Thursday, July 31, 2014
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USA not a soccer superpower, but, with right steps, it could be

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Tim Howard of the United States walks to huddle with his team during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Belgium and the United States at Arena Fonte Nova on July 1, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil.
Tim Howard of the United States walks to huddle with his team during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Belgium and the United States at Arena Fonte Nova on July 1, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil. (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

IT WAS BRIGHT but steamy on the western bank of the Delaware. A nasty line of storms charged from the southwest, hung up on the Appalachian Trail, a foreboding but distant danger. A tug guided a freighter down the river.

The seats on the north side of PPL Stadium proudly read "UNION," and the Sons of Ben chanted in full throat as Conor Casey gave the home team a lead against New England on Tuesday.

This was a U.S. Open Cup match, meaningless in Major League Soccer - but relevant, considering the international buzz about American soccer.

The U.S. national team had lost to Belgium in the World Cup's round of 16, as far as it made it the last time. This time, thanks to high-definition television, endless ESPN promotion and social-media tools in the hands of a soccer-drenched populace, there was much more attention.

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  • Charismatic U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard is a national hero, coach Jurgen Klinsmann is a German genius and, for the moment, the U.S. of 'Merica has a case of Futbol Fever.

    Is it enough to make the country a soccer power?

    Hardly.

    At least, not within the next two World Cups or so.

    This is no one's fault. This is no criticism of the country or the MLS or, certainly, the beautiful game itself.

    Anyone who questions the skill and athleticism of elite soccer players - anyone who says soccer's best cannot compare to Pro Bowlers and All-Stars in the Big Four sports - chooses an embarrassing ignorance.

    Anyone who deludes themselves into believing that the United States - the country that overvalues sport more than any country in the world - will produce more than one or two truly elite soccer players by the next World Cup . . . well, he chooses a fantasy that ignores the allocation of talent.

    Sadly, the United States will not be a real contender for a World Cup in the foreseeable future.

    Why?

    Because DeSean Jackson plays football; Neymar plays Brazilian soccer. Mike Trout plays baseball; Cristiano Ronaldo plays Portuguese soccer. Chris Paul plays basketball; Lionel Messi plays Argentine soccer.

    Union coach Jim Curtin knows this all too well.

    Curtin is an Oreland native, a Villanova product and an MLS veteran.

    He also is a realist.

    In Chicago, Curtin played with DaMarcus Beasley, a native of Fort Wayne, Ind., who has since become an international stalwart and who just finished his fourth World Cup run. Beasley is significant to this tale, said Curtin, because Beasley was one of the first MLS stars homegrown and developed by the U.S. Soccer Federation's feeder program.

    The team routinely held autograph sessions in poor Chicago neighborhoods to promote the Fire and the MLS. At one, Curtin and Beasley sat next to each other. A black man walked up to their table, and, as his son got Beasley's autograph, the man nodded at Beasley, who is black, and asked Curtin:

    "How much does this guy make a year?"

    "He makes fifty grand a year," Curtin replied.

    "Fifty grand!" the man replied. "What the heck's my message to my son? 'Go play soccer and you can be broke like me'? "

    Of course, that scene played out more than a decade ago. MLS players now average more than $207,000, but the perception that they make peanuts persists . . . perhaps because the average Major League Baseball salary is a little less than $4 million, which is the about Union's total annual payroll.

    Or, about what Cole Hamels made in June.

    Certainly, the world's very best soccer players earn the big bucks. Ronaldo, of the Spanish club Real Madrid, earned about $50 million, but Ronaldo is, like most footballers, willing to play virtually anywhere - just like Howard, who plays for Everton in England, and Beasley, who has played in the Netherlands, England, Scotland, Germany and, now, for Puebla in Mexico.

    It's like pulling teeth to get an American star athlete to leave the coasts.

    Maybe the continued decline of participation in youth football, spurred by concussion concerns, will benefit soccer's growth and development. But that decline assumes the would-be football players will opt for soccer over baseball, basketball, lacrosse, Xbox and chess club.

    Some will.

    But, like gun laws and public transportation, it will take a seismic cultural shift toward European sensibilities to sell little DeSean and Chris and Mike on a sport his dad doesn't watch; a sport in which the best money is made in countries with tiny bathrooms.

    That's too bad, too. Part of soccer's allure is its continuous action. Soccer games take about 2 hours, mainly because, unlike Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, Union standouts Sebastien Le Toux and Fabinho don't waste 10 seconds between pitches to re-Velcro their batting gloves.

    There is a lack of appreciation for just how hard it is to develop the close-in skills and mental toughness that Klinsmann said his U.S. team lacks. These are skills akin to ballhandling and one-on-one skills developed on basketball playgrounds from Long Island to Long Beach.

    You know when the United States will be a viable soccer power?

    When there's a Rucker League for soccer. That's when.

    Let's be real about this. The MLS' four leading scorers are two Brits, a Mexican and a Nigerian.

    It doesn't always have to be that way.

    Former Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley and Olympic soccer player Heather Mitts just had a son. Former Sixers All-Star guard Jrue Holiday just married national-team member Lauren Cheney.

    Imagine their kids playing on the same line.

    That's the sort of gene pool it will take.

    It would be wonderful to be wrong about this. There is no real reason for the United States to be a poor sister in the soccer world.

    But some of the best kid athletes have to care about soccer the most.

    Not just recent immigrants, such as the Nigerian parents of Union midfielder Maurice Edu, or the 53 million people of Hispanic heritage, or the kids in the suburbs.

    "Every World Cup comes around, it helps to grow the game here," Edu said. "I think this World Cup was important, because of the heavy influence of MLS players on the roster."

    Indeed, only four MLS players made the 2010 team. Nine made this year's USA team.

    The MLS is becoming bigger and bigger business, with clubs averaging more than 18,000 fans per match, up 11 percent from the last Cup year, 2010. The Union is a prime example.

    PPL Park, planted beside the river with a majestic bridge as its backdrop, has the prettiest stadium setting on the East Coast. It is easy to get to, and fun to be at. You can never read "UNION" on those north-side seats, because, during MLS matches, they're filled with people wearing "Bimbo" jerseys.

    It's not boring, either. In many ways soccer is like hockey: hellish to master, heavenly to watch in person.

    The Union has 10 more home games.

    Take a kid, and go.

    Maybe he'll turn out to be a Neymar, or Ronaldo, or Messi - the player the United States has never had.

     


    Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

    On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

    Blog: ph.ly/DNL

     

    Marcus Hayes Daily News Sports Columnist
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