Jun 22, 2011

Seriously, why CAN'T the U.S. Produce a Soccer Star?

Why can't the U.S. build a soccer star? This was the title of a recent Wall Street Journal article. It's a compelling question and one that deserves our attention.

In the past month or two we've had a Chinese woman win the French Open, a German win the NBA Championship and a Northern Irishman (are they called that?) win some big golf tournament. I personally do not consider golf a sport but apparently it was a pretty big deal to those who do. We have a men's tennis star from Serbia, a boxing champion from the Philippines and a Jamaican holding the 100 meter world record in track and field. We do not, as of yet, have an American superstar in soccer.

Sure we've had one or two who were close (Brad Friedel, John Harkes) a few who are probably in the tier right below superstardom (Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey) and some who might have a chance, however remote, at making it yet (Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Juan Agudelo). But that's pretty weak coming from the U.S., which as the Journal article points out has produced superstars in virtually every other sport imaginable.

What to make of this? Why hasn't it happened? What, if anything, does it say about the U.S.'s chances of becoming an elite soccer nation?

First off, it is important to define terms here. "Superstar" does not necessarily mean "great player." A superstar is created as much in the media as on the pitch. Example: David Beckham. Everybody in the entire world knows who he is and he can most certainly be called a superstar. Is he anywhere near the best player of his generation? Absolutely not. That's an extreme example, but let's not underestimate the role of media here. One could argue that the reason there hasn't been an American superstar is simply because the U.S. media hasn't been able to create one. Why hasn't U.S. media been able to create one? Because it hasn't been worth their time to! The sport simply isn't important enough here. Sure, everybody watches the World Cup now but that's one month every four years (and the U.S. is usually out after a fortnight). American media outlets have only really begun to cover the sport with any kind of sincerity. Now that they are, they've started clamoring for homegrown superstars. Good.

We've also been unlucky. Jozy Altidore appeared to have all the intangibles for superstar-dom but was stuck with coaches who wouldn't play him when he was in Spain. He was a little more successful after moving to Hull City but there the "supporting cast" was really not very good. Since then he's back to languishing on the bench. Still, Altidore is young (21) and unpolished (which is exactly why he needs to gain match experience, but whatever). He may yet turn into the first soccer superstar from the U.S. There's still time.

We'll probably never know exactly how good Donovan might have been. As a 29-year old attacking midfielder he is now past his prime. Instead of being tested against the best and the brightest in Europe, he chose to spend his most productive years competing against aging journeymen and American college players. Later, when he wanted to make the switch (to Everton) it was Major League Soccer that kept him stateside.

Still, there is one player who should have been a superstar and today, if he were in his prime, would qualify: Brad Friedel. At his peak, in the early- to mid-2000s, Friedel was probably one of the five best goalkeepers in the world. I challenge you to name a goalkeeper from the Western hemisphere, at least these past 30 years, who was better. Not Jorge Campos nor Jose Chilavert, both of whom actually were bonafide superstars, make the grade. Even the current generation of Brazilian keepers, while head and shoulders above the usual goalkeeping stock from that country, are inferior to Friedel when he was in his prime.

Why wasn't Friedel known as America's first soccer superstar? Simple: the media didn't anoint him as such. We can pontificate for hours on why that didn't happen (everything from Friedel's rather rogue look, to lack of PR firepower, to dearth of "charisma," to the nature of his position on the pitch, etc) and when we do we'll realize just how fleeting such a term is.


  1. Great post, Freddy Adu had a lot of hype around him a few years ago but he's ended up in the Turkish second division.

  2. I think US have to look at Europe football !

  3. Too much emoohasis on NFL

    Good blog on soccer!

  4. one day it will happen not for twenty years

  5. the term "superstar" is all media hype really. David Beckham definitely is a great example. He does not even play that well. But then they're superstars because at one point in their careers, they did something remarkable. Nice post!