The United States bowed out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup after a spirited performance against Belgium—a nation of just 11 million (or, as one humorous article put it, “a Dakota and a half”. For the record, Ohio’s population of 11,570,808 makes it the closest state in terms of population to Belgium. A “Dakota and a half” renders only around 1.5 million).
While the loss was not unexpected it was still upsetting for me as it is any time one of my countries loses in football—especially since, inexplicably, the US had a chance to win the game at the death before Chris Wondolowski—also inexplicably—managed to make a mess of his moment in front of goal. But football is, sometimes, like life. You get your one moment, and you either make the best of it . . . or you don’t. There is no real in between.
A few articles have been written in the wake of the United States’ second round exit, including a very interesting one that asks the question “Has the US Men’s National Team Plateaued?”. Personally, I would be less dramatic—after all, this is football and anything can happen. I should know. My other team, Turkey, made an improbable run to third place at the 2002 World Cup—and another to the semifinals of the 2008 European Championships with an admittedly under-talented side. Hard work coupled with heart and belief can go a long way in football (like it can in life)—just look at the Greece team that won the 2004 European Championship!
So do I think the United States will, in the next three World Cups (a twelve year cycle), have a stunning performance? Yes, I suppose I do. But I won’t ask them to compete with the likes of Brazil, Argentina, and Germany year in and year out. And that’s ok because I also—secretly—like soccer in the US to be more of an inside joke amongst those of us who truly enjoy the game for what it is, and not some marquis event for frat boys who want an excuse to slam beers at odd hours of the working day in the name of banal nationalism done ‘Muricuh style. And that inside joke would be made even sweeter if the US somehow managed to scare the world by advancing past the Quarterfinals of a World Cup. I’ve watched enough US matches on foreign soil to recognize the glee when the US concedes a goal—in the last week alone I’ve seen it in both Russia and Turkey—and I can imagine the fear of a US World Cup win.
It does not appear that soccer in the US will ever move beyond being an inside joke that becomes part of the country’s mainstream culture for just a few summer weeks once every four years (selling many Nike shirts in the meantime) before, again, retreating into hibernation. I don’t think like this because I’m negative or a non-believer in US soccer, it is mainly because I am a realist—both in International Relations theory and in terms of football. When one looks at the facts it should not come as a surprise that the United States will never be a true world power in football. At the heart of it—as in so many cases—lies economics (James Carville would be proud).
The top professional soccer league in the United States is Major League Soccer (MLS), a league that has been steadily improving since its inception in 1996 despite competing with the other major American sports for visibility, fans, and . . . athletes.
Its not hard to understand why. On April 10, 2014 MLS released their salary information and the results were shocking. The top seven salaries in MLS—those of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Defoe, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, and Tim Cahill—account for 31% of all player salaries. In fact, as Empireofsoccer.com shows, the top 5% of earners represent 45% of total player salaries. That is a huge disparity for a country that prides itself on equality (perhaps there is a psychological dimension to this as well—the economics of MLS are fundamentally un-American!).
The salaries of the aforementioned seven players have, as empireofsoccer.com stated, inflated the league’s average salary to a figure of $207,831 (up from the 2013 figure of $165,066 when the median salary was just $100,000). Still, just a cursory look at a sample of the Colorado Rapid’s salary information for the 2014 season shows some glaring examples of the issues in play. At least three Rapids players—professional athletes who face far greater risk of serious injury daily than I ever did at work—make less money than I made sitting at a desk in my old day job!
Now compare the (admittedly inflated) average salary figure of $207,831 in MLS to the average salaries in the other major US sports from two years ago, courtesy of Forbes unless cited otherwise:
Major League Baseball (MLB): $3.2 million in 2012, now it is just under $4 million.
National Basketball Association (NBA): $5.15 million, now it is 3,453,241 (with a median of $1,500,000—fifteen times the MLS median in 2013).
National Football League (NFL): $1.9 million
National Hockey League (NHL): $2.4 million
The disparity is staggering. And now lets look back at that list of the seven highest paid MLS players, for a moment. Only three of the seven—Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan—are American. And after Jurgen Klinsmann’s now legendary snubbing of Landon Donovan, only two of them made it to the United States’ World Cup squad! Clearly, what big money that does exist in MLS is certainly not going to help the development of the US Men’s National team. And that means that for your average American soccer player, the chances of making big money at home—and representing your country on the biggest stage—are very small indeed.
This in itself poses a problem for the development of the game in the US. Many talented soccer players at the youth level in the United States often play multiple sports. Soccer is either a fall or spring sport depending on where you live, so that leaves the options of American Football and Baseball in other seasons, not to mention Basketball and Hockey in the winter months. Unlike in other countries, where football is the only money-making game in town, American athletes have other options as well that may prove to be more lucrative in the long term. While it is obviously difficult to make it as a professional in any of the major US sports, the fact that there is more money—and more collegiate scholarships (Soccer has the same number of NCAA Division 1 scholarships as Swimming/Diving and Wrestling)—available in the other sports means that it is very difficult to keep the country’s best athletes playing football. This is a fact that, unfortunately, does not bode well for the hopes of developing a truly world class US Men’s National Team; it doesn’t meant that it is impossible by any means, just that it is more difficult than it is in other nations.
Tim Howard Does His Country Proud, But Can Only Slump Off In The End As Belgium Move On: