For decades, sports fans have debated why the US men’s soccer team isn’t an international powerhouse. People have wondered why a country that has produced greats in other sports like LeBron James and Tom Brady can’t do the same on the field. Many blamed the relative lack of money in US soccer, or said Americans simply find the game too slow and dangerous to score.
But the reasons for the lack of size in US men’s soccer are much more complicated, according to writer George Dohrmann. In his new book, Switching Fields: Inside the Fight to Remake Men’s Soccer in the United States, the Pulitzer winner dissects the complex systemic issues that have long prevented the United States from lasting success.
“We did it the American way, and it’s very clear that it was a huge failure,” Dohrmann told the Post.
The tome examines how the US, a hard-fought nation thriving on a unique ingenuity, has only changed its fortunes in recent years as it finally tore up its playbook and embraced the international model.
When Dhormann first put this book up about eight years ago, there was little interest. But after the US men’s national team’s disastrous 2017 loss to Trinidad and Tobago, which prevented them from qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 30 years, there was a “deep desire to learn.”
“The change that’s happening right now is that we’re doing it like the rest of the world has been doing. And man, we’re catching up fast,” he said, noting that the current generation of players, many of whom play for top European clubs, are different from their ancestors. When the World Cup kicks off in Qatar on Sunday, fans should pay attention.
“Players like Yunus Musah, Brenden Aaronson and Christian Pulisic are just football players,” he said. “They are not American football players who have played a role on the field. They are guys playing the game. It’s much more like that alien flare. Football is nicer.”
To understand the original game book, Dohrmann turns the game clock back to Torrance, California in 1962 for a meeting to discuss the formation of the American Youth Soccer Organization. Led by Duncan Duff, a Scot, and Billy Hughes, a Brit, and a few other expats, the league revived previous failed efforts to bring youth football to the region by explicitly making the game less alien. “The American Way”, as it was called, was implemented.
Entry fees were cheap, teams were talent-balanced, and games were played within their communities. And they cut age participation at 16, so the kids aimed to get promoted from their local league to their high school team.
“That’s the poor foundation that we built football on,” Dohrmann said, adding that while it helped football spread rapidly from coast to coast, there was one major flaw. “This was going to be a white suburban sport that would produce white suburban players, which meant underserved communities [were] ruled out for decades,” he said.
And as competition increased, travel club teams emerged with costly joining fees that further excluded poor inner-city kids and more remote Hispanic communities. The “pay-to-play” model, as it was known, essentially reduced what should have been an abundant talent pool. Gifted athletes might more easily find a path to fame through basketball or American football.
In terms of style of play, coaches were usually dads who didn’t really know the intricacies of the game, or British coaches with a brutal approach.
“We ended up with a breakneck, physical and running style of play. There is a lack of awareness of just playing the game,” said Dohrmann. “All these creative Latino players that were buzzing around San Diego, we were like, ‘No, we’re not going to listen to you.'”
Major League Soccer had its inaugural season in 1996. The 10 teams mostly signed collegiate players or signed major European players in the twilight of their careers such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry and David Villa in subsequent seasons. This garnered some headlines and curious fans, but did little to raise the level of play.
The biggest breakthrough came in the mid-1980s when MLS teams began creating their own development academies, much like minor league teams do in baseball. Most international clubs use this model to develop and invest in young talent.
“It was a monster development. It’s in Argentina, Spain and Brazil, really everywhere. We just didn’t have that,” Dohrmann said, adding that the academies would accept players regardless of their financial status, killing the “pay-to-play” model.
“It was a movement of saying, ‘I don’t care where you’re from,'” he noted. “They cracked the suburban system.”
As a result, teams like the New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union and FC Dallas developed top talent who were then sold to major European clubs. New Jersey native Aaronson came via the Philadelphia Union academies and was sold to Leeds United in 2022 in a $30.2 million transfer. When such players came back to play for Team USA, they brought valuable experience playing alongside the best in the world.
But ironically, while US men’s soccer is on the rise, US women’s soccer, which has long dominated the sport, is beginning to lose its upper hand.
In the book, Dohrmann explains how coach Anson Dorrance, who founded the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill women’s soccer program in 1979, created a winning culture and a competitive game that became the blueprint for women’s collegiate soccer — and international gold with it Default. He also nurtured great female talent like Mia Hamm, who led the US team to world championships in 1991 and 1999 and gold medals in 1996 and 2004.
But European clubs like Lyon and Barcelona are now also producing top footballers themselves. The US women’s team has to make significant investments domestically to stay on top.
As for the US men’s national team, Dohrmann said it is young and promising. At the 2022 World Cup, the squad looks stronger than ever.
“The old system has breathed its last. What is presented is the new way,” he said. “If you don’t see how bright the future is, you don’t pay attention.”