American Exceptionalism

The world’s best don’t quit; they work harder to succeed
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Lionel Messi

       For many Americans, soccer remains a foreign concept. But for the many who love the beautiful game and are passionate fans, even they are sometimes perplexed by the sport’s inexplicable turn of events. 

       Such was the case this week when Lionel Messi, considered to be the best soccer player in the world, maybe of all time, abruptly announced he was quitting international play after Argentina lost to Chile in the Copa America final 4-2 on penalties after a 0-0 overtime draw.

       “My thinking right now and thinking about it in the locker room, I'm done playing with the national team,” Messi told reporters. “I tried my hardest. It's been four finals, and I was not able to win. I tried everything possible. It hurts me more than anyone, but it is evident that this is not for me. I want more than anyone to win a title with the national team, but unfortunately, it did not happen.”

       The shocking news of Messi, 29, quitting the Argentine national team spread around the world instantly and left soccer fans questioning how and why “the best” could simply walk away at the pinnacle of his career.

       In the United States, where character is revealed in how many times one gets up no matter how many times they’ve been knocked down, his decision just doesn’t make sense. However, in the wake of Messi’s announcement, several Argentine stars, including Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain are also considering leaving the national team.

       Say what you will about our country’s team, talent level and place in the world, but you’d never hear that from a player from the U.S. team, where spots on the national roster are coveted and hard-fought.

       While Messi seems to win championships with ease at Barcelona, his professional team, it has been just as difficult for him to win titles for his country. Argentina has lost three major international championship games in as many summers. In 2014, they lost to Germany in the World Cup final, and have lost to Chile in the Copa America final this summer and last.

       There is no doubt that most of the world’s soccer fans without Chilean blood were pulling for Messi to win his first major international tournament with Argentina. When he sailed his penalty kick over the goal and Chile’s players converted their shots, hearts broke around the globe, as once again Messi would be denied glory. The irreverent soccer television show Men In Blazers, even posted on social media that seeing “his tears tonight felt like watching hunters kill Bambi’s mum.”

       Many are saying Messi’s retirement announcement was made in haste, that he and several other players are upset with the Argentine football federation’s management of the team and players, and that things will be cleared up and he will return before September when qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia resumes.

       Let’s hope so. Argentina hasn’t won a major trophy in 23 years, and it won’t have the opportunity to win one for another two years. It would be the sporting world’s loss if Messi does not play in the next World Cup. But he would also be a loser if he quits. He will have a much harder time laying claim to the best in the world, much less best ever, if he walks away. While already an all-time great, he will not have the same claim to the crown as Pele, Zinedine Zidane or, his countryman, Diego Maradona.  


College soccer needed for U.S. to improve

       The United States finished fourth in the Copa America this summer, leaving open the question of where the team is in its overall development. One school of thought believes the U.S. finished fourth in the 1995 Copa America and should be much more advanced 21 years later. Another says the national team is hampered by the limited quality of Major League Soccer in developing players, and that the league and professional soccer in the United States must make fundamental changes in order for the national team to improve.

       I think there is some truth to both of those ideas. There is no doubt that there was tremendous talent on the U.S. team in the mid-1990s. And MLS has done way more good than harm. But there is a natural belief that in a nation with more than 300 million people that talent development would be more consistent that what it has been. I’m content with Jürgen Klinsman’s tenure as head coach and his work to makeover U.S. Soccer’s player development program. However, there is one thing more than any other that I believe would help propel U.S. Soccer to new heights. If we want to make the jump, we need to spread men’s collegiate soccer across NCAA Division I level schools and conferences.

       With Title IX, the law that requires colleges and universities to provide equal athletic offerings to men’s and women’s team’s, athletic programs added several women’s sports, soccer one of the most popular, to their athletic offerings. As a result, women's soccer has exploded, and the U.S. Women’s National Team has three World Cups to show for it.

       Official men’s college soccer is big out west and in the mid-Atlantic states, but club teams are the norm at most universities. Where now, high school is the end of the road for most players, if major conferences, like the SEC, Big 12, etc., had official teams, the pool to develop players and talent would increase exponentially for players aged 17-22, the ages when players make the jump to the senior national team.

       A fourth-place finish in the Copa America is respectable. As the team refocuses its efforts on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, it looks as if the defense is shoring up with John Brooks, Geoff, Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin and Matt Besler. There are several young forwards who look good, including Bobby Wood, Gyasi Zardes, and Jordan Morris. Captain Michael Bradley will hold command of the midfield, but there are questions about veterans Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones ability to make the team that goes to Russia.

       In the next two years, the team will have to organize its midfield and find high-grade bench players so starters can be switched and substituted during the course of big tournaments. Unfortunately, I'm not sure the talent is in the pipeline. And without a solid midfield, it's going to be tough to advance to the semi-finals and finals of major tournaments.

       In the semifinals of the Copa America this year, Argentina proved how much of a talent discrepancy exists between the U.S. and the best teams in the world. The Yanks have a way to go to get to their level. Still, we are and have been competitive. So while U.S. Soccer isn’t quite reaching the lofty “win-now” expectations its fans are starting to develop, it could be worse. Across the pond, England, a country with unbelievable talent on hand, hasn’t won an elimination game in a major tournament in a decade. And they won’t get the opportunity to win one for another two years. Crikey!



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