Hope Solo should be an American hero. First, she has a cool name. I love a great sports name and it gets no better than “Hope Solo”. She has won FIFA’s Golden Glove award several times, which is awarded to the best goalkeeper of the World Cup. She even won the Golden Ball which goes to the best player in the World Cup. Despite her many talents, she remains a blister on the ass of American sports. She publicly berated her head coach, which lead to her dismissal from the national team. She was drunk on Good Morning America. She was drunk while riding in a USWNT van. These are the mildest items on the “Why We Hate Hope Solo list”. So to admit Hope Solo is right, about anything, is nothing short of a miracle. It pains me to admit for once, she’s right.
Let’s set the stage here. If you haven’t noticed, there was one noticeable absence from this year’s world cup in Russia. No, not Italy, the great hairdos of Chile, or Ghana. It’s the United States. The USMNT went from definitely qualifying, to being in danger of not qualifying, back to almost qualifying, to ultimately not qualifying in the most heartbreaking fashion ever. To say that USMNT has an identity problem would be an understatement. It all began with the controversial hire of German national Jurgen Klinnsman. He wanted to shake up the landscape of US Soccer. He wanted to recruit dual nationals, urge younger players to buck the soccer model of the US by taking their talents overseas, and most importantly, he wanted to filter out older players. The dissenting voices are always silenced by success but failure makes them loud again. After a disastrous 2016 Gold Cup, Klinsmann was fired. Of course, Klinnsmann’s approach was blamed so pundits of USMNT thought it should be undone. Former players such as Alexi Lalas and Landon Donovan believed the USMNT should be comprised of “natural born” players. They also believed the MLS should be the primary talent pool for the national team. The hire of Bruce Arena echoed these sentiments. He leans on more experienced MLS players. This is fine until you lose to Trinidad & Tobago and fail to qualify for the World Cup. The USMNT’s problems didn’t start with Bruce Arena or even Jurgen Klinnsman. It started decades ago. So what is Hope Solo right about? She’s right about the state of US Soccer. In short, she called it a “rich white kid’s sport”.
“My family would not have been able to afford to put me in soccer if I was a young kid today. That obviously alienates so many communities, including Hispanic communities, the black communities, the rural communities and under-represented communities. Soccer, right now, has become a rich, white kid sport.”
“You have to look at why have our U.S. men not qualified for the World Cup? And it goes back to our youth system, and it’s because we are alienating so much talent in the youth system, and it breaks my heart because these kids are passionate about the game and they are filled with great skill, yet they’re being told if you don’t have the money, you can’t represent your country.
Soccer, or football by its proper name, is referred to as the world’s game. Its immense popularity is due to reaching all walks of life. A young boy can go from playing futsal in the favelas of Brazil to scoring a goal on the world’s biggest stage.
In America, soccer is a story of proximity and accessibility. Unlike many powerhouse nations of the soccer world, this sport doesn’t reach our impoverished neighborhoods. Kids are more likely to pick up a football or basketball. Let’s take basketball, for example. Ignoring the fact that this is an American born sport, we excel because of development. Kids begin dribbling basketballs as soon as they’re able to walk. These early years of development mean by age 18 a player is good enough to go pro and by 25 they’re hitting their prime. Soccer’s development path is similar.
Let’s say a kid from a rural or low-income urban area didn’t want to play football or basketball, but had a love for soccer. The American pay for play model is both expensive and inaccessible. Registration fees, equipment fees, and transportation are all barriers to entry. These problems exist in the world of football and basketball but bridges are in place to go into these areas for talent. Soccer thrives closer to larger cities and most likely, in the wealthiest areas.
So, how do we fix this problem? I have no idea, but people are getting paid millions to figure it out although it seems like they don’t care. For all of Jurgen Klinsmann’s many mistakes, he did want to make an effort to restructure the soccer landscape in America. He wanted to go into those unreachable areas, tap into our Latinx community, and urge prospects to continue their development by bucking the American college model. With everything that’s happening with the NCAA and the debate of paying student-athletes, this should be a pretty enticing selling point if we were able to fix the soccer pipeline in this country. [Totally ignoring the MLS problem. That’s an entirely different post.]
The (American) soccer community often scoffs when someone says “Imagine where the United States would be if Lebron, Russell Westbrook, and Odell Beckham played soccer!”. No sports take is as funny as this one because one of the greatest soccer players I’ve seen in my life probably can’t jump over a phonebook. But seriously, what if? Not even from an athletic standpoint but what if we indeed increased our talent pool by making soccer available to kids of every background? What if it wasn’t a pay-for-play sport that only appealed to private school kids?
Hopefully, the US Soccer Federation will fix this problem. Until then, Hope Solo is right.