On ESPN's "Around The Horn" yesterday (6/22/06), Bill Plaschke of the LA Times, during a discussion on the US World Cup team, made perhaps one of the most ridiculous statement of the day. While I don't have the exact wording, Plaschke in essence asked where were all the minorities for the US team since this was a sport played largely by ethnic minorities in the US. This statement is about as foolish as it gets and it brings three things to mind: (1) has Plaschke ever watched a National Team game or looked at its roster?; (2) is Plaschke being racist?; (3) does Plaschke's foolish statement somehow miraculously stumble bass-ackwards into a salient issue regarding the development of soccer players in the US?.
First, Plaschke is an idiot and obviously has never paid attention to the US soccer team. One glance at a team picture and roster reveals the diversity of the team. There are four African-American players (Beasely, Howard, Johnson and Pope) and one (Oguchi Onyewu) who is the son of Nigerian immigrants on the team. Three players have a Latino heritage (Reyna, Mastroeni and Bocanegra) and one is Asian-American (Brian Ching). Of these players six made starts in the World Cup, one played significant minutes and two didn't get an PT. Reyna was the team captain and Onyewu led the defense. Needless to say, the US team certainly doesn't lack ethnic diversity as Plaschke suggests.
Second, Plaschke's statement may be borderline racist and is definitely a stereotyping of ethnicities that is unnecessary and unwarranted. Plaschke seems to suggest several things with his statements. The first is that white athletes are not good enough to compete on the world stage in soccer and second is that black and latino athletes are naturally better than white ones. To say this is just utterly stupid because obviously there are many great white soccer players, many great latino soccer players, many great asian soccer players, and there are many great black soccer players in the world. Just look at the successful teams in the World Cup and the leading players in Club play--they are comprised of players of all ethnicities. So, maybe Plaschke is suggesting that white Americans are not good athletes compared to latinos and blacks? Despite the many stereotypes that exist about blacks, whites, asians and latinos in America, particularly in sports, it is clear that each ethnicity has produced excellent athletes. Ultimately, it is this sort of uninformed, prejudiced and stereotypical statement that perpetuates such views especially from a so-called sports columnist and is incredibly irresponsible.
Third, from Plaschke's statement we can look at how the US soccer system develops its players. Plaschke wasn't thinking about this when he made his statement but he almost stumbled into an important issue for US soccer.
Initially, one has to look where our soccer players come from in the US. ESPN Soccernet's Fred Guzman writes far more eloquently and knowledgeably about this topic than I do. But, I will try to summarize what Guzman writes and add to it from my own personal experiences.
Guzman writes that soccer is a predominantly middle-class sport in the US, which is quite different from other countries. Elsewhere, soccer is played by all and the poorer communities have produced many of the best players in the world such as Maradona and Tevez. Soccer is a way out of the poverty for these people. To me the comparison is obvious. Soccer is the equivalent of basketball, football and to some extent baseball in the US. It is the path for to untold riches for the poor and may be their only way out. US soccer doesn't draw from this pool because soccer is obviously not as lucrative a sport in the US.
Guzman goes on to state that the US soccer system exacerbates this system because the Olympic Development Program (ODP) caters to the middle- and upper-class, to the detriment of players from poorer backgrounds. ODP is like AAU All-Star teams in basketball and costs a significant amount of money to join. Unfortunately, there isn't the corporate backing of ODP as there is for AAU because there is far less money to be made in soccer than basketball in the US for these companies. Consequently, ODP fails to cultivate players from poorer backgrounds that have produced many great soccer players around the world and great athletes in the US.
Bill Plaschke obviously wasn't thinking about this aspect of the US soccer system when he made is foolish comments on Around The Horn but his statement does provide an opportunity to think about the development of US soccer players. Fred Guzman makes some excellent points as well, but this issue needs far more attention from the US Soccer Federation to help raise the US program to an elite level.
Update 6/24/06 9:29 p.m.: Interesting NY Times article about Brazilian soccer and how most of the stars come from poverty.