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Why has the USMNT struggled? Start with how it selects players

Breaking down the demographics of the USMNT can help explain how it failed, and how it might piece itself back together for a new era.

One of the biggest debates after the U.S. men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup concerned how the players were selected.

The team clearly had a problem with talent identification based on the results, and many felt that certain populations were being neglected or overemphasized by U.S. Soccer scouts and coaches beginning at the youth level. Now that Gregg Berhalter has taken over as the new, foreseeable head coach of the men’s national team, it’s worth looking at the profile of players called up over the years in the program.

Why? Because the challenges posed by a large country, with a large population, where soccer remains an emerging sport for the mainstream, makes the United States a unique case in international soccer. The U.S. is estimated to have the third largest population in the world, but soccer isn’t the top sport here. While the infrastructure continues to develop, many of the country’s elite athletes default to sports like football and basketball.

As a result, the U.S. can’t simply imitate what countries like England, Germany, Mexico, and Brazil do to produce pros. Other countries can offer lessons, but their effects might be limited.

American exceptionalism should also be examined. Does the senior USMNT avoid immigrants? Does the player pool seem skewed one way or another? These questions came to a head in 2018 when American-born teenager Jonathan Gonzalez opted to represent Mexico after reportedly not being contacted at length by the USMNT. While U.S. Soccer may not have definite answers, they can be informed by data.

I focused specifically on the period of 2008-18 for the senior men’s national team, a period that featured four head coaches, three World Cup cycles (two “successful” in which the U.S. qualified, one not), and 175 players who appeared in at least one USMNT game. Where do players who reach the pinnacle of the USMNT come from? What are their backgrounds? Where are they produced? My intention is to fill in some of the gaps between what is often said about the player pool, and what is the truth.

A paradigm shift … slowly

In 2008, Major League Soccer (MLS) introduced the homegrown player rule, which incentivized teams to take their academy programs seriously and produce professionals themselves. In 2008, no MLS homegrown players played on the USMNT. By 2018, there had been eight players who had come through MLS academies to sign pro contracts before playing for the USMNT — 4.6 percent of the players on the USMNT in that period, not including an additional handful of homegrown signings who also attended college.

That trend may seem minor, but it illustrates a larger developmental trend. In virtually every other country in the world, the best players turn pro either before or during their college-age years. Many American pros, however, don’t turn pro until they are 22 years old, having spent the previous four or five years pouring a large portion of their time and attention into things other than their future profession. And college soccer, with its short competitive seasons and unlimited substitutions, can’t provide the sheer amount of in-game experience to top players that pro clubs can.

During the 2008-18 period, a full 59 percent of players on the national team played college soccer. But a shift is taking place, stoked in part by MLS academies building out their programs and signing more homegrown players. In 2008, 68.8 percent of USMNT players had played college soccer. By 2018, the number was down to 39.6 percent. In other words, by 2018 the USMNT selected about 20 percent more players who came from youth programs, in the U.S. or abroad, than colleges compared to a decade prior.

Perhaps related: More Americans are playing abroad before signing pro contracts. In 2008, only four of the 48 players who played at least one game for the USMNT had come through a youth academy abroad — two in England and two in Mexico. In 2018, 20 of the 53 players who played at least one game for the USMNT had done apprenticeships outside the United States. They had played in 10 different countries, with England (six players) and Germany (five players) leading the way.

The sport of immigrants?

Immigration has played a significant role in American soccer, from immigrants who established ethnic leagues around the country, to ex-pats who coach at all levels, to fans who bring soccer traditions from their homelands.

Just as in the current national political moment, immigration has been a flashpoint at various times throughout USMNT history. The national team has fielded naturalized citizens, dual citizens, and refugees. Those who have never left the United States and those who have seldom stepped into the country alike have represented the Stars and Stripes.

When Jurgen Klinsmann coached the USMNT, from 2011-2016, he made an effort to recruit German-Americans. That trend did not begin with him, but increased in his tenure. Many of those players were born and raised in Germany and were eligible for the squad through a parent who was an American citizen. German-American recruitment was a reasonable way to expand the American player pool — other countries do it all the time — and players who had been primarily raised through the German soccer system, considered vastly superior to the American process, were expected to strengthen the team.

