For decades, sports fans have debated why the US men’s soccer team isn’t an international powerhouse. People have wondered why a country that has produced greats in other sports, such as LeBron James and Tom Brady, can’t do the same on the pitch. Many blamed the relative lack of money in US soccer or said that Americans simply find the game too slow and low-scoring.
But the reasons for the lack of greatness in US men’s soccer are far more complicated, according to writer George Dohrmann. In his new book “Switching Fields: Inside the Fight to Remake Men’s Soccer in the United States,” the Pulitzer-winner dissects the complex systemic problems that have long prevented the US from having sustained success.
“We were doing it the American way, and what’s very clear is that has been a huge failure,” Dohrmann told The Post.
The tome explores how the US, a fiercely competitive nation that thrives on a singular brand of ingenuity, only changed its fortune in recent years when it finally tore up its playbook and embraced the international model.
When Dhormann initially pitched this book about eight years ago, there was little interest. But after the US men’s national team’s disastrous 2017 loss to Trinidad and Tobago, which prevented them from qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 30 years, there was a “deep desire to learn.”
“The shift that is happening right now is that we are doing it the way the rest of the world has been doing it. And man we are catching up quickly,” he said, noting that the current crop of players, many of whom play for top European clubs, are distinct from their forebears. When the World Cup kicks off Sunday in Qatar, fans should take notice.
“Players like Yunus Musah, Brenden Aaronson and Christian Pulisic, they are just soccer players,” he said. “They are not American soccer players that played a role on the field. They are guys that play the game. It resembles much more, that foreign flare. The soccer is prettier.”
To understand the initial playbook, Dohrmann rewinds the game clock to Torrance, California, in 1962, to a meeting to hash out the formation of the American Youth Soccer Organization. Spearheaded by Duncan Duff, a Scotsman, and Billy Hughes, a Brit, and a few other expats, the league revived earlier failed efforts to bring youth soccer to the area by explicitly making the game less foreign. “The American Way,” as it was called, was implemented.
Joining fees were inexpensive, teams were balanced talent-wise and games were played within their communities. And they cut off the age participation at 16, so kids aimed to graduate from their local league to their high school team.
“This is the bad foundation we built soccer on,” said Dohrmann, adding that while it helped the game quickly proliferate from coast to coast, there was a major flaw. “This was going to be a suburban white sport that produced suburban white players which meant underserved communities [were] excluded for decades,” he said.
And, as competition increased, travel club teams with costly joining fees sprang up, further excluding poor, inner city kids and more insular Hispanic communities. The “pay to play” model, as it was known, essentially whittled down what should have been an abundant talent pool. Gifted athletes could more easily find a path to stardom via basketball or American football.
As far as the style of play, coaches were normally fathers who didn’t truly know the finer points of the game, or British trainers with a brutish approach.
“We ended up with a hoof-it-up, physical, run-a-lot style of play. There’s a lack of awareness of just playing the game,” said Dohrmann. “All of those creative Latin players that were floating around San Diego, we were like, ‘No we aren’t going to listen to you.’”
Major League Soccer had its inaugural season in 1996. The 10 teams mostly drafted players from college or, in the seasons that followed, signed a big European player in the twilight of their career, such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry and David Villa. This brought some headlines and curious fans but did little to raise the level of play.
The biggest breakthrough came in the mid-aughts when MLS teams started creating their own development academies, similar to minor league teams in baseball. Most international clubs use this model to cultivate and invest in young talent.
“This was a monster development. This is what exists in Argentina, Spain and Brazil, really everywhere. We just didn’t have that,” said Dohrmann, adding that the academies took players regardless of their financial situation, killing the “pay to play” model.
“It was a movement that said ‘I don’t care where you are from,’” he noted. “They cracked the suburban system.”
As a result, teams such as the New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union and FC Dallas developed top talent that was then sold to major European clubs. New Jersey native Aaronson came up through Philadelphia Union’s academies, and, in 2022, he was sold to Leeds United in a transfer worth $30.2 million. When such players came back to play for Team USA, they brought with them valuable experience playing alongside the best in the world.
But, ironically, as US men’s soccer has been on the risen, the US women — long dominant in the sport — are starting to lose their upper hand.
In the book, Dohrmann explains how coach Anson Dorrance, who founded the women’s soccer program at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, in 1979, created a winning culture and fierce play that became the blueprint for women’s college soccer — and thus the international gold standard. He also developed major female talent such a Mia Hamm, who led the US team to World Cup Championships in 1991 and 1999, as well as gold medals in 1996 and 2004.
But European clubs like Lyon and Barcelona are now churning out top female soccer players in their own right. The US women’s team will have to make significant investments domestically to remain on top.
As for the US men’s national team, Dohrmann said they are young and promising. World Cup 2022 finds the roster looking stronger than ever before.
“The last gasp of the old system is done. What’s represented is the new way,” he said. “If you don’t see how bright the future is, you aren’t paying attention.”