Why the U.S. men’s soccer team will challenge the world

A few weeks ago the Dutch soccer world was upset as one of its biggest talents announced that he would quit soccer. The 19-year-old indicated he would rather go to a university.

This example once again marks an important difference between European and American soccer academies. In the U.S. you can combine professional soccer with a college degree – you are even encouraged to do so. In Europe, you’ll have to choose.

Superior innovative and analytical capacity as a huge advantage for American soccer

This different route to a professional soccer career has 3 long-term adverse effects for European soccer:

  1. The talent pool is smaller compared to the U.S. as many potential soccer stars will never reach the professional level.
  2. European soccer players are relatively dumb.
  3. American soccer players are smarter than their European counterparts, but so are their coaches and managers, as many former pro-soccer players find employment close to the game.

The second and third effect will ensure that the innovative and analytical capacity of American soccer is and will remain much larger than those of its trans-Atlantic and South-American rivals. If you look at baseball, basketball, ice-hockey, and American football, you can see clearly see that it is a hell of a lot more analytically approached than soccer.

Statistics, for one, play a much bigger role. Everything a quarterback, small forward, or pitcher does is measured in statistics, whereas the soccer world has been notoriously stubborn in acknowledging the importance of statistical analysis and the use of technology. As Americans are used to using statistics in other sports already, they have a profound advantage as there is no need to convince the establishment of its importance.

How could they exploit this analytical advantage? First, they might introduce increasingly savvy game-plans based on data – data on their own players, data on competitors, and aggregated data. American coaches and managers will be much better able to do so because they are smarter themselves, they will get more freedom to do so, and they work with smarter players. As the sport continues to mature and coaches and managers try to find a way to get ahead of their competitors, this may become a crucial weapon.

Second, they will be able to create better squads. They can create a team rather than a bunch of individuals. When Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger was looking for someone who could help the team by covering lots of ground, statistics helped him to find Mathieu Flamini. When Chelsea bought Claude Makélélé, Real Madrid had no idea they had just lost an extremely valuable player that does the lion’s share of the high-intensity work when the other team has possession. Moreover, they will be better able to avoid the pitfalls of signing players as instructed by conventional wisdom and unconscious prejudices.

Third, they will be better able to optimise the off-pitch environment. There are a lot of things that influence the performance on the pitch, including eating and sleeping habits, player’s mental states, sports equipment, training practices, and so on. As intelligence usually correlates with open-mindedness, we can expect Americans to benefit more optimally from, to name one example, psychologists.

Add to all these considerations that American soccer is undoubtedly on the rise. There is plenty of advertisement money, huge stadiums are already there, and the remaining pool of talent is big enough. As more and more European stars transfer to the MLS a self-reinforcing cycle is jump-started. As the league becomes stronger and more popular, companies and spectators are willing to spend more money, young talents may decide more often to pursue a career in soccer, which in turn will drive the development of the league. If you’re not convinced already, look what happened to the women.

European sports universities

The conclusion is inescapable: The United States will be a serious contender for the soccer World Cup in a decade or two. As a Dutch soccer aficionado, who is not particularly looking forward to losing the soccer-trash-talking at the dinner table to his American significant other, what can we do about it?

Above all, I would say, create the opportunity for young athletes to pursue an academic career. I would not restrict it to soccer players, but include all sorts of professional sports. If the (political) willingness is there, there are several ways to do so. I have 2 favourite options:

  1. Erect an entirely new state-sponsored university, specifically tailored towards athletes. It could be national, but a cross-border institution would probably even be better as it intensifies competition. Perhaps we can create programs that last 6-8 years instead of 3 or 4, so that athletes can have manageable workloads.
  2. My preference, though, would be to have a university, or preferably several universities, set up a program or department specifically for athletes. This way you avoid the academic credibility problem that would be associated with a newly instituted university.

In any case, I do hope we find a way. Fast.

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