U.S. Soccer Still Can’t Quite Hang with the Cool Kids?

The U.S. will take on Turkey this afternoon in the second to last World Cup tune-up game, the final roster is now set, and the new FIFA world rankings are out.  Except for some reshuffling in the top 4, not much is materially changed from the last FIFA ranking, and the U.S. still sits at 14.

White House send off for the lads!

These FIFA ratings have been much maligned, especially when the U.S. somehow rose as high as fifth in the final rankings before the 2006 World Cup.  But a funny little thing happened in the latest iteration.  Croatia switched spots with France and fell to 10th, leaving the following as the world’s top 9 teams heading to South Africa:

  1. Brazil
  2. Spain
  3. Portugal
  4. Netherlands
  5. Italy
  6. Germany
  7. Argentina
  8. England
  9. France

Ignore the particular order of these Elite 9.  They are the undisputed cool kids of world soccer.  The class of Europe and South America, among them the winners of every World Cup in the last 60 years and every runner-up since the Czechs sneaked into the final in 1962.

Precisely 75 of the 100 current best footballers in the world play for these teams, according to Four Four Two‘s November 2009 list, and they make up a similar percentage of the best of the 20th Century.  It will be truly odd if a team from outside of this group wins the tournament next month, and any other team that makes the quarterfinals will be considered an overachieving upstart.

Since rising (dubiously) to no. 5 before the trip to Germany in 2006, the U.S. has twice fallen as low as 31 in the FIFA rankings.  But for the past year – through the Confederations Cup last summer and the final stages of qualifying for South Africa – the U.S. has hovered in the second 10.  Consistently sitting above Mexico as the class of North America, but conspicuously behind the powers of world soccer.

Although clearly not yet in the upper echelon, our boys famously bested Spain last summer in South Africa – becoming the only team to do so in the previous three years.  And we have now qualified for the last six consecutive World Cups – something that no other nation outside the Elite 9 can say (Mexico having been banned from competition in 1990 for using overage players in a FIFA U-20 tournament).

Yet despite the success that the national team has enjoyed and the heights to which Clint Dempsey and others have recently elevated their games on the club level, the U.S. has accomplished all of this without a ever suiting up even a single top-100 world player.  I’m ignoring ESPN’s gratuitous placement of Landon Donovan at 50th on its list of the top 50 players in the World Cup.  Although I don’t mind Landon and don’t begrudge ESPN tagging him on the end of the list, one is rightly suspicious of his inclusion on a list that excludes the likes of Yaya Toure, Felipe Melo, Gael Clichy, Wilson Palacios, Alberto Gilardino, Lassana Diarra and Diego Milito – who just scored two goals in the Champions League final.

Looking at our near neighbors in the FIFA rankings, Croatia and Russia each have 3 players in the Four Four Two list, but neither is heading to South Africa for the World Cup.  The rest of the best are scattered among nations, but none is American, and there is no good reason to argue that any American would fall in the next 50 either.  Yet here we are, qualifying again and firmly rooted in the second pack of world teams.

How do we “succeed” like this where others with higher quality talent fail?  Chalk much of it up to an easy qualifying group.  Put Russia in an imaginary universe where they weren’t routinely flying through a dozen time zones to get to games and they would certainly breeze through CONCACAF qualifying as well.

But most of it must be Soccernomical in the end.  We may not have the singular talents, but the overwhelming demographics of having millions upon millions of well-nourished boys with lots of leisure time running through the vast green expanses of American suburbia unburdened by the crushing weight of second world semi-poverty eventually bears its fruit.  We have a bunch of high workrate guys who are pretty good.

We have always played to this talent, with a grinding (or “spasmodic,” if you’re british) style that relies on fitness and a measure of toughness to support a counterattacking offense.  That style has proven well-suited for our qualifying gauntlet in the tropical climes and has occasionally produced isolated results at the highest levels.  But it is easy to lock in on this familiar narrative and ignore the incremental progress that the game on the field has shown during the U.S. rise from obscurity over the past 20 years.

Kudos then to Sports Illustrated and writer Melissa Segura, who has an excellent piece in the SI World Cup preview magazine centered around Clint Dempsey and the theme that U.S.A. Soccer (the organization, not the concept) is finally learning how to find and groom talent from outside the traditional amateur systems that load our teams up with guys from the suburbs of New Jersey and California.  The piece is framed around a great Bruce Arena quote regarding Dempsey’s defining characteristic as a player, “he tries sh!t.”

U.S.A. Soccer has been trying sh!t more and more lately, giving Mexican league standouts Herculez Gomez and Jose Francisco Torres a chance to perform on the national team and installing Claudio Reyna as Youth Technical Director. There’s still a long way to go, as the Elite 9 can easily remind us, but progress on and off the field has been remarkable in 20 years.

We’ll find out in two weeks how much progress we’ve really made when we face England in the World Cup opener.

Come on!  Join in!  It’s fun!  We’re the underdog!  It’s like Lexington and Concord all over again!

4 Responses to “U.S. Soccer Still Can’t Quite Hang with the Cool Kids?”

  1. 1 Telly Fathaly May 29, 2010 at 1:08 pm


    That was a really great article. Even though I dispute the relevance of Diego Millito (mostly because I’ve never heard of him), I’d like nothing more than to be transported to your couch at the beach when the games are coming on.

    Looking forward to more great insight.


  2. 2 The Beverage May 29, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Thanks, man. You’re welcome any time.

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