Klinsmann called up eight players in 2015 (16 percent of call-ups that year) who were either born in Germany, or had at least one German parent. His successor, Bruce Arena, fielded just four (7.2 percent of the cohort) in 2017, his one full year in charge. In 2014, he criticized the selection of dual nationals while talking to USA Today.

The sample size isn’t huge, but while Arena didn’t shut out German-American players, he certainly didn’t use them to the same extent as Klinsmann.

Players holding immigrant ties of any nationality, Germany and beyond, have been significant to the player pool for the past decade. Defining “immigrant ties” in this context means players who were either born or raised abroad, had at least one immigrant parent, or had access to a foreign passport through family ties (more on that in a moment). Forty-eight percent of players who made appearances for the USMNT between 2008-18 fall under this umbrella.

Trinidad & Tobago v United States - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier
Christian Pulisic is among the 48 percent of USMNT players from 2008 to 2018 who had immigrant ties, and one of four players who used a foreign passport through a grandparent to help himself play abroad.
Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images

To put that number in perspective, the total number of foreign-born people in the U.S. was roughly 40 million, or 12.9 percent of the total population, according the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010. There were just more than 75 million people under the age of 18 in the United States then, and the census bureau estimated that approximately 25 percent of children in the United States — and 6.1 percent of the total population — had at least one foreign-born parent.

The overwhelming proportion of players with immigrant ties are either immigrants themselves, or have at least one parent who is foreign-born. Only five players (5.9 percent of those with immigrant ties) on the USMNT between 2008-18 held a foreign passport through a grandparent. Four of those players — Paul Arriola, Jay DeMerit, Christian Pulisic, and Emerson Hyndman — used those passports to play abroad. Wil Trapp holds a foreign passport through a grandparent, but has yet to play professionally anywhere other than MLS.

There does not appear to be a correlation between USMNT players with immigrant ties having played abroad more often before signing their first pro deals. In fact, about 56 percent of USMNT players with immigrant ties played in the U.S. before turning pro. Those numbers help dispel one myth about American players: those with immigrant ties are more likely to play in professional leagues abroad due to more flexible immigration statuses, whether in a particular country or in a multi-state system like the European Union.

Why aren’t there more Asian and Latinx players on the USMNT?

There is one trend in the USMNT player pool that does not line up with population trends.

Since immigration regulations were overhauled by the United States government in 1965, immigrants largely come from two regions: Asia and Latin America. Yet of the 84 players with immigrant ties who played for the U.S. between 2008-18, just two (2.3 percent of players with immigrant ties) were from Asian countries, while one (1.2 percent) had Pacific Islander roots. Asians made up roughly 32 percent of the foreign-born population of the United States in 2010, and all people of Asian descent, regardless of place of birth, were 4.8 percent of the total U.S. population.

Latin Americans, the largest group of U.S. immigrants since 1965, perhaps should have been expected to make up a significant proportion of USMNT players. Soccer is extremely popular in Latin America. There are players from the region in every league in the world, and rooting interest in club and national teams “back home” remains strong among Latinx people in the United States today. Over the last decade, 27.3 percent of USMNT players with immigrant ties were connected to Latin America.

However, as a whole, Latinx players made up just 12.6 percent of the player pool from 2008-18, regardless if they had immigrant ties. For comparison, Latinx people made up 16.3 percent of the U.S. population in 2010 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (Note: the U.S. Census Bureau uses the term “Hispanic or Latino” the same way I’m using “Latinx,” meaning “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”) For a demographic that is growing in the United States and has a healthy culture of soccer throughout its countries of origin, the proportion of Latinx players in the USMNT player pool arguably should have been larger than the national population, not smaller.

