The myth of the athlete deficit in U.S. soccer

One of the most common explanations for why we cannot compete on the international stage is that our ‘best’ athletes don’t play soccer. If only our football or basketball or baseball or track athletes played the game!

That is a fallacy in my view. Here’s why:

First, soccer is not a sport where large size, strength, bulk, and speed make for elite players. Do those skinny  5′ 7″ to 5′ 9″ superstars in the above photo look like football and basketball players? Soccer is as much artistic as it is athletic.

The better soccer players have a range of skills and technical ability, quickness, great ball control and touch, and a vision for player movements and space. Soccer players have to creatively solve the many hundreds of micro-problems they encounter during a game, which goes well beyond just speed and bulk.

Second, unusually large or tall athletes that tend to be successful in football or basketball or track don’t necessarily have the right physical attributes for soccer. For example, most of them would not be quick, agile, and light-footed enough.

Many of them would be able to muscle smaller players off the ball (if they can get close enough), or shield the ball, or outrun many/most soccer players in a straight-line sprint, but those are not meaningful predictors of success in soccer, especially for quality soccer.

To be clear, if soccer became the number one sport in our country then one would expect the pool of raw talent available to soccer to improve/expand too, of course. And it would most likely help us move up the rankings, but for as long as we focus on the athletic attributes that we celebrate in football and basketball and track, we will not be able to compete internationally against soccer powerhouses.

Might there be a way to roughly estimate the best we could achieve by focusing primarily on athletic attributes we’re familiar with from football and basketball and track?

A good comparison might be the English national team. It is generally accepted that English players are physical, athletic, fast, but lacking in technique, skill, creativity, quickness, and a deeper tactical understanding of the game.

England has similar athletic raw material as here in our country and soccer is by far the number one sport. Most of the ‘big guys’ start playing soccer when they are young.

The result is that England won the World Cup in 1966 as hosts, but their best performance since has only been a semi-final appearance in 1990.

England has never won the  European Championships – their best performances being semi-final appearances at the 1968 and 1996 Championships, the latter of which they hosted.

At the most recent World Cup (2014) England was eliminated at the group stage for the first time since the 1958 World Cup, and the first time at a major tournament since Euro 2000. England’s points total of one from three matches was its worst ever in the World Cup, obtaining one point from drawing against Costa Rica in their last match.

Another good, primarily athletically focused, underperforming soccer comparison might be Russia. It is generally considered to be one of the top ‘athletically talented’ countries and also has a deep soccer tradition.

But Russia has achieved little at the international level – reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008 marks the only time that they passed the group stages of a major tournament these last ~25 years. Their best finish at the World Cup was fourth in 1966. At the European Championships they finished second three times (1964, 1972, 1988) when athleticism and brute force played a much bigger role in soccer.

Germany tends to have more athletic players also, but they’ve invested heavily in the artistic/technical aspects of player development these last twenty years. And even elite German soccer players are, by and large, not like our football and basketball players.

In other words, if soccer becomes the number one sport here and can draw on a larger pool of athletic ‘raw material’ (and everything else stays the same) then the best we can expect to achieve is arguably the English success record (which is better than the US record, but I’m assuming we want to aim for the top).

So to join the best in the world we have to look beyond our typical U.S. view of athleticism and add the many non-athletic elements that make for truly world-class soccer in countries like Spain, Germany, Argentina, and Brasil.

All this is good news in my view. We can become World Champions without having to wait for soccer to overtake football and/or basketball in popularity. Waiting for ‘our best athletes to play soccer’ is a fallacy.

Athletes especially suitable for football and basketball are not necessarily especially suitable for soccer, and vice versa. All sports can co-exist without materially cannibalising each other.

We have enough diverse athletic ‘raw material’ of different shapes and sizes to be internationally competitive in all sports. We just need to focus on the right player attributes for each sport.

It’s all there. We just have to do it right.

Author: James

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

11 thoughts on “The myth of the athlete deficit in U.S. soccer”

  1. There are a couple problems with this argument. 1st, there are plenty of football players that aren’t extremely tall. The reason why many football players are big is because they train their bodies to be so. Not to mention the argument ignores the fact that there are tons of great athletes that are smaller that played football/basketball and don’t go on to college or pros because their bodies don’t fit the sport they choose. US soccer needs to find a way to tap into a larger proportion of the population. This very simple. The larger your talent pool, the more talent you’re potentially going to acquire.


  2. I agree and there is another line of support for your argument: just look at the attributes of American players on the international stage. Does Jozy Altidore struggle at the highest level because he is not strong or quick enough? Bullocks…he’s an absolute specimen. But he, and so many other US players like him, lack the technical ability, quick decision making, and creativity of the top players. The problem is not in height, weight, or circumference of the biceps. It’s between the ears of the players.

