WHEN I WAS 15 I moved from my wealthy suburban club to play for a Croatian side in the city of Chicago. Not only was the creative style of play more suited to my persona, their overall attitude towards the game was something that I hadn’t known before. Football wasn’t just something to do – it was fully intertwined with their identity as individuals.
We would talk about the Premier League, someone would make fun of Serbians for a while, and then we’d train for hours at a time. They were impressed that a preppy kid wanted to join the rough and tumble ethnic Metro League, and I was happy to train with guys that loved the game as much as I did. Unfortunately, the commute proved to be too much, and the next season I moved back to my old team in the suburbs.
When we hit 18, most of us went off to play in college, while a few others tried their luck in the lower tiers of the professional game. However, I still kept in touch with my old Croatian friends. The contrast between our lives was stark. Coaches from the next level never saw them. A few played at community colleges for a year or two, while most moved onto full-time jobs or the military. There was absolutely no difference between us in talent or commitment; my family just had the money.
Most players and coaches in the United States have a similar anecdote to my own. It’s never been much of a hidden secret that many of the structural aspects of the American game are broken. But with the success of the men’s and women’s national teams, we’ve mostly been able to sweep aside these issues. Obviously a nation of immense wealth and over 24 million players will produce quality players. Unfortunately for this World Cup qualifying cycle, we couldn’t produce enough of them. And that’s not the worst thing in the world.
US Soccer finally has the time and energy to work on a generation of unaddressed problems. The first step to solving a dilemma is admitting it exists, and by and large, Americans have done a solid job so far. On the micro level, hundreds of thousands of people have written, discussed, argued and, in the process, continued the conversation on what they believe football needs to do. This community is full of bright minds and, as a result, there has been no shortage of great articles, speeches and debates. At the heart of all of these is the idea of culture.
What is the culture of football in America? To many, it’s the entitled, close-minded and often static game that my suburban club and the wider Major League Soccer represent. To others it’s our lack of ambition, acceptance and misuse of creativity, talent and resources. And all of these issues are relevant to varying degrees. But in the chaos of the thousands of weapons trained on the football status quo, it can be easy to miss the single, root issue that these problems all have in common: a culture based on exclusionary forms of kinship.
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In Benedict Anderson’s treatise on nationalism, Imagined Communities, he describes the idea of the nation itself as this sort of wholly imagined community. This delineation essentially describes the boundaries of what it means to be part of a network, essentially limiting the idea of kinship to a certain, select group.
The nation operates through a system of exclusion, not only restricting access to those outside it, but also to its members who cannot be readily encompassed into the current description. It’s through this process of ‘othering’ that those with little else in common can feel such a genuine, deep-seated feeling to a country or idea, willing to fight, kill and even die for it.
It’s natural to read these words and see the same sorts of rhetoric often used in football. This isn’t just a coincidence. Across the world, the late 19th century origins of football coincided with that of the nation-state. As a result, it has been, and remains, intertwined with social, political and religious movements across the world.
Behavior specialist John Williams of Leicester University describes it as, “About family and place. The world changes very quickly these days. Lots of people feel quite alienated about their relationships and connections with place, and football is a kind of anchor.” Most supporters would be inclined to agree. For many, the game is a lesson in tribalism and tradition, with all the good and bad that those entities entail.
In the United States, for better or worse, that sense is still growing. Here, football is very much defined by two groups – immigrants and the upper-middle class – with very little interaction in-between. For many of us, like myself, it’s still relatively new. Our parents didn’t play. We didn’t grow up with a ball perennially lurking in the background.
Due to the multi-thousand dollar investment that is youth football, often there’s very little interaction between us and the often-poorer immigrant groups. Yet, at the highest levels of the American pyramid, it’s primarily those with money.
By and large, you know the opposition. You faced off against them the year before. You saw them at regionals and national tournaments as teenagers. Sometimes you even played together as kids. For such a large country, the top-flight system isn’t that big of a network. As a result, the opponent usually isn’t all that different from your own team.
