Friday, October 13, 2017

American Exceptionalism

The US Men's National Team will not be going to the 2018 World Cup. This fact has caused considerable consternation among American soccer fans, most of whom can't remember a World Cup without the US present. Of course, that very fact demonstrates just how young soccer fandom is in the US, as the 40 years prior to 1990 spent without a World Cup appearance don't register much with Millenials. Still, the US has the largest population of CONCACAF countries by far and one of the largest economies in the world. Surely it should be able to make use of these advantages to dominate the conference, especially now given soccer's increased popularity? Indeed, one of the main premises of the book Soccernomics was that countries like the US would come to dominate soccer, since economic development and population size are key indicators of success in international soccer. While the latter half of that statement is certainly true, I think that analysis missed a key factor of why some countries are better at certain sports than others, a factor that explains why people should temper their expectations of the USMNT.

Junior World Orienteering Championships Opening Ceremony 2007. I am one of these people.

As an example, let's consider a lesser-known sport with which I have some personal experience: orienteering. For those of you who are totally lost (pun intended), a brief explanation: orienteering is a sport where you use a map and compass to find a number of specified locations in the wilderness as quickly as you possibly can (for more information you can click here). I was actually pretty good at this sport once, so much so that I was on the US Junior National Team for four straight years. Of course, making the US team in orienteering wasn't the achievement it sounds given the US was terrible at orienteering at the youth level. Most years, it was a struggle to find a full complement to bring to the Junior World Championships, and when we did compete we were usually close to the bottom along with Hong Kong, Israel, and Ireland. Who did well? The Scandinavian countries, particularly Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and Switzerland were consistently top.

O-Ringen, the world's largest orienteering event. Swedish people really like orienteering

There's a reason I mentioned the countries above. Both those countries at the bottom and the top of the orienteering ladder have similar population sizes and have highly developed economies. So why did some do so well while the others didn't? Geographic factors played a part certainly (though there's a surprising amount of undeveloped land in which to run in Hong Kong, there's a lot less than in Norway). However, I think the main thing is simply the level of interest in the sport. Sweden is the birthplace of competitive orienteering, has events that regularly get over 10,000 contestants (a US meet that has 200 is big), and even had news coverage of orienteering results. Perhaps most impressively, if you say the word orienteering, you aren't looked at like you are from Mars. Norway and Finland are similarly enamored of the sport, and as a result these countries dominate year after year. Though they do not have the resources of the US, or dramatically more resources than Ireland, Hong Kong, or Israel, the higher interest in the sport means a greater share of their resources are invested in it.

This is something you see around the world: there are always countries that are much better than they "should be" at a particular sport based on their economy and demographics if they have a high level of interest in it. The Netherlands has more Olympic medals in speed skating than any other country. Bulgaria has the 4th most weightlifting medals despite its size and level of economic development. No country is a match for Canada at hockey. Jamaica, the home of my fiancee, dominates in athletics, with Usain Bolt just the latest example of a storied tradition. They literally teach every child there how to pass a baton in a relay: say the word "reach" and Jamaicans instinctively move. The high school championships, known as Champs, are the biggest annual sporting event in the country. That stuff matters. Interest affects institutional resources, the pool of athletes available, coaching: everything really.

US sporting interests diverge from the rest of the world.

This is true of soccer as well, and that's a problem for the US, where interest in the sport, while growing, is still well behind team sports like basketball, football, and baseball. Look at any of the institutional factors blamed for poor youth development in soccer (travel teams/AAU, high costs, youth coaching not integrated with professional teams, etc.) and you'll find them just as much in baseball, basketball, and the like. Yet America continues to produce world-class talent at those sports but not at soccer. Similarly, America still has the most Olympic medals of any country in a wide range of sports, so it's not an institutional problem. The difference is that other countries put way more emphasis on soccer compared to America and that's always going to make a difference in how good the US can be. Soccer is the number one sport in most countries around the world, and even in countries where it is not (like Jamaica), it's still usually above the interest level in the US. Honestly, it's more surprising to me that the US has done as well as it has in my lifetime given soccer is a higher priority literally everywhere else.

The idea that the US should always be making the World Cup smacks of the old, jingoistic doctrine of American exceptionalism. In fact it's America's actual exceptionalism, in this case its focus on team sports other than soccer, that shows why that thinking is seriously flawed here. Can the USMNT get better with improved coaching, better scouting, or a new "golden generation"? Of course, countries like Iceland show it can be done. But as with Iceland, those are all attempts to improve performance relative to an unchanged baseline expectation given population, economic development, and soccer's place in the country. Without a fundamental change to soccer's place in America's sports culture, America's place in soccer culture won't change either.