Way back in the heady days for nascent US soccer fans about two weeks ago, when Landon Donovan scored an in-your-face goal from an acute angle to help his team come back against Slovenia, a frothing headline on the NY Times Website the next day read, “An American Style is Born.”

The story attempts to address one of the more fascinating aspects of soccer, or football, as the world’s most popular game: does the way different nations play tell us something about the cultures of those nations? It refers to Spain’s “artistry and grace” and a few other countries, while calling the pondering of a US style akin to “a zen koan.”

But Donovan’s goal, it says, could change all that, its brashness perhaps heralding a “cowboy” style of soccer.

There are several things wrong with this. First of all, if such a shot signified a style, then, as several alert Times readers posted below the article, others practiced the same style in the same tournament — including Brazil’s Maicon and Fabiano. Another reader recalled Didier Drogba powering home similar goals more than once for Chelsea.

But more importantly — and in all fairness, perhaps the writer must be excused for being thrown onto a soccer beat at the last minute during the frenzy to meet reader demand for news from the world’s most popular sporting event – the article wastes an opportunity, and I have yet to see anyone else take it up. Exactly how does the US team play the game, and why, and what can be done to improve its chances in future World Cups?

To my mind, the same Donovan more tipified the US approach to soccer with another theatrical goal, the one that pulled the US into the fateful round of 16 on the back of a last-minute 1-0 victory over Algeria.  For those who were stuck in a cave for the past  few weeks, Donovan’s moment came on a breakaway started by US goalkeeper Tim Howard’s alert and skillful throw to the midfielder on the right touch line. Donovan to Altidore, Altidore to a barrelling Dempsey, who bowls over the goalkeeper, but doesn’t slot through the ball, which rebounds onto…Donovan’s onrushing feet, who cooly side-foots a goal into the left corner. “The Shot Heard Round the World,” as many headlines dubbed it, drew the attention of millions, including former and current US presidents.

And it tipifies what I would call the US style. Again, let’s go to another Times reader. (One of the interesting things about the World Cup is not just that the U.S. media suddenly discovers soccer for a month, “flooding the zone” with all sorts of angles, but that, in the Internet age, that same coverage brings out all sorts of knowledge from all corners of the globe in the form of readers’ comments on media Websites.) This reader calls himself “F. Beckenbauer” and indicates that he is posting his comments “driving past Munich” which must mean someone else has his or her hands on the wheel. Regardless of whether the famed German player is actually weighing in on the subject online, on the road, the comment is spot-on:

As for American style, its an atrocious bastardization of English style. Heave it long and hope our strikers can out muscle for a favorable bounce. I have yet, to see the US players break down defenders one on one (like a Messi,) or even good first move and blow by with speed (as I even saw some Nigerian and RSA players do today). The play never builds from the back through the midfield and forward, and many of the all important first touches are brutal.

If the truth hurts, so be it. What the speeding, wreckless driver is referring to is the tendency to teach soccer in many youth programs across the country in search of players with speed, size and strength, as if Wayne Rooney was the ideal prototype for world soccer. The result: players like US forwards Findley and Altidore, who are definitely fast and strong, but have relatively little skill with the ball, not only down the field, but around the net.  

There was much handwringing in the days after Ghana knocked the US out of the World Cup for the second time in a row, particularly around the fact of there having been no goals, also for the second World Cup in a row, from forwards. How do we create forwards? sportswriters asked. Maybe we need Kobe Bryants in soccer! another suggested. Yes, bigger, stronger, faster.

But wait a minute. What nations are having their best World Cup in history? The ones who speak Spanish, and in the case of Brazil, Portuguese. How is soccer taught, and played in the streets, in these countries? Ball control, skill, flair, creativity. That’s first. Who is considered the world’s preeminent player at this point? Lionel Messi, from Argentina. He’s 5’6″.

The fact is, US soccer has a resource it seems to be overlooking, which are the tens of millions of Latino and other immigrants who either came from places where technical skills are prized above all else, or perhaps they were born in the US — like Herculez Gomez, the only US player with two Hispanic parents –, but grew up seeing soccer played like it is in Latin America.

If more youth programs across the nation had more Latinos as coaches, and more teams, clubs and leagues were more integrated, instead of forming separate, so-called “Mexican” or “Hispanic” teams, clubs and leagues, not to mention including more immigrants from Africa and other parts of the world, we might see a style develop in the US that more accurately reflects the melting pot we supposedly are as a nation.

That would make for some more interesting soccer, and the US team would do better in the World Cup.

 

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