Update: Mexico wins 2-1, and deservedly so: after a bright start to the game the US seemed lethargic, even given the 7,200 foot altitude. Still it was heartening to see a game played with passion and respect, without the general nastiness that used the characterize these matches. There is a part of me that is happy Mexico won, I hope they qualify for the World Cup and loosing would have put their bid in serious trouble. In 2002 the USA and Mexico played a great match in the World Cup (which unfortunately dissolved into nastiness in the end with Rafa Marquez's karate kick on Cobi Jones), and I hope they can do it again in South Africa. But the USA needs to regroup quickly and win convincingly at home versus El Salvador next month in Utah. And yes, the name of the blog is Oregon Economics....
As the United States National Team prepares for a World Cup qualifying match in Mexico City, in a stadium, Azteca, where they have never won, and as Portland readies itself for a jump into Major League Soccer, it is a decent time to ask why the US is not a better soccer playing nation.
The modern reasons are pretty clear to an economist's eyes: the incentives, both financial and social, are such that the best US athletes are drawn into football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, individual sports like running, tennis and golf before they consider soccer. In the past, most of the best US players have come from households that already have a built in strong predilection for soccer, stemming from immigrant roots. Still, in a nation of 300 million people where sports are so important and a strong part of the youth experience, it is amazing that we have not produced more and better players.
The historical reasons are less clear to me, but I suppose most of the blame lies with baseball. As the sports of rugby and association football were splitting and evolving into their modern incarnations in England, they had already arrived in the US and morphed into American football - our take, essentially, on rugby. The association football version of the sport never really caught on. I imagine that this was largely due to baseball having already cemented itself as the casual pastime of kids in the US, much like soccer is for kids everywhere else. American football and then basketball quickly gained popularity and soccer was left relatively unloved. Perhaps it has something to do with eschewing the traditions of the former colonizers, but I doubt it.
At any rate, the US gets by on determination, athleticism and good organization, and is a decent but mediocre team by world standards. If we ever start producing players of real quality, then these established traditions could make the US a tough team to beat. The MLS is starting to change the modern incentives. Yes, salaries in the MLS on average are terrible, but good American players are now getting noticed by European teams and they pay great. So youth players can now see a clear path to success and riches that should provide motivation. Also, as European soccer is becoming more and more visible in the US, the world of soccer that exists beyond our borders is much clearer to an American kid whose parents don't know the sport.
So I predict failure today in Mexico, but I think in another 20 years, the US team will consistently be among the top ten and hopefully develop a little flair along the way.
By the way, as a footnote, I once read a book about the origination of association football which claimed the term 'football' does not have to do with the fact that you kick a ball with your feet but rather came from the fact that these were commoners' sports that were played on foot (as opposed to horseback). So now you know.