Where Next? (Part One)

It's been 24 hours since the United States lost to Belgium. I have pretty much avoided the message boards and haven't read or watched any of the post-game post-World Cup analysis. I have spent the day lost in my own thoughts. During the game and in the immediate aftermath I had been presented with two data points that didn't fit well within my understanding of where the U.S. Men's National Team is and where it's heading.

The first is signified by Romelu Lukaku.

The distribution of physical attributes and talent for various team sports exists more or less on a bell curve with a very high middle and long shallow tails.

One can credit the progress the USMNT had made over the last twenty five years to an increase in leveraging the massive population advantages we have over other World Cup countries.

It makes sense - to a point. As I pointed out in a previous article, the U.S. could put together a second team of 23 that would have challenged Greece or Algeria for their spots in the knockout round. The game against Belgium made  me ask myself, "Where's the American Romelu Lukaku?"

The answer? Probably selling insurance in Paducah, Kentucky and looking back on his days as a high school football or basketball star and possibly his checkered career in college.

Not playing soccer (photo: Andy Mead/YCJ)

Not playing soccer (photo: Andy Mead/YCJ)

By themselves the NBA and the NFL aren't the problem. There were roughly 2,400 Americans in the NBA and NFL combined last season. In a country of over 150 million men, 2,400 isn't that big of a deal. The problem is how many 10-18 year-olds that football and basketball pull out of the pool of athletes.

Fortunately, the NCAA has done a lot of the work for us. Only one of 30,000 high school basketball players goes pro. For football, the numbers are better: one in 12,500. I'll do the math for you. The current rosters of the NBA and NFL represent roughly 3.6 million American high school players. That's just at the high school level. The differentiation point for elite, world class, athletes happens earlier than that.

The football/basketball industrial complex has hoovered up virtually all the available elite athletic talent at the far end of the spectrum. There's a point on the bell curve beyond which soccer has not been able to reach, at least not in the numbers needed to uncover the true gems. The American Paulo Wanchope or Romelu Lukaku either never played soccer or was pushed in their early to mid teens into focusing on football or basketball. There are, to pick just one physical attribute, somewhere around 250,000 American men in their 20s that are 6'3" or taller. That includes the ones with no athletic interest or ability. The societal and cultural pressures that push players into football and basketball in the numbers listed above means that the players the USMNT needs to break through into the elite are off limits at this time. At least the numbers needed to identify and develop a world class soccer player by brute force of population.

The national team has plateaued. We have leveraged our population to the point that we are legitimately in the top 20 teams in the world. On our day we can beat anyone we play. What differentiates us from the other teams in our neighborhood is that we're not dependent on any single player. We aren't in a "golden generation". The drop-off from player 5 to player 50 is negligible. Any holes we have on the field are roster mistakes. We had substitutes for Jozy Altidore, we just didn't take them to Brazil.

The consequence is that we've become the team everybody hates to play. We have the depth of the elite teams, but we lack the transcendent player(s) that pretty much every other World Cup finalist brings to the tournament. 

Still not soccer. (Photo: Andy Mead/YCJ)

Still not soccer. (Photo: Andy Mead/YCJ)

I admit to having been in denial as to why no American field players have ever stuck at any of the elite European club teams. Honestly, it's because we don't belong. That's the tough medicine I've been processing since yesterday. Other than a couple goalkeepers, I can't tell you a single American men's soccer player that is an elite world class player. None. And that's shocking. It's not natural. The numbers just don't add up. That's what yesterday's game made me realize. The talent exists, but at the current moment, soccer hasn't had access to it.

I'm going to stop here. The other data point I've been struggling with is Julian Green. I'll come back in following pieces to discuss my thoughts on what Green means as well as where the USMNT can go from here.

Please leave some feedback and let me know your thoughts. The above is the best I can articulate at the moment, and I'm open to your help.