Just Kicking It
The street is dark and off in the distance three young men are kicking around a cheap plastic soccer ball It cost them eight dollars at Target. There are no goals, not even a pair of cans or rocks to designate the posts, and they just kick it. There is not a pitch. In fact there is not even a patch of grass around for a few miles, but they kick their ball.
Let us take a moment to forget about tactics, about losing to Ecuador –a team that despite travel is still better than the USMNT, about flashes of brilliance from Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo, about flashes of failure from Tim Ream, and focus on the sound of the kick. Thump, thump, thump. The sound of tires roaring by the street every few minutes fills the air. The buzzing of street signs that have come on are entering one ear and flowing out the other. The flash of the moon, through the congestion of smog, shines on the storefront. And they just keep kicking.
Photographs, videos, and stories show us this image in Brazil, Italy, France, Germany, and many other footballing nations worldwide, the image of three boys that are just kicking it. They’re having fun, but they are also preparing for a job. They are hoping that they can one day make vast sums of money playing a game.
Replace the soccer ball with a basketball and the same image plays throughout America.
The United States Soccer Federation has a problem in that soccer is not the only show in town. Nearly every male athlete wants to play one of the big three –four if you include hockey– sports. They spend hours running routes, practicing dribbling drills, hitting pebbles with sticks, playing pickup, or doing whatever the equivalent for hockey is, but not just kicking it.
There is a reason why the best basketball players tend to come from either really poor urban, or equally poor rural, neighborhoods. It is the draw of money to that sport in particular. Basketball, just like soccer, is a ridiculously cheap sport to play, and the payoff –difficult as it is to achieve– is enormous.
Meanwhile, there is no American money in soccer, so the players practice shooting hoops instead of goals. They practice making crossovers instead of nutmegs. They work on posting up instead of riding the offside line. And due to their insistence that basketball or American football –and to a lesser extent baseball and hockey– are the only ways out of their current lifestyle, the USA loses hundreds if not thousands of athletes every day.
A few times a year, usually following a loss for the USMNT, I get into a discussion with people who swear that all the USMNT needs is Kobe Bryant, and players of his ilk, to suit up for them. This is not the argument that I am making. Kobe was always going to play basketball. He is 6’8”. The athletes that are being lost are those secondary athletes. The ones who never make it to the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL are the players who may be stopping the USMNT’s progression.
The running back with no scholarship or the 5’6” point guard who never gets off his college’s practice squad or the dynamically fast short stop that is great on defense but hits .082 in the minor leagues could be the soccer players that America is missing, but they never knew it because soccer was never looked at as a profitable option. Perhaps, if someone told them they could make equally good money in soccer may have spent their time kicking it.
The need for money is what drives player to enter professional ranks at lower ages. Oddly enough most American professional sports leagues are moving away from younger players. Currently an NBA rookie must be one year removed from his high school graduation to enter the NBA Draft, but in this lockout they are trying to make it two years removed. An NFL rookie must be three years removed from his high school graduation. In MLB and the NHL players cannot join the leagues until they are 18.
Meanwhile, Major League Soccer has been known to debut kids as young as 14. Being a 16 year-old rookie is no longer extraordinary, it is actually just plain old ordinary now. By the time a player is done with his first league contract –around 18 or 19 if he joined the league at 16– he will be able to go to Europe and sign a more lucrative contract that, if he was playing in the NBA or NFL, he would have had to wait another two to three years to sign.
With MLS Academies producing players at a pretty good clip now –Diego Fagundez, Jack McInerney, Andy Najar, Bill Hamid, Juan Agudelo– the idea of MLS academies producing young professional players is no longer ridiculous. Kids as young as 11 and 12 in some cases are having the opportunity to be affiliated with professional clubs. However, MLS has had a poor history of letting players go –just ask Clint Matthis or Landon Donovan. If MLS wants to attract athletes to look at soccer they need to let them know that they can make good money –though perhaps not in MLS– four years earlier than they could in other sports. Still until MLS allows teams to keep the transfer fees from the players they produce and sell them as they see fit, and for fees that the club find fair, advertising the academies as a reason to kick it will continue to struggle. But tracking down and selling these kids on this sport through academies is a step.
The next time you are driving past your local YMCA, public park, or past a cow field with a basketball net and you hear the “thump, thump, thump” of a kid practicing take a moment to imagine. Imagine the “thump, thump, thump” as a heartbeat of someone trying improve to the point where he can “make it”. Imagine the “thump, thump, thump” being a hammer hopefully forging someone’s career. Imagine the “thump, thump, thump” being the sounds of kids just kicking a soccer ball instead of dribbling a basketball.
When MLS learns just how to sell its academies, and not short-sell its clubs with single-entity transfer rules, the improvement of the game in America will improve just from kids kicking it.