While hoping for a Christmas miracle like the rest of you, the US Men’s National Soccer Team was eliminated from the 2022 World Cup. I already can’t wait for 2026.
While I had good experience in American football, I was still familiar with fútbol, or ‘soccer’ in Spanish. I spent five years as the strength and conditioning coach of the Dallas Burn, the Major League Soccer (MLS) team now known as FC Dallas. I had also worked with the Dallas Sidekicks, an indoor soccer team. The MLS opportunity gave me an even better perspective on the world of soccer, and I do mean world as in globe.
Though I have never been to a World Cup match, maybe that will change as North America co-hosts 2026. Regardless, I have been to France with the Burn. In any given year, the French are among the best in the world. Even the Ballon d'Or 2022 winner is French player Karim Benzema.
So, one year for training camp and preseason games, we updated passports and flew to Europe. That particular year, the French were in fact number one in the world. If you want to be the best, play the best. We were not necessarily playing their national team, but we were competing against players in their pipeline, or in other sports vernacular, talent pool. The majority of our team were US nationals from our own domestic talent pool.
After all was said and done, the disparity was clear.
Fast forward a couple decades, especially past the window where the USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup – and the American brand of soccer seems to be taking shape. While they may not have completely established their identity, I think they are moving in the right direction.
One of the neat things about the US are the opportunities for youth sports. There are so many options for kids to pursue. However, while one would think finding the talent to compete on the world stage in a country of our size would be easy, think again. The talent pool is shrunk.
For the record, I don’t think this is a problem. This is just an observation. I have always been a proponent of kids playing multiple sports to the highest level they can. Take advantage of every opportunity afforded to you!
Naturally, some of the best athletes play multiple sports simply because they are that talented. So what do they play? The top three pro leagues are the NFL, NBA and MLB, so it’s no surprise that many of the best athletes pursue one of those three sports. They also don’t overlap with their main seasons. It allows for a fall to winter to spring transition for the athlete. Then, there is the reality that football, basketball and baseball are usually going to be the biggest programs with the biggest budgets. Most kids go where the opportunity is.
I’m sure you’ve heard of stories of NFL quarterbacks who were also baseball pitchers or NBA point guards who were also quarterbacks, or the like. The popularity of these sports in this country can’t be denied. Yet, for Europeans in a league like the NBA, you’ll often hear how their “fallback” sport would have been soccer.
Some sports require more equipment. Soccer only takes a ball. It’s the easiest sport to just play. That’s one of the biggest appeals of the game and what makes it such a global-played sport.
In countries where soccer is the biggest sport, there is incentive to excel. It can be a way out of a less-than-favorable socioeconomic status.
Then there are smaller countries that truly have a unified soccer philosophy with dedicated programs to developing talent. In the US, kids come from all types of backgrounds with different biases and views of training and competition.
I know that here in the South, we have club coaches from all over the world coaching those kids with the soccer philosophy they learned in their own development. This reminds me of an interesting conversation with a club coach. He had played professionally in his home country way back when and then moved to the States to raise his family. His son, who played for him, was extremely talented, skill-wise, yet wasn’t as gifted physically. His criticism of the US brand of soccer was that they cared too much about size or speed and not on skill.
Maybe there was some truth in it, but I believe there is some middle ground. One of the best things that has happened to US soccer is the growth of American players in Europe. While many on the current roster play or have played in the MLS, the reality is that “exporting” to Europe has helped tremendously. This will improve the quality of the national team.
Still, strength and conditioning remain essential.
Even being involved with the Burn, I experienced pushback when I brought my bag of speed and agility tricks for club training at their invitation. It didn't fit what they had been doing, especially since they thought it was just American football drills. They were only half-right, they were not football drills but they were foot drills.
An athlete does whatever they want. Strength will always play a role in reducing the risk of injuries. Speed will always play a role in separating levels. You will never see a pro and think, “Wow, I want to be slow and weak like him/her.”
We often get caught up in the physical outliers. You get the Messis’ of the world, who are under six feet tall, and the Ronaldos’ of the world, who are over six feet tall. Just like in the NFL, you have quarterbacks who have “prototypical” size, like Trevor Lawrence versus shorter guys like Kyler Murray. Both were drafted first overall. As I’ve said before, the outliers should not define the discourse.
At the end of the day, it’s often going to come down to a complement of nature and nurture. There will be good athletes who need to be developed athletically while also developing their sport-specific skills. American soccer will still need some of the best American athletes to choose their game.
I’m encouraged by what I saw these quick couple weeks. There are some teenagers who I’m sure watched this year and became inspired. They could be on the next roster. Maybe they saw the cool story about Matt Turner, the goalkeeper for the USMNT, who played baseball first before turning to soccer. Or, maybe they saw the story of Tyler Adams, who went pro at 16. Of course, there was Christian Pulisic who has been billed as having a brighter future than the legendary Landon Donovon.
Only time will tell, but the talent is arriving and the landscape seems to be changing. Homegrown programs like those in North Texas produced three members of this year’s team. Imagine what can happen in four years.
In summary, I believe the US can do even better than just advance out of the group stage. They looked like they belonged this year, but going farther in the knockout stage is obviously the goal. It will take a unified approach to coaching and development and hopefully won’t be slowed down by federation politics.
I for one at least believe strength and speed training will need to be a part of that, so hopefully somebody reading this will play a role in helping develop the next great athlete who chooses soccer.