Waiting for the American Soccer Mesiah

I was first introduced to the game in 1974 by my father. Seattle had introduced a new sports franchise that year in what was a relatively new sport to the United States, soccer. The team was the Seattle Sounders and that year in particular started a city-wide love affair that endures to this day.  During that time the sport has evolved both at the youth level and the professional level.  It has spawned the term, “Soccer Mom”.  Created for many parents an endless summer of driving and flying to local, national and international soccer tournaments.  The MLS is growing and being followed by a new generation of sports fans, do I dare say it is being successful.    The World Cup is more popular than ever.  Every Saturday and Sunday morning I wake to the EPL and SPL games.  I see the best teams in the world: Chelsea, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona etc..  I see the best players in the world:  Christiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Edin Hazzard, Neymar, etc..  However one thing is missing from all these great events, games and players, there are no great American players.  We have come a long way but we still don’t have a great messiah of the world’s game and consequently don’t have the world’s respect.

When I first started watching and following soccer back in the seventies there were very few American professional players.  The NASL had a rule – you had to have two Americans on the field, later changed to three.  Trouble was finding 2-3 American  players who were any good.  When you did find one, well thanks to American marketing know how, you made him a star.  Our first start was a Texan named Kyle Rote jr.  I am not sure he was great but he did in his first few seasons score goals, which was something new to American players.  He played for the Dallas Tornados and the crowds in those days were small, usually under ten thousand.  But for those of us who followed soccer he was the best we had.  He can say he played against greats such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, Johan Cruyff, but all these legends were past their prime.  Kyle Rote Jr. would disappear from the sport and is now a businessman in Memphis.

Things would not change much in US Soccer until Paul Caliguiri would score his epic goal against Trinidad & Tobago to send the US to the 1990 World Cup in Italy.  People would call it the shot heard around the world.  I think they had their planets mixed up.  It was a big moment in US Soccer history, for sure, but how many noticed I suspect is few.  The US was going to the biggest stage on earth.  There were no real star on the team, the oldest player was 27, most played their full-time soccer on teams that would qualify them as semi-professional.  A few of the players would have fairly successful careers, players like John  Harkes, Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda, and Kasey Kellar.  However on the international stage none would be considered great.  In fact you would have to be a USA soccer follower to know who they were.  The good news was the 1990 World Cup was the stat of what s now seven consecutive World Cup appearances.

The next big soccer moment was the 2002 World Cup jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan.  The US had improved.  We had our own professional soccer league, the MLS.  We had some exciting young players in Landon Donovan, Clint Mathis and Demarcus Beasley.  We had players who had played professionally in leagues outside the US.  We started with a major upset defeating Portugal 3-2.  A goal from John O’Brien was key and he would be an example of what could have been.  He was on par with america’s other starlet Landon Donovan.  He had grown through the famed Ajax youth system in the Amsterdam.  Unfortunately the Portugal game was the last we would see of him as injuries derailed his career.  The US would defeat  our arch-rival Mexico 2-1 in the round of 16 and make into the quarterfinals.  A tough 1-0 loss to eventual finalist Germany wold end up being the best the United States has ever done at the World Cup.  However we had something new in US Soccer, hope.

Landon Donovan would emerge from the World Cup as the new star of US Soccer and maybe for the first time the US finally had a recognizable star, that even non-Soccer people would know.  Landon would endure great success in the ever improving MLS.  Winning titles in San Jose and LA.  But he is almost as well know for his failures in Europe.  In a lot of ways Landon was an enigma, who seemed the consummate brooding star.  When he was not happy, it seemed to show it self as a sulking child on the field.  When happy he would light up the soccer field with his speed and quickness, at times playing at a different level than the rest of the players on the field.  His moodiness would hurt him when leading up to the World Cup he decided he needed a sabbatical from soccer.  It ended for him when he was dropped from the World Cup roster in 2014 in Brazil.

The other star to emerge was Clint Dempsey.  Who may be even more recognized than Landon Donovan due to his success in the English Premier league.    Dempsey was maybe the classic inspiration growing up in a trailer park in Texas and working his way up the youth and professional soccer system.  He would spend six years in England playing predominately for Fulham and ending with Tottenham.  In his time we would score 57 goals, some of them world class like the one he scored against Italian power Juventus in the Europa Cup.  A good career. He has also scored 40 goals for the US and is the only player to have scored in 3 successive World Cups.  His career falls short of being a messiah because he  played in tier 2 clubs in the EPL.  However he did reach levels no other US field player has reached in world soccer

What will it take for an American player to be the great soccer messiah?  The game in the United States has improved greatly over the last 40 years. The level of training and commitment at the youth level is far more than I ever could have dreamed of when I was a kid.  When I look at what my three sons have accomplished they have had far better access to training and games than I ever did.  However we still lack representation at the top-level.  The big clubs as mentioned earlier.  The Manchester United’s, Barcelona’s, Real Madrid’s, etc..We do not even have good representation in the top leagues,  There are no US players playing in the Spanish Premier League.  Despite the great strides made by the MLS, it is still a long way from being a top-tier league.  Right now our domestic league is still a vacation destination for older players like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Kaka, to name but a few.  Some in better shape than others.  We have had hype, who can forget Freddy Adu, the child prodigy.  Where is he now? In Finland, a league beneath Sweden, Norway and Denmark

I do believe in the next 10 -15 yrs we will have that great player, as we do have Americans playing in great soccer academies across Europe.  We do have great soccer coaches, programs and professional academies in the United States.  Maybe more importantly the american soccer fan is hungry for greatness.  We have been creating a soccer culture in the United States. Every year there are more and more American players coming through the ranks and making an immediate impact at their respective clubs.  The game is growing. I have been waiting for over forty years for a player from Seattle, Springfield or wherever in the USA, to light up the world stage,  I can wait a few more.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann May 22, 2015