 1994 but for america to produce a world class player will take more than just academies and just basically pouring more money into the system

  6. The popularity of rugby and cricket in many of the very good international football countries disproves anonymous' point.

    Neal's right... it just comes down to the lack of a academy system over the years due to the role of NCAA sports. The only US sports I can think of that mimic what the rest of the world does with int'l football are gymnastics and tennis.

  7. "Mexico can't match for quantity of quality beyond Chicharito and Marquez." You might want to Google 'Hugo Sanchez'.

  8. Could it be that players born in the USA with international backgrounds just have no love/patriotism to the USA? Rossi(Italian), Najar(Honduran), Ramon Nunez(Honduran), only to name a few. Many of them tend to choose their blood lineage over the USA and I think it has to do with the passion of the sport in the USA. Here, in USA, we yell, scream, say hi to the players, call their names...but the the thing that differentiates, unlike other countries(because of their passion), is that they don't idolize the players.

  9. saul that happens in many countries too, not just US. owen hargreaves was born in canada and chose england. thousands of players who grew up in france, who choose to play for the african country of birth or parentage. i think etoo is one. so it is not a USA problem. look at all of the brasilian born players, like deco, thiago silva, eduardo, amauri, kuaryani, etc.who choose to play for a different country.
    the issue for the US is that the other countries have plenty of class players, so they do not worry about it.

  10. @Eric - Hugo Sanchez was an exceptional player but you make my point for me. Before Marquez and one season (so far) of Chicharito he was the last world class player Mexico produced despite the fact that soccer has been their biggest sport and they have a sizable population. The US barely knew soccer was a sport when I was born in 1970 let alone in 1952 when Sanchez was born. Something about a blind squirrel and a nut springs to mind.

  11. @Saul - a reasonable point, the US faces the dual "problem" of having a society that is very permissive of letting ethnic groups remain attached to their heritage whether their ethnic group has been here a while (Rossi/Italians) or relatively recent (Najar/Hondurans). That combined with the fact that the adulation for soccer players just isn't there in the US the same way it is in both of those countries (and many others) means that we're likely to lose out on some players who can qualify to play for "better" countries.

    Hopefully, with ESPN and Fox really behind soccer at this point and the environment changing we'll start winning at least some of these battles in the future.