Pickup Soccer, The Missing Ingredient In American Soccer?

tumblr_m15ugkGUqf1r3d2k1(Above picture from the documentary “Pelada.” I highly recommend it.)

                     Sports in America are an obsession. There are entire networks dedicated solely to sports and more popping up every year (see NBC Sports Network). This over saturation of sports means that most kids grow up playing multiple sports not just because they are fun but also because they are organized activities that parents can drop their kids off in order to get brief respite from the children they love but can’t stand. Through this experience of multiple sports kids learn to decide which sport they intend to pursue (usually this is an ongoing process and the final decisions is not made until high school).

Unfortunately, there is an unspoken bias in sports. There are “glory” sports and there are “outsider” sports. This is the result of popular culture. Movies and popular opinion have depicted “jocks” as football, basketball, and baseball players. This is because these sports are inherently American (with obvious European origins but for the sake of brevity I’ll let that one be) and they are already so well-established that the success of its athletes is readily available to the public. Kids look up to these American athletes and see the popularity of the amateur athletes in school and usually decide that these sports are the most fun and worth pursuing. Soccer doesn’t have this base. Soccer players in America don’t get paid huge sums and since most people’s attention’s are divided between the three main sports it also doesn’t get much attention outside the World Cup. European soccer is as glamorous, if not more so, than basketball, baseball, and football but it’s European and thus more difficult to relate to for American athletes who are not already soccer players.Therefore, at the onset American soccer loses a lot of its potential talent to other sports because it is unable to attract players as successfully as the Big Three sports. So the talent pool for American soccer is considerably smaller than most European countries where soccer is the most popular sport there.

The small talent pool is not nearly as small as maybe American cricket or Indy Car racing but it’s worth noting because it comes into play to varying degrees within various other problems in American soccer. One of the most notable aspects of basketball is how the players who play it develop their skills. A lot of the talent comes from poor inner city youths who spend their time playing basketball on courts in parks in order to pass the time and hopefully stay out of trouble. They play the sport devoid of organization, referees, and sometimes even rules. This might seem like a dangerous combination and it can be with volatile youths but it provides somethings organized sports don’t, freedom. The free and open nature of pick-up games allow youths to explore parts of their game in an environment where mistakes don’t lead to state championship losses or sprints after the game. Instead avoiding losses, although important, isn’t the driving force. The pickup game players are trying to have fun, show their skills, and get bragging rights. Pulling a good move on your friend means a lot more than losing a tackle that leads to a score because there is always another meaningless game around the corner.

Constant pickup games provide a player with an opportunity to try moves and maneuvers that he/she would not try in a organized game situation because the stakes are too high and not only can mistakes lead to losses but it can also lead to getting benched. Getting benched doesn’t happen in pickup games because there are no coaches and although poor performances can lead to ridicule from opposing players, your fate is not controlled by a coach who could theoretically never play you again if he/she wanted to. Benching is the driving forced behind lack of creativity because creativity is a risk and why take risks and get benched when you can play technically sound, make the right pass, take the right shot, and guarantee yourself playing time. The problem with technically sound soccer is that at the end of the day it’s akin to the Princeton offense. It works but creativity creates wrinkles that unimaginative players can’t solve.

Unfortunately, soccer in this country doesn’t have the frequency of pickup games that basketball does (I know football and baseball have pickup games too but those are sports where “moves” and “creativity” are not as integral to the game because they are more team-oriented). Kids just don’t go into the street and play pickup soccer. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen but in comparison to countries like Brazil, Spain, and England it is relatively non-existent. In order to play soccer in this country parents and kids have to pay for the privilege to join a team or play in a tournament. This is a large expenditure of money just to get valuable playing time and experience. Therefore, soccer seems to be a sport where those who love to play it have no choice but to pay to play it in an organized fashion because pickup games are so hard to come by. This could be because there is a huge gap between “soccer players” and kids who will play soccer. For example, I don’t play organized football or basketball but I always play pickup games for it because I like the sport but I don’t specialize it. There are so many athletes in this country that don’t specialize in soccer (i.e. didn’t play on a club team or in high school) so they won’t play it. However, they will play football or baseball even if they specialized in baseball and visa versa. I have joined so many intramural leagues in school where there were barely five teams and almost every kid played club soccer in his life yet there are basketball and football intramural teams with 5 divisions to accommodate all the kids who want to play.

The sport of soccer needs pickup games to create American soccer players who can compete with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, and Wayne Rooney. America has had a problem producing good strikers because strikers are the most creative players on the field. They need to have a great touch, a penchant for flair, and an ability to create. Being a technically sound striker makes a striker predictable in front of goal. Being able to score and being able to create a scoring opportunity are two different skill sets. That’s why Freddy Adu was heralded as the next big star because he showed the creative ability American soccer cannot seem to produce consistently. Creativity comes from risk and risk is more acceptable in free environments where the reward of creating on the pitch does not come with the risk of losing a big game or being benched. However, in order to get those pickup games there needs to be an increase in the popularity of the sport so that more athletes are willing in participating in soccer. At the end of the day, soccer needs to rely less on organized soccer in order to develop its players. Organization is important but without the freedom of pickup games, players never truly learn how much they can actually do with the ball because they are afraid of the repercussions.

“Every time I went away I was deceiving my mum. I’d tell her I was going to school but I’d be out on the street playing football. I always had a ball on my feet.”

— Ronaldo

85 thoughts on “Pickup Soccer, The Missing Ingredient In American Soccer?”

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