    In the 2014 World Cup, the US team was in the top 10% in terms of running and aerobic capacity, and we still crashed out in the early knockout stages. No amount of graft and athleticism can compensate for players with limited technique and football IQ.

    Until we reform grassroots soccer to encourage skill at an early age, we will continue to struggle no matter the caliber of athletes that we have.


  3. I disagree. There are a bunch of skinny, 5’7″ to 5’8″ guys that are blowing up AAU basketball and youth football. They will be limited as to what they can accomplish in those sports, but they don’t know that they will be limited until after they stop growing and developing. Soccer can’t compete with the youth and HS experience that is offered by Basketball and Football. Big games in those sports are a neighborhood event. Since the USSF and the schools can’t cooperate on soccer, it will remain a niche sport.


    1. Maybe when they’re 12, but demographics and sports medicine are working against your supposed trend. Steph Curry aside, the NBA and NFL will continue to be populated by physical specimens not found in the standard gene pool. And parents don’t want their kids playing football now that the concussion danger is more fully understood. Those 40 million hispanic immigrants we’ve accepted–maybe their dads play baseball but soccer is their primary sport of choice. But let’s see where this goes. You’ll know when the NFL starts weakening when they drop their blackout provisions despite declining attendance, and you’ll know when college soccer is strengthening when the NCAA stops treating soccer like all the other college sports, in order to avoid irrelevance.


      1. The body types of those that make the NFL and the NBA are not conducive to soccer. No disputes here. But the fallacy in the author’s argument is that he infers that the body types in professional sports are the same as those in the youth developmental leagues. Only a fraction of those in the youth leagues go on to be professionals. The rest wash out for a variety of reasons including the fact that they don’t have the correct body type. They could be fantastic athletes, but just lack the physical dimensions to be professionals in those sports. Still, they don’t know that when they are still developing. They just know they are dominating youth basketball or football leagues, with the hopes of carrying their HS to State. What is the plan? Tell these kids to switch to soccer after they don’t get a football scholarship to the SEC because the are too small? Pretty sure that isn’t going to work.

        Enthusiasm for Football and Basketball dwarf soccer. You hear about 60,000 showing up for a football game in Texas, or 20-30k showing up to the Indiana HS basketball championship…but nothing like that in soccer. NFHS did an attendance study and found that basketball and football get nearly 200 million in attendance each year. Baseball/softball gets about 45 million. Soccer gets about 25 million (not sure the breakout between boys and girls).

        Football could lose players over time because of concussions, but those leaving the sport may not go to soccer. Soccer participation is down overall (11%), even with their nearly 73% drop off at age 13. Lacrosse and Hockey maybe the sports benefiting from footballs misfortunes (among the few sports showing gains). Mostly, the Playstation and the Xbox are the ones winning, though.


        1. You raise a good point. There is no doubt that football and basketball play a much bigger role in our country for the reasons you state and this should have an effect on the potential player pool for soccer. In my post I acknowledge that and describe the likely effect (i.e. becoming as good as England or Russia).

          But this ‘sports popularity’ issue is not the point of my post.

          My points are that (1) we don’t have a player pool size issue for soccer in this country and (2) that the sports aren’t competing for the same athletes to an extent that this competition should reduce our international competitiveness.

          Regarding our player pool: according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, basketball and soccer each have around 5M six to twelve year olds playing the sport, football has around 1.3M, and track & field around 0.75M. Between 2008 and 2013, basketball saw a roughly 5% drop in participation, soccer 10%, football 30% (!), and track & field around 15%. My understanding is that the drop in football has further accelerated these last few years, partly because of the concussion and injury crisis. I would not be surprised if the number of youth football players drops below the 1M mark soon.

          Soccer has seen one of the strongest growths of all major sports these last twenty years or so, both in percentage terms and total number of players. A quote from the Wall Street Journal:

          “If participation is an indication of future fandom, the prospects look good: Soccer has surged in the past three decades for boys and girls, and it now trails only basketball in combined numbers. Though the growth has slowed in recent years, the National Federation of State High School Associations reports soccer participation in 2013-14 was up 8.7% from 2008-09. According to the 2014 ESPN Sports Poll, a survey of more than 400,000 people that measures sports fandom, professional soccer ranked as the No. 2 sport, behind pro football, among 12- to 17-year-olds. The survey found that Major League Soccer was as popular as Major League Baseball among the same age group.”

          And keep in mind that the drop-off in youth sports participation at around 13/14 is across all sports, not just soccer, with injury concerns playing an important role. There are other reasons too – puberty, increasing school work load, boredom, parents and coaches too often forgetting what’s important for youth sports (enjoyment!), etc.

