So who are these guys anyway?

Meet Ricardo Clark.  You may have never heard of him, but he is the face of U.S. soccer.

"Hi there. I'm Ricardo Clark."

But before we get to Clark – and why he is the typical American soccer player for the new century – we need to indulge in a jaunt through recent history.  In the early 1990s, U.S. Soccer faced a problem.  We had finally emerged from the wilds and made the big time, qualifying for the World Cup in 1990 and being selected to host the grand international spectacle ourselves in 1994. We’d sent a unit to Italy in 1990 made up largely of college guys, but we lacked the seasoned players to field a team that could meet growing expectations. Although there were budding home-grown talents in the likes of Cobi Jones and Claudio Reyna, there weren’t enough to make a competitive side.

So fearing embarrassment in the 1994 World Cup, U.S. Soccer did what many countries in similar situations have done.  They looked to the relatively expansive FIFA eligibility criteria to solve the problem.

A quick look around the globe and the ranks of expatriates populating the oddball domestic professional leagues produced U.S. eligible bodies in Thomas Dooley, Fernando Clauijo, Roy Wegerle and Earnie Stewart. They joined with existing team members Hugo Perez and Frank Klopas – both of whom immigrated to the U.S. as youngsters and became citizens as adults – and this international group formed an important part of the 1994 World Cup team that would surprise by advancing to the second round on home soil.

But by 1998, while Thomas Dooley was captaining the disastrous U.S. campaign at the World Cup in France, U.S. Soccer realized that the mercenary strategy was not a long-term plan for success.  If U.S. Soccer was to compete for meaningful international trophies and have a chance to win the World Cup, we needed a system to develop young talent and prepare players for the world stage.

Project 2010 was born.  Originally a joint creation of U.S. Soccer and Nike (Adidas later took over), Project 2010 was formed in 1998 with the audacious goal of fielding a U.S. national team capable of competing to win at the 2010 World Cup.  It included two components, a developmental residency academy in Bradenton, FL for youth talent and the Project 40 initiative (now Generation Adidas) to move promising college players into the recently formed MLS.

Project 2010 was much maligned, including by then U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena, who thought the stated goal was unrealistic.  But fast-forward to today and the U.S. soccer team has a decidedly different character from the 1990s squads, a character that was forged in part by Project 2010.

This is a team, typified by Ricardo Clark, that largely grew up in the formal U.S. developmental system, passed through MLS and went on to hone its skills in the harsh world of European professional leagues. Some have wondered whether this typical career arc bodes well for MLS, but it is clearly working for U.S. Soccer.

Clark is one of 14 players on the 23 man squad who were part of Project 2010. Clark played college soccer at Furman, among 15 members of the team that competed collegiately. Like 16 of his teammates, Clark began his professional career in MLS, spending 6 years in the top U.S. league, and he is one of 15 U.S. national team members who currently play for clubs in Europe.

Jose Francisco Torres is the only member of the U.S. team that had no part in Project 2010, didn’t play at a U.S. college and didn’t play in MLS. Clark and 6 of his teammates did all three.

But don’t jump to conclusions – Jose is no foreigner! Although he plays professional soccer in Mexico (where he is known as “El Gringo“), Torres was born and raised in Longview, TX. In fact, only two members of the U.S. team were born abroad, and both Stuart Holden and Benny Feilhaber moved to the U.S. when they were in grammar school and went to high school and college in the U.S.

Although this is not a squad of naturalized citizens like 1994, Clark and 10 of his teammates were born in the U.S. to at least one immigrant parent. Clark and his teammate Edson Buddle have fathers who immigrated from the Caribbean as adults. Both of Robbie Findley’s parents hail from Trinidad. Oguchi Onyewu’s parents are Nigerian. Jozy Altidore’s are Haitian. Marcus Hahnemann’s are German.

Clark is also typical of a relatively inexperienced U.S. team.  Although much of this team participated in the Confederations Cup last summer, 16 of them, including Clark, are competing in their first World Cup.  With 29 previous appearances for the national team, Clark is just above the squad median of 25 appearances. Clark’s age, 27, is the team average. He was 15 when Project 2010 began.

We won’t win the World Cup this year, but Project 2010 worked. This is the team that it built.

So it turns out that all American soccer needs to succeed abroad is just a little bit of encouragement at home.  We set up a youth developmental program and a functioning domestic league, and kids with a soccer-friendly family (like the children of immigrants or a coach’s son Michael Bradley) found their way through those systems to excel for club and country.

We can’t yet compete with the cool kids of world soccer, but we’ve now come to a place where Jeremy Schapp can declare Clint Dempsey’s grandmother’s backyard in Nacogdoches to be “hallowed ground for U.S. soccer” on ESPN last weekend and only sound about as silly as he does the rest of the time.  (If you didn’t see it, there’s another great moment in this Outside the Lines piece where Clint solemnly reports to Schapp that his father had to “sell some of his guns” to fund youth soccer travel.)

If it doesn’t work out well this next couple of weeks in South Africa, expect significant hand-wringing at U.S. Soccer, but also expect that they will stay the course.  After a disappointing performance in 2006, we flirted with a high-profile foreign coach in Jurgen Klinsmann, but instead chose to look to MLS and Bob Bradley.  That was an important moment. More than anything, it reflected a faith in the developmental strategy that U.S. Soccer had put in place.

Now here we are in 2010.  Tomorrow afternoon, Bob Bradley will lead his 14th ranked U.S. team against England in perhaps the most anticipated game since we faced Mexico in the 2002 World Cup elimination round.  Meanwhile, Jurgen Klinsmann is a TV commentator, having flamed out dramatically in the Bayern Munich coaching gig he took instead of coming here.

Just in time for the game, trans-Atlantic tensions are starting to heat up over the BP oil spill, with former British Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer advising the U.K. government to “put down a marker with the US administration that the survival and long-term prosperity of BP is a vital British interest” and London mayor Boris Johnson complaining of the “anti-British rhetoric that seems to be permeating from America.”

Tomorrow afternoon, it is time for the Rumble in Rustenburg.  We’re gonna get it on, even though we usually get along.

The Beverage’s better half thinks that we can win.  I’m a little more pessimistic, but that’s typical.


3 Responses to “So who are these guys anyway?”

  1. 1 Better halfandhalf June 11, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    We WILL win.

  2. 2 Anonymous June 12, 2010 at 7:11 am

    Sweet. Love the Texas connection. The Beverage has gotten me much better informed and interested in the rumble in South Africa.

  3. 3 Michael Paul June 14, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Nicely done, as always. Getting a point against England is a”win” says me.

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