These figures point to longstanding critiques of the U.S. development system regarding American Latinx players. After Gonzalez switched from a U.S. youth international to join the Mexican senior team, SB Nation’s Kim McCauley spoke to U.S. soccer development experts about the nation’s systemic breakdowns when it comes to recruiting Latinx talent:

“I always say that I’m a lucky guy,” said former USMNT player and former U.S. Under-14 and Under-15 head coach Hugo Perez. “I wasn’t born here, but I came here when I was young, played in the national team. I’ve had the opportunity to learn different cultures. And for me personally, you have to understand that each culture is different. You have to deal with their cultures, their parents, their families differently. You can’t just say we’re going to do it one way, it doesn’t work like that.”

If USMNT players with immigrant ties over the last decade are not proportionally coming from Asia or Latin America, where are they coming from? Though European immigrants make up a relatively small portion of the overall U.S. population — just 11 percent of immigrants living in the United States in 2010 — 42.8 percent of USMNT players with immigrant ties were connected to Europe.

Multiple factors account for this discrepancy, but one could be the European Union and the fact that most of the best club teams in the world are based in Europe. If a player can use a passport that is accepted in the European Union, he can bypass stringent regulations, including work permit rules in England, which often inhibit professionals who come from outside Europe. Those with Latinx ties, on the other hand, are relatively closed off to Europe, and have fewer good developmental opportunities in Latin America. The same can be said of American players without immigrant ties and access to a second passport.

While the sample size isn’t huge, we can also conclude that the proportion of Latinx, Asian, and white players on the USMNT from 2008-18 is smaller than the general population totals during a similar period, while the proportion of African-American and multiracial players (any combination of racial backgrounds) is larger than the general population over that 10-year period.

USMNT roster by race/ethnicity percentage (2008-2018)

Race/Ethnicity USMNT, 2008-18 U.S. Census data, 2010
Race/Ethnicity USMNT, 2008-18 U.S. Census data, 2010
White 50.3 72.4
Black/African American 21.7 12.6
Latinx 12.6 16.3
Asian 0.6 4.8
Multiracial 15 2.9

We have to be careful to not read too far into what is still relatively small-sample data, but criticism that some populations — particularly Latinx players, based on the sheer number of Latinx pros in the sport, including in the United States — seem to be underrepresented in the overall player pool are backed up by the numbers.

Among the reasons? Elite soccer remains a sport for the wealthy in the United States. While players can earn scholarships to pay-to-play clubs and MLS academy teams are mostly free these days, youth club soccer is still tied to a system that often costs thousands of dollars per year just to be part of the team, in addition to thousands more each year to travel around the country to play in tournaments.

As a result, players from high-income backgrounds have a much better opportunity to get into the youth club system in the United States, which can in turn lead to a college scholarship or pro contract down the road. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the national poverty rate was 12.3 percent in 2017, compared to 18.3 percent for just Hispanics (note again: the bureau’s definition of “Hispanic” may include people from non-Spanish speaking countries). Programs like Alianza de Futbol, which specifically targets Latinx players and offers showcases for pro scouts to find overlooked players, have stepped up where U.S. Soccer and the elite youth clubs have fallen short, but overall, the USMNT seems to be struggling to get everything it can out of its population.

Where in the U.S. are players from?

Whether players have immigrant ties doesn’t tell the complete story.

Breaking down U.S. geographic data, the runaway leader is California, with 22.3 percent of all USMNT players from 2008-18 — the vast majority of them (18.3 percent of all players) hailing from Southern California. California is the most populous state in the country (it has a larger population than Canada and Australia, for example), and much of it has mild weather, allowing for year-round play. In addition, soccer is a popular sport there, perhaps because of a multicultural population, including those with Latin American backgrounds, fueling interest in the sport.

After California are several well known soccer hotbeds: Texas (9.1 percent of players), New York/New Jersey (8 percent), the area around Washington, D.C. (6.3 percent), Florida (4.6 percent), and Missouri/Kansas (4.6 percent). All told, 29 states were represented on the USMNT, as well as six countries. Germany (6.3 percent) is far and away the most common non-U.S. country where players grew up, with only England (1.7 percent) being the home region of more than one player abroad.