          Also, very important to note is that we have more youth soccer players than any of the soccer powerhouses in the world. So, again, my point is that we don’t have an ‘athlete deficit’ for soccer in our country. We already have the athletic raw material to become a soccer powerhouse ourselves. Basketball and football do not materially impact our soccer potential. The different sports can coexist and the soccer community should focus on other aspects of soccer development, not the myth of the athlete deficit.

          In a nutshell, we have both a large enough pool of athletes and the type of athlete who does well in soccer is sufficiently distinct from the type who does well in basketball and football. I believe that the ‘athlete deficit’ in soccer is a myth. Other factors account for our underperformance. Some of my other posts focus on those factors.

          Btw, I’m not so sure that ‘type selection’ doesn’t already happen at, say, ten or twelve or fourteen years old. It becomes glaringly obvious at the adult pro level as you say, of course, but I’d be very surprised if the way youngsters are selected and encouraged (or not) by coaches and parents isn’t materially influenced by their perceived and demonstrated ‘fit’ during practices and games (e.g. that big boy is such as good lineman or that fast kid is going to be our wide receiver). Would love for someone to do a statistical analysis on this. My prediction is that we’d already see clustering by ‘type’ even at a young age. Overlap, yes, but clustering for sure. I’d also expect this clustering to become more pronounced with age and the overlap between clusters to become very small.


          1. My son plays U10 in a “B” team for one of bigger clubs in the bay area.
            The type selection already happened last year when they were 8/9 years old.

            This is what’s happening. Coach picks the 2 biggest boys in center back and midfielder position. the next boy becomes another defender. next 2 kids who are willing to play goal keeper plays keeper and striker. these big kids get to play the whole game. then he rotates the rest of “small” kids in and out.

            Basically, my son only gets to play 1/2 the game at max. It doesn’t matter that he might have better technical skills. and it doesn’t matter that he might prefer playing defender instead of forward. just because he is small and fast, he gets placed in that position.

            I guess that’s how they won games in the past…. but it drives me crazy.

            The kid who plays midfielder might never know how good he could be as playing forward.. then he will get bored playing one position and eventually quit.

            It will still have a few years before my son would hit puberty and grow into his size.
            Until then, he would be stuck with playing the same position every single game.

            I think it’s all about coaches…. what we are missing is not pool of players but pool of good coaches.
            coaches will is willing to say losing all the games in the league is ok as long as everyone in the team get an opportunity to develop.


            1. Thank you for sharing your experiences with your son. I share the same concerns – kids need to be rotated through multiple positions, encouraged to try new things even if they make many mistakes, and encouraged to focus on technical skills. Winning should never be the goal (unless maybe during a tournament, but all the kids and parents still need to feel included) – it should always be about player development. All players on the team.

              So, in general, it is probably reasonable to say that coaching quality (compared to, say, Germany and Spain) and a bias toward athleticism (size, speed, strength) in our country is holding our player development back. There are great coaches, but the quality drops off quickly. There are also truly horrible coaches that shouldn’t be coaching at all.

              What I would like to add though is that for many coaches this is their main way to put food on the table. It’s their job. It’s how they pay for their kids’ clothing and school supplies etc. And coaches, by and large, don’t make much money from coaching (some do, but only the top).

              And for the majority of parents ‘winning’ is important. Parents walk away from a losing team/coach after a couple of seasons because they don’t care or don’t understand what it means to become a truly good soccer player at age 16 or 18.

              So it takes a very courageous coach (and parents that are willing to learn what it means to develop players) to truly ignore ‘winning’.

              Your point is well taken. But I suggest we also look at parents and the pressures that these coaches work under.


  4. No disagreement with the general premise – that we don’t need to wait for our “top athletes” to start playing soccer. But, as i think you have stated previously, the biggest issue US soccer has is “keeping our top soccer players actually playing soccer past U14”. As in, we have plenty of kids playing soccer – our problem is that we focus too intensely on winning at too young an age, burning out the better kids with too much pressure and losing the less adept (at least at younger ages) kids to boredom and “why do i bother if i ride the bench all the time”.

    My club is a classic example of doing the wrong things to encourage the majority of kids to keep playing:
    1. Too much focus (time and effort) on finding the top kids to send to Europe, instead of creating a better experience for the other 99.99% of kids in the club
    2. Too much focus (time and effort) on “Premier/Academy” teams and getting to NPL vs the the 2/3-3/4 of kids that don’t play at that level
    3. Packing teams with 16+ kids at 11v11, taking away playing time from everyone, at a time when US Soccer is correctly focusing on MORE touches on the ball per kid and not less.
    4. No guaranteed playing time at any age, including the youngsters, meaning its 100% up to a coach whether or not to bench a player 50% or more of the time, so they can “win”.
    5. No policy around # of positions played per kid, leading to many coaches playing 8, 9 10 years olds at the same positions over and over again, year after year, crippling their interest and their development.

    Is it no wonder that kids just give up and drop out before they hit the ripe old age of 14??


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