Of child stars and soccer protégées

American soccer fans are tabloid journalists reporting on child stars. If there is one thing we love, it is building up our young players and then watching them crash and burn. We do it all the time. After all, what is more interesting to watch than the crashing and burning of someone with a big ego – even if it was us who created that ego to begin with?

Granted, we still hold out hope that Freddy Adu will reinvent himself a la Neil Patrick Harris. Harris, the child star who donned magazine covers, could not make it big in movies, then became a scene stealer on a much smaller stage, is a career path that Adu could follow. Adu, of course, is the child star who donned Sprite commercials, could not make it in the big world of European football, and we are all hoping he becomes a scene stealer in the much smaller world of MLS.

Like with Doogie, there are those of us who still hope he will turn into a superstar on the biggest stages of the National Team, but there are also those who hope he crashes and burns from his current level of success. Yet, it was us, the fans along with MLS, US Soccer, and even Pele, who built up young Adu. We gave him his alleged ego. He was always good, but never great. Thus is the case for many a young soccer protégée and many a child actor as well, but even with slight failures not everyone completely crashes out.

Landon Donovan, American soccer’s Drew Barrymore, is an example of this. Like Barrymore, Donovan was built up huge at a young age. He was placed on a pedestal. Yet, when the pressure came, he flailed out in Germany. Now, he has risen as one of the top players in the American pool. No, he’s probably not going to ever win the Ballon d’Or, just as Barrymore will probably never win an Oscar, but he made it, as did she. Yes, like critics and tabloid editors, we still complain that he will never be big in Europe and she will never be an Oscar-winning movie star. Then he goes and does well at Everton and she releases Riding in Cars with Boys, but it will probably never be good enough.

What about Clint Dempsey? He is our Robert Downey Jr. who became a star a little bit later, then much, much later became an award nominated superstar. Of course in this analogy you’d have to ignore Downey’s drug fueled haze of the late 80s and early 90s, but you get the idea.

Want more? Charles Renken? He is Haley Joel Osment – big potential followed by a ridiculous amount of big budget, high concept, busts; or in Renken’s case injuries. Marcus Tracy? He is our Macauly Culkin – always more hype than actual talent. The list goes on, and on, and on of players we build up to watch crash and burn.

Like film and television critics, who want talented young actors to turn into stars so they can say they knew it would happen, American soccer fans want our young players to be successes. Also like those critics who get some sort of perverse joy out of the latest young Hollywood stars drug problem, American soccer fans also love seeing the egos we gave our would-be superstars exposed and shattered; which brings us to Jozy Altidore.

Jozy, who is seemingly our Mickey Rourke, has still yet to live up to our expectations despite success. Rourke was a huge star early on. A handsome leading man, but when he really made it, he fell off the deep end. He became a bare-knuckle boxer, uglied up his mug, and after spending some time wandering the Hollywood wilderness, he later reinvented himself as an Oscar nominated actor. Now, following his big award winning role in The Wrestler, Rourke is having difficulty not being type-cast as a struggling fighter or drunkard. And despite his success he is just not getting what he deserved as the matinee idol that everyone thought he would be.

Jozy was the MLS wunderkind. He made the jump to Villarreal – who were formerly the third best team in Spain’s La Liga before being relegated this year. Jozy even had to deal with unflattering comparison to Giuseppe Rossi, his own Johnny Depp-like nemesis. He became known more for head-butting players while at Hull City, which uglied up his reputation, than he did for his play. He seemingly wandered from club to club never gaining any traction, but still starting game in and game out for the National Team. Now he has reinvented himself as a big time player for AZ Alkmaar, but can not seem to get past being labeled – I’d argue incorrectly – as a center/target forward, which is costing him a shot to succeed with the USMNT.

Like with Rourke, some are really enjoying watching as Jozy suffer through a non-call up. Some are concerned, as were some when Rourke’s sanity seemed to completely derail,  but others seem to be happy. “He has never been as good for the USMNT as he has for his club,” they yell. Just as some will claim nothing Rourke has done since The Pope of Greenwich Village has been any good, and that he just got lucky with The Wrestler. We love watching them fail. That is why people were happy at Rourke’s relative failure with Iron Man 2, which was only a failure compared to the other Marvel films. People talk about how horrendous Jozy’s been and for the USMNT and that’s why he isn’t being called in. This despite him not being nearly as bad for the National Team as people think he is. He has been decent, not great, for the USA. The real problem is he never lived up to our expectations of him, which may have been too high to begin with. But we do not see that.  We claim it is about ego, but it was us who built the scapegoat ego up to begin with? And maybe, in all honesty, it is ego. But is it his ego or is it our own?

So what happens to the next flock of young soccer players who come through the youth system? What will become of Junior Flores? Will he be the USMNT’s Leonardo DiCaprio or will he be their next Kirk Cameron? Is Ben Leaderman on a Ryan Gosling-like trajectory – relative unknown to huge star – or will he be Todd Bridges? What about Terrence Boyd? Would we be perfectly happy if he ended up being Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Elijah Woods as compared to the entire cast of “Saved by the Bell”? Would that be good enough?

We are not the only country to have our “future” players fail in spectacular fashion. However, we are so starved for that first world-class player – you know, the one Adu was supposed to be – that even relative success by young players is cause to celebrate and overhype (see: Agudelo, Juan and Johnson, Eddie). American soccer fans have built the cost of our young players becoming stars to an unfathomable, unreachable level, just as young Hollywood actors are pushed, prodded, and primped by parents and producers to become the new “it” actor. The pressure is there for both, the hype is there for both, the creation of ego is there for both, and this is why a good handful of them burn out early never to either act or play soccer again.

But in both categories some make it. Some go on to be pseudo soccer stars, and some child actors work in Hollywood for years after. Right now it is more the child actors who have moved on to better things – minus the occasional Lindsey Lohan – and the young soccer protégées who are still having trouble adjusting. So as our child actors improve, hopefully, our young overhyped soccer players will as well. Maybe if we give them far more realistic expectations, we can get the soccer equivalents to Jodie Fosters and Christian Bales. That has to be the next step, right?

The hype is there. It will always be there. We need to slow down our own expectations to realistic levels, otherwise, we will continue to watch our young stars fail and burn out on unnecessarily over-inflated egos. Perhaps, someday expectations and reality will meet, and we will get a young soccer players who is an analogous to Elizabeth Taylor, but for now I’d be perfectly happy with one Shia LeBeouf.


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