Why are there so few Latinos on the U.S. soccer team?

June 14

Omar Gonzalez in a 2013 World Cup qualifier against Mexico. (Yuri Cortez/Getty Images)

We continue our series on politics, political science and the World Cup (here are posts 1234, 5 and 6). Here Brandon Valeriano examines the lack of Latino players on the U.S. national team.

While many are getting excited for the World Cup and the entry of the United States into group play, this process is a bit complicated for some Americans.  Latinos in the United States tend to support other national teams, such as Mexico.   This issue is perplexing to some, but simple when you really dive into the issue.  Besides the natural tendency to follow the teams from your country of birth or the teams your family supported when you were young, the lack of representation of Latinos on the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) makes the team tough to rally behind.  My recently published article on Latino Assimilation and Soccer dives into these topics at length.  What does it mean that Latinos are not represented at the national level?  Various officials have made statements regarding their awareness of the problem and how they are fixing it, but the signs are not encouraging.

That Latinos are missing from the USMNT is not a new phenomenon.  In 1994, when the United States hosted the World Cup, there were five Latinos on the USMNT.  In 2006, there were three and in 2010 there were four.  Now we are  back to three in 2014 (Alejandro Bedoya, Nick Rimando and Omar Gonzalez), a paltry number given the interest, talent and raw numbers available (Latinos make up about 17 percent of the total U.S. population, although this number may be deflated given sampling issues for the undocumented).  The numbers do not get much better for women:  The 2007 and 2011 USWNT each had two Latino players.  This problem extends into the Major Soccer League (MLS): Despite an effort to recruit Latin American players, there are relatively few U.S.-born Latinos.

Soccer is the favored sport of Latinos.  Go to any field early on a Saturday or Sunday morning  and there is invariably a large group playing organized and free flowing football (called canchas), yet this talent never is developed by U.S. sporting institutions.  There is a gap between the enthusiasm for youth soccer at the lower levels and developing that talent past the teen level. This issue is very acute for the Latino population.  Club soccer dominates in the U.S., and this is an expensive and almost impossible barrier for Latinos due to the costs and suburban nature of the programs.  Moving up a level, participation in high school or college teams assumes the participant has the freedom to actually play sports after school, an option not many of us had as working became a priority once we were of legal age.  College soccer is an even tougher prospect, since the costs or barrier of an inadequate school system make this path a huge obstacle for the Latino population.   The pipeline of talent to the World Cup team is broken for Latinos, but it’s also broken in the higher education system and in the political system.  The lack of development of Latino players is a symptom of the deeper problems in American society.

In the meantime, the quality of the U.S. team is potentially compromised.  As Malesky and Saieg wrote at the Monkey Cage earlier, international teams are more effective the more diverse they are.  Research continues to demonstrate that outcomes are enhanced by diversity.  The USMNT loses out by not developing its own core players from non-traditional communities (this includes the African American population and Asian Americans).  This year, the Mexican national team will field Miguel Ponce, a player born in Sacramento, Calif., while five German dual nationals will appear for the U.S. team.

With relatively little experience in the top European leagues, the U.S. team is facing a stiff test to get out of what some call “the group of death.” There is new talent coming through the pipeline, but for every Julian Green there are two Freddy Adu’s.  Even Klinsmann admits that the U.S. has no real chance and that his hope is riding on the future. But what future does the team have if it continues to miss talent from certain ethnic populations, see its best players attracted to other sports, or the continued attraction of other national teams to soccer fans in America’s great melting pot?

My work admittedly only scratches the surface on these issues. We need more surveys and data about the problems of the Latino pipeline in all aspects of society, from sport to education to government service.  For so long, many seemed wary of trying to investigate a potentially undocumented population, but this is changing slowly.  Instead of making blanket pronouncements about the willingness to search for Latino talent, we need to understand that national sport should be a reflection of our views and values.  To move beyond the problem of representation, we must do better to make sure the pipeline of talent to all aspects of society is not blocked and broken.   Awareness of the problem is the first step, and putting individuals in charge who are prepared to take action and make a personal effort to fix the gap between enthusiasm and participation is critical.

Brandon Valeriano is a senior lecturer in global security at the University of Glasgow in the School of Politics.  Strangely enough, he is a Latino football fan of the U.S. team who grew up in Los Angeles. His main research interests include investigations of the causes of conflict and peace as well as the study of race/ethnicity from the international perspective. His focus now is on a forthcoming book titled “Cyber Hype Versus Cyber Reality” on Oxford University Press.  He frequently blogs for RelationsInternational.

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