For U.S. soccer, it's time to set sights higher

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Look! How international and cosmopolitan we are -- we play fĂștbol! We have our own stars now with fabulously transcontinental-

sounding names, Landon and Jozy. We've proved our point: We've learned to say "pitch" instead of field, and that's good enough for us.

Why is it that Americans expect to win in every sport we compete in except for soccer? How is it that a nation so obsessed with games seems abnormally lacking in ambition when it comes to the most popular one on the globe? We devote reality TV shows to scoring everything from cooking to surviving in the wilderness with a canteen and a sharp stick. Yet we treat a loss in the World Cup round of 16 to Ghana as only mildly disappointing. Failure in this instance is acceptable.

In comparison, France was so collectively upset by its World Cup implosion that President Nicholas Sarkozy launched an investigation, and officials have called the team a "stain" on the national character. Coach Fabio Capello is under such heat for England's exit in the round of 16 that bookmakers are taking odds on how promptly he will be fired.

As for we in the States, well, we never expected to win the whole thing. We're just happy with the ratings. We're glad that our national team made American children put down their brain-dissolving console games for a few minutes and lured their parents away from baseball, or their summertime fruity drinks with the little umbrellas in the backyard.

In fact, the U.S. performance was just sort of okay: two comeback ties and then that skin-of-their-teeth victory over Algeria with Landon Donovan's extra-time goal. Certainly, it was a pity to lose to Ghana, but hey, we did no better or worse than England.

None of us knows how to feel about that. Should we be more upset with the national team and Coach Bob Bradley, or satisfied with their progress? There's a nagging feeling that a wealthy country of 310 million should have developed a top-notch program by now. But on the other hand, we beat Spain in last year's Confederations Cup and were leading Brazil, 2-0, before succumbing; that's not bad, given our masses have only been interested in the beautiful game since we hosted the 1994 World Cup. We are still in our relative soccer youth. Even U.S. Federation President Sunil Gulati seemed ambivalent as he discussed our "mixed results and very much mixed emotions," and expressed disappointment that "we didn't get to play another 90 minutes, at least." In fact, some even considered those statements critical.

There are dozens of good reasons why the American program isn't stronger: its relative lack of importance in our sports culture, the infancy of our domestic league, our thin tradition, etc. The game simply isn't deeply embedded here yet.

Still. When is barely beating Algeria anything to be celebrated?

Two things are clear. One, we need to stop making excuses for our lack of success. The U.S. won't advance as long as "one more game at least," reaching the quarterfinals, is the tepid goal. Two, we need to take a hard, granular look at our system of player development, and ask ourselves, where are our Wayne Rooneys and Lionel Messis?

The argument that soccer isn't embedded in our culture doesn't hold up. There are plenty of events in the Olympics in which we start from behind culturally, and yet no one professes to be satisfied with a top 20 finish in the medal count. You don't finish first by aiming at fourth place. It's that simple.

It's a fact that American youth soccer is failing to develop the best players in the world -- as Gulati acknowledged this week. Millions of American kids play the beautiful game, yet the very top-level foreign teams aren't lining up to sign them.

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