The Blog

Winning Changes Everything

Soccer does (sort of) matter--and yesterday's win over Portugal is a milestone for the game in America.

12:00 AM, Jun 6, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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PLEASE, could we dispense with all the think pieces about why Americans don't like soccer and the hand-wringing over how this leaves us culturally adrift from the rest of the world? America has primary sports (baseball, basketball, football) and secondary sports (golf, tennis, hockey, soccer). The same exists in every country. The distinction is that more folks play primary sports or watch them than play or watch secondary sports. Given this, it follows, quite logically, that in America soccer isn't as big a deal as baseball.

So what? Soccer still matters here. And yesterday was a great day for America. By beating the highly skilled team from Portugal in the first round of the World Cup and doing so with three of its best players injured and unable to play, the United States established itself as a rising soccer power in the world, probably the rising power. The victory was not a fluke. The Portuguese were ranked fourth among the 32 teams, but the Americans overwhelmed them offensively in the first half and matched them defensively in the second.

I suspect not many Americans awoke at 5 a.m. EDT to watch the game live. Yes, more should have, if only for patriotic reasons. But the win is bound to stir broad national enthusiasm, so the TV audience for the next game against South Korea should grow, even though it's scheduled for 2:30 a.m. EDT on Monday.

But, remember, soccer is a secondary sport. Would millions more Americans get up to watch golf or tennis from Europe or Asia at a predawn hour? Nope. Would they for baseball, if the World Series were played in Japan (as it might be one day)? Yes, indeed. Americans prefer sports they invented, namely the primary ones such as baseball. Soccer was invented elsewhere. Do Europeans go gaga over sports they didn't invent, like football? No. The point is that the American reaction to the World Cup--not indifferent, just restrained--is perfectly normal.

The important question now is how did the Americans get so good? The playmaker, Claudio Reyna, was out with an injury, as was the most explosive scorer, Clint Mathis, plus their most exciting midfielder, Chris Armas. Yet they weren't missed. Okay, maybe Reyna was missed in the second half when the U.S. team had trouble controlling the ball at times.

Anyway, there are four reasons why America is now a budding soccer power. The first: There are now enough top-flight soccer players, what columnist Robert Samuelson correctly calls "a critical mass." You didn't get this until millions of kids were playing, as they are now. Oddly enough, this stage was reached nearly two decades earlier in women's soccer. But the bar was set much lower for the women's World Cup because the rest of the world has few good women's teams.

Reason two: The best young players are skipping college. Look at who scored yesterday. The first goal was by John O'Brien, who left the United States at age 16 to join the elite Ajax soccer club in Holland. At 24, he's world class. The second goal came from Landon Donovan, 20, who's been a pro since age 17. And DaMarcus Beasley, at age 18, was one of the stars.

College soccer has been a major impediment to the development of elite American soccer players. In Europe and Latin America, for example, promising players are grabbed by pro teams in their mid-teens. They play soccer year-round against top talent and improve rapidly. But American college soccer is played only in the fall against mediocre talent. This amounts to four years off from soccer. Top players don't improve much and thus fall behind the rest of the world. Now, however, premier U.S. youth players turn pro out of high school--or even before.

Reason three is that many Americans now play in premier soccer leagues around the world, mostly in Europe. The best basketball players in the world come to the United States to improve their game (in high school and college) and then play in the National Basketball Association. The United States is returning the compliment with soccer players, who get a lot better as a result of performing overseas.

The final reason is Bruce Arena. He may be the best soccer coach in the world. He's been a winner everywhere: four NCAA titles in a row at the University of Virginia and I don't know how many titles in Major League Soccer here. He has the knack for bringing out the best in players. In the first half against Portugal, he had Americans playing more dazzlingly well than they ever had. Arena brought out better than the best. It's hard to imagine any team in the World Cup, even Germany or Brazil or Italy, playing a better half.

We don't have to apologize for American soccer anymore. It may not be number one in the world. But, as Samuelson insists, one day soon it will be.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.