On an August night 15 years ago, I drove to Coney Island to play basketball. Arriving just after dinner, I set up camp at a court on the corner of Mermaid and 25th Street, nestled beside a large public housing project. I ran games late into the night with a small group, including a hulking gentleman named Tank who had a mouthful of gold teeth, and a younger chap, Nick, who was missing a finger on his right hand. Nick’s torso was dotted with small, round scars from old gun wounds.
Nick, Tank, and all the others I played with were affable and kind, as nice a group as you would ever want to meet. The neighborhood felt neither threatening nor unsafe. The only aspect that was truly alien to me was the presence of children: Small kids, some as young as three or four, ran around in packs, unsupervised, all night long. Some played on the adjoining playground. Others brought basketballs and ran little games of their own wherever there was spare blacktop.
I went to Coney Island because the court at Mermaid and 25th was -Stephon Marbury’s home. Marbury was a legendary playground point guard who went on to become a dazzling (though ultimately self-destructive) professional player. I wanted to see the court where he grew up.
America is proficient at producing great athletes in a wide variety of sports. Not just basketball, baseball, and football, but also hockey, skiing, figure skating, tennis, golf, volleyball—every sport you can think of and some you can’t (like curling).
The lone exception is soccer. At any given time, about 10 million of the 60 million American kids between the ages of 5 and 18 are involved in organized soccer. Yet high-level success is elusive. American soccer has never produced a Stephon Marbury, let alone a Babe Ruth or a Michael Jordan.
Most Americans are sublimely indifferent to this national failure, but a small group—our national youth development professionals—are not. They are intent on building a better soccer star. And they believe that one of the obstacles is our bourgeois culture.
Some sports require intense practice and coaching to achieve excellence. Gymnasts and tennis players, for instance, are shaped by adult coaches from a fearfully young age. Other sports, such as baseball and golf, require organized repetition—thousands of hours playing catch or hitting balls. But a few sports are accessible enough that players can learn and emerge on their own. In these, a heavy regime of organization might actually inhibit development.
Take basketball. Almost to a man, the best players develop on playgrounds, spending lots of time learning and experimenting by themselves or with other kids. One of the reasons so many great basketball players hail from the inner city is that environments like Coney Island—where kids come and go as they please—are perfect incubators of basketball talent. Before he became a pro, Marbury was one of those kids I saw, running around playing basketball at all hours. To put it gently, for basketball development, the social dynamics of urban poverty are more help than hindrance.
When it comes to developing talent, soccer is a lot like basketball. In recent years, the American coaching establishment has concluded that the nation’s soccer infrastructure is flawed. There are 5,500 accredited soccer clubs, each with a panoply of peewee, youth, travel, and select teams. These clubs run rigorous practices and carefully arranged games and tournaments. An army of parents caravan their kinder from field to field, while the win-loss records of teams of 11-year-olds are dutifully tabulated. Because that’s how the middle class believes winners are made.
But all of that hyper-regimentation does little to foster high-level brilliance. Sam Snow, the director of coaching education at U.S. Youth Soccer, laments that we now “over-coach and we over-organize.” It’s a quintessentially American problem: Our professional soccer failure is a product of our middle-class cultural success.
The solution put forward by the soccer establishment is “street soccer.” Here’s how it works: In order to give kids the opportunity to play on their own, parents drop them off at special practices where the coaches toss out a few balls and let them put together their own games with only quiet adult oversight. It’s free-play—only organized. And supervised.
Street soccer, then, is an attempt to mimic (in carefully controlled bursts) the conditions of poverty that aid athletic development—to replicate Mermaid and 25ths all over the country and conceive little Stephon Marburys in vitro. Only without the housing projects, the gun wounds, or any actual impoverishment.