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Is the U.S. ever going to win the World Cup? Is soccer ever going to become one of the most popular sports in the U.S.?
Are those two different questions, or are they the same question looked at from different perspectives?
For years, soccer enthusiasts have said that if the U.S. were to finally win the Big One, it might vault the game into the league of—or perhaps even ahead of—pro football, baseball, and basketball. But that’s not how soccer became supreme in any other country. There were years of painstaking building of teams and leagues before a national squad could be assembled that was good enough to challenge at World Cup level. (For a brief history, I recommend National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer by Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist.)
America, of course, has the physical talent to compete with anyone. In the most famous test of national athletic ability, the summer Olympics, U.S.A. is supreme. In the 2012 games, we took home 104 medals, 46 gold (the closest competitor was China, 38 gold of 88 medals). So we can produce the athletes; we just very rarely turn the athletes into soccer players.
Think of the possibilities if some of the great talents in American team sports had turned to soccer when they were young. Jim Brown was the greatest running back in NFL history—and so versatile that he was also an All-American at lacrosse. At 6-2 and 230 pounds, he may have been too bulked-up for soccer. But had he chosen soccer instead of American football, he probably would have been a good 20 to 25 pounds lighter.
Most of the top soccer squads weigh in at about 170-175 pounds a man—that’s the average for the Argentine team, German team, and even U.S. team this year. But a soccer team can embrace numerous body types, and surely no one who remembers Jim Brown weaving through enemy defenses would question his ability to keep up with men 30 or 40 pounds lighter.
The most distinguished American soccer player in this year’s tourney, goalie Tim Howard, is 6-3 and 210 pounds; that’s just about the same size as Jerry Rice, who, a couple of years ago, was named the greatest football player of all time in an NFL Films poll. Imagine a goalie with the combination of Rice’s reflexes and incredible hands.
Want to consider Michael Jordan or LeBron James for goalie? I’d like to see them give it a shot. Do you think Willie Mays was the physical equal of Pele? I don’t see why not. The great Argentine attacking midfielder, Diego Maradona, was listed on rosters at about 5-7 and 172. That’s pretty much how Joe Morgan measured up, and Morgan was strong enough to hit 400-foot home runs and fast enough to steal hundreds of bases. I’d give him a soccer tryout.
But how can these athletes—especially the ones with great throwing arms and vertical leap—walk away from established American sports where they can make millions of dollars a year? MLS’s new contract with Fox/ESPN for $600 million over eight years is a step up, but it’s dwarfed by the TV deals with the NFL, NBA, and MLB. (For that matter, it’s teensy compared to the NHL, which in 2011 inked a 10-year deal with NBC Sports for $200 million a year.)