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Naturally, that traditional sense of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ doesn’t hold the same meaning in the United States. At the professional level, the game remains fragmented in the same way. A 2013 study by the University of Chicago’s Greg Kaplan and NBC’s Roger Bennett found that US men’s national team players came from areas that were, on average, whiter and better educated than the rest of the country. Even on the commercial side, our domestic league’s biggest rivalry – Portland vs Seattle – is between two extremely progressive, majority white cities.
Thus, as Anderson described, those in power, consciously or not, feel that they have to exclude an ‘other’ in order to market a vision of what’s ‘American’ and what’s not. While we can and should view MLS’s disregard of an open system through this same lens, for the sake of brevity, this article focuses more on US Soccer’s ‘other’ – immigrants and hyphenated-Americans (Mexican-Americans, German-Americans, African-Americans) etc.
As the wider United States moves away from the Enlightenment principles that came to define it, it shouldn’t be seen as a surprise that these same sorts of exclusionary nationalist sentiments have infiltrated our national team as well. Defining identity in opposition towards the rest of the world, Central America in particular, will never work on a team where, at their last major tournament, 17 of the 23 players held more than one passport. This ever-changing idea of what it means to be an American continues to arise as an issue.
Forward Abby Wambach told columnist Bill Simmons that potential national team players should be screened to evaluate “how much they love their country”. Even dual-national Tim Howard chimed in: “I think it slips away because you bring in … Jürgen Klinsmann had a project to unearth talent around the world that had American roots. But having American roots doesn’t mean you are passionate about playing for that country.”
Besides the fact that loving a country holds no correlation with how the game is actually played, these statements are indicative of a more important issue. In restricting access to members of their own team and country, Wambach and Howard are only furthering an unrealistic narrative of what it means to belong. And while a lot of this sort of overt nativism has faded to black, this overarching idea of inclusivity remains the defining question for US football today.
One of the biggest talking points in the US Soccer presidential race is changing the culture to be more open, especially towards these hyphenated Americans. There have been some great ideas. Almost every candidate speaks towards spending money building fields, and funding scouts and coaches in immigrant-heavy, poorer, urban areas.
These programs are needed, and they’ll create a much-needed path for driven, creativ, and talented players like my old teammates. But is bringing in the best players with American passports actually changing the culture? Or is it just changing beneficial parts of the structure and avoiding the real cultural questions?
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The reaction to former American starlet Jonathan González’s switch to play for Mexico was extremely telling of this idea. At the beginning of the week, presidential candidate Kyle Martino made the argument that the United States needs to play its home games away from immigrant American hubs. While his heart, and progress plan, is certainly in the right place, there’s one glaring issue with this argument: it’s impossible to exclude a group of Americans from watching their country play just because they might support the other team.
Later in the week, he lamented the United States’ failure to keep González with no sense of irony. While it’s a bit unfair to specifically call out Martino on a belief he’s not alone in sharing, it’s incredibly naive to think that these two issues aren’t related. You can’t consciously ostracise a group of Americans and then feel surprised or aggrieved when they don’t want to play for you.
Instead of avoiding places where the United States might not have a home advantage, continue to work on outreach programs until Americans actually feel at home. Allow every player, coach and club a path to make it to the top. Turn first and second generation Americans into athletes and supporters that strive to represent US Soccer, because it actually represents them. Criticise the President when he calls American players’ countries of birth ‘shitholes’. Get rid of the under-20 coach who said, “If we have players here who feel American, who want to fight for the US and represent America, they should play for us. I think it’s as simple as that.”
All of these topics are connected under the banner of selective kinship. Not only is it ok to feel Mexican, German, Haitian, Italian etc, and American, it doesn’t matter. If US Soccer is serious about changing its culture, it needs to remove not just structural impediments towards inclusion, but cultural ones as well. This process will be difficult.
The United States is perhaps the only country in the world where a significant percentage of its citizens and players support its biggest rivals. Working on this will take time, outreach and a federation that actually cares. But cherry-picking beneficial aspects of culture without addressing the related cultural concerns is essentially pointless. We can’t just open a few doors and expect a steady stream of success.
If we want to produce and attract the best American players, US Soccer needs to re-imagine and rebuild our community as one that encompasses and supports all Americans. Sure, rivalry is great, and tribalism is fun, but it’s finally time to find a new, improved form of it, not so much as an assertion of American national identify, but rather as an expression of it.