Want to help the economy? Look to the U.S. soccer team

United States' Mix Diskerud, bottom, celebrates his goal with teammate Aron Johannsson, left,. Tuesday, May 27, 2014, in San Francisco. United States won 2-0. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
United States' Mix Diskerud, bottom, celebrates his goal with teammate Aron Johannsson, left,. Tuesday, May 27, 2014, in San Francisco. United States won 2-0. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

SAN FRANCISCO - The boys in red, white and blue slogged through 70 ugly minutes, flubbing point-blank shots, booting passes straight to defenders, allowing an opponent chosen for its feebleness to knot the game in a scoreless tie. It was May 27, the first of three tune-ups for the U.S. men's soccer team before the World Cup, a windy match against Azerbaijan, and it looked bleak. So the U.S. coach did what a lot of other folks do in Silicon Valley when they need a talent infusion: He called in some foreigners.

First came Mix Diskerud, a midfielder born and raised in Norway. Barely four minutes after he hopped off the bench and subbed into the game, he collected a loose ball and slammed it past the goalkeeper. Six minutes later, Aron Johannsson, a striker raised in Iceland, smacked a header in from close range. The Americans cruised to a 2-0 victory.

There's a lesson here for the American economy. Really. At a time when the country is still struggling to shake off the lingering ills of the Great Recession, when growth remains slow and 10 million people are looking for work but can't find a job, the nation could use an influx of highly skilled immigrants. That's something you hear a lot from high-tech folks in California. The U.S. World Cup team can help you understand what they mean - and, at least a little bit, why it's so hard to get lawmakers to go along with them.

The World Cup starts today in Brazil. The U.S. team, which plays its first match Monday, is a true melting-pot squad. It features seven dual citizens: Diskerud, whose mother is American; Johannsson, who was born in Alabama while his Icelandic parents were studying there; and five players born in Germany to at least one American parent. The coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, is German. Several of the other key players, including stars Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, have all played soccer professionally in elite European leagues.

This is important because America is not a soccer powerhouse. By crossing borders, the U.S. team is effectively importing valuable skills, gained by growing up in a European youth development program or competing against the world's top players in a European league. Diskerud, for example, flashed a quick-quick passing technique in the Azerbaijan match that was rare among his American-born teammates.

Bradley, the most creative passer on the team, honed his skills in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy before returning to Major League Soccer this year. "You try to draw on all your experiences as a player," he said in a brief interview in San Francisco. "You try to bring some of that back and have it be useful here."

Skill imports are useful to the broader economy, too. This dizzying graphic from Bloomberg Business Week shows just how much talent Silicon Valley - the nation's innovation capital - brings in from around the globe. A recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute suggests people represent America's greatest unrealized, gains from globalization -- basically, the more talent we can hoard, the better we'll compete with other countries. Foreign-born Americans are 50 percent more likely to start a business than native-born Americans, said Susan Lund, one of the McKinsey researchers. Globally, she said, “The next era (of growth) is going to be driven by, where are the skilled workers?”

The counter-argument is, Won't those foreign workers take Americans' jobs? Diskerud, for example, wears No. 10 for the United States - a number that became available when Klinsmann cut California-born Landon Donovan, arguably the most famous American soccer player of all time, from the squad. Fans jeered Klinsmann in San Francisco for the decision.

Fortunately, there aren't a limited number of roster spots in the U.S. economy. High-skilled immigrant entrepreneurs create jobs, and they don't appear to be pushing down wages among Silicon Valley engineers, which have risen steadily since the recession ended. America happens to be suffering a decline in entrepreneurship right now. We could use some fresh legs.

Jim Tankersley is the editor of Storyline, where he explains complex public policies and illuminates their human impact.
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