Percentage of USMNT players by state/country of origin (2008-2018)

State/country Percentage of players
State/country Percentage of players
California 22.3
Texas 9.1
Germany 6.3
New York 4.6
Florida 4.6
Missouri 4
New Jersey 3.4
Maryland 3.4
Pennsylvania 3.4
Virginia 2.8
Georgia 2.8
Arizona 2.8
Colorado 2.3
Illinois 2.3
Washington 2.3
20 states/countries Under 2 percent each

This brings up a chicken or egg question: Do players hail from the same areas generally because that’s where the best players tend to be, or because those are the places scouts and coaches look?

Take the case of Christian Pulisic, the “kid from Hershey, Pennsylvania,” as announcers like to call him. Pennsylvania currently has multiple men’s professional teams, including the first-tier Philadelphia Union, and there have been several players from Pennsylvania in the USMNT player pool over the past decade. But Hershey, which had a population of just more than 14,000 people in 2010 and isn’t particularly close to a major city, wouldn’t be a projected hometown for a superstar.

Of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story with Pulisic. His hometown is Hershey, yes, but he also lived in England, Michigan, and eventually Germany before he turned 18. His parents played college soccer, and his father was a pro in indoor soccer before becoming a coach.

Without parents as familiar with the game as his were, would Pulisic have fallen through the cracks? That’s impossible to say for certain, but his route to the pros may have been more circuitous. Instead of getting a Croatian passport through his grandfather, which allowed him to join Borussia Dortmund’s academy before he turned 18 without running afoul of FIFA regulations intended to protect minors, he might have played NCAA soccer before turning pro. He might not have been called up to the USMNT until he was in his 20s. In turn, he might not have ever transferred to Chelsea for $73 million at any point in his career, even if he turned out to be a talented and successful professional.

While U.S. Soccer has a healthy budget, its resources are finite, and it may not make sense for scouts to scour every city, town, and hamlet for an undiscovered Pulisic. Players who live in little towns and who do not have robust support systems around them like Pulisic are more likely to be overlooked.

Still, other oddities exist. To take one recent example, the roster for the U-17 World Cup in 2017 featured just one player whose hometown was west of Texas. No players from the Southwest or West Coast were called up to the final roster, despite those regions being regarded as fonts of American soccer talent.

Was this because those players from traditional soccer hotbeds out west weren’t good enough that year? Possibly, and time will tell who of that particular age cohort pans out and eventually reaches the senior national team. But the example shows how difficult it is to keep tabs on an enormous country, and make sure the most suitable players get their chances on the big stages.

Despite that challenge, U.S. Soccer still has its vocal critics. Brad Rothenberg, son of a former U.S. Soccer president who co-founded Alianza de Futbol, did not mince words in a 2017 interview with Soccer America, in which he said that U.S. Soccer actively avoided Alianza events, seemingly for political or commercial reasons.

“The Federation has told us not to promote their brand to the 250,000 Latinos who attend our events and [U.S. Soccer director of talent identification] Tony Lepore actually notified us in 2016 that they weren’t interested in participating in Alianza since they haven’t found any elite players. On more than one occasion, U.S. Soccer scouts and coaches have secretly watched games hiding behind bleachers or our event inflatables but, when I asked, were unwilling to address our Alianza players directly for fear of endorsing an ‘unsanctioned’ event.”

It’s one thing to turn over every stone to identify potential USMNT pros early from a large national pool, and find that your resources aren’t quite sufficient. It’s another thing to establish a pattern of under-representing a particular group, like Latinx players, and then effectively turn your back on a program that has found inroads to exactly that same group.

We’ve seen in the last decade that the establishment of MLS academies and homegrown signings have helped players turn pro earlier, and opened new paths for USMNT players in the United States. The increase in players coming through academies abroad has likewise given the USMNT a diversified profile that is no longer primarily dependent on college players.

The next step has to be consciously looking at the profiles of players in the system and finding ways to be more equitable at talent identification. No one would advocate for a quota system based on race or hometown, but more can be done, beginning with changes at U.S. Soccer, grassroots work on the local level, and enabling entities outside the official power structure modeled after programs like Alianza de Futbol.

Missing the 2018 World Cup was a wake-up call for the USMNT, but it can fix the mistakes of the past, starting by fixing its blind spots in the player pool.

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