special to tias, a guest column by Ryan O’Hanlon
“American soccer” seems to be a redundant term. Is the United States just trying to be different from the rest of the world? Is this a metric system situation? Australia kicked soccer to the curb in 2004 when it officially announced that ‘football’ was the proper nomenclature. New Zealand and South Africa still commonly use the term soccer, but I’m beginning to think ’soccer’ is more than just a word. It represents how the game is played, especially here in the United States. Watch any game, whether MLS, Division 1, or even the US National team, and soccer is what you get - a sport that relies on physical strength, speed, and supreme conditioning over tactical acumen or technical skill.
Soccer can still be the beautiful game, but too often it is the waiting game.
The waiting begins at the youth level when physically weaker and smaller players go unselected in the various premier clubs, ODP teams, etc, etc. If you can get that center forward who is a foot taller than every other kid, then you win. It’s the American way (Supersize Me!). Just overpower everyone else and get that ball on the big guy’s head in the box. Sure, it kills when you’re thirteen, and even occasionally when you’re Peter Crouch, but there’s a reason why Peter Crouch and others like Jan Koller are not the best strikers in the world. Same goes for the likes of Oguchi Onyewu on the back line.
Football is won by a superior tactical awareness and technical ability, not physical prowess. Take Italy for example. They don’t have anyone who is overly strong or exceptionally fast, but every player on that team knows the game, knows his role, and does it to the best of his ability. The result was a World Cup trophy.
Going from team dynamics to individual presence, take a look at Juan Roman Riquelme. One could make an argument that Riquelme is the best player in the world (see Ray Hudson). Even if he isn’t, it is accepted that Riquelme is ONE of the best players in the World, but is he fast enough to run by defenders? Absolutely not. Is he so tall that he towers over defenders? Nope. Strong enough to leave the opposition in a crumpled heap? 0 for 3.
So what exactly can this guy do?
He can play football. Riquelme almost never runs more than 10 yards at a time. Instead, he uses his knowledge of the game to play balls that put his teammates into dangerous positions. This passing ability and his deadly shot make Riquelme one of the most dangerous players in the World.
This could be an over exaggeration, but if Riquelme was American, he may have been overlooked at a young age. Likewise with the wizardry (and growth hormones) of Lionel Messi. In some crowded tryout, maybe they don’t stand out like a McBride, Onyewu, or Ching, but get the flow of the game moving and they become the standouts beyond the target players. Sure, someone with the skills of Riquelme or Messi will eventually rise to the top level. Proper youth development in one form or another set these guys up for success, or at least the chance for it.
Enter my American Riquelme, Benny Feilhaber.
Feilhaber spent the first six years of his life in Brazil, where he started to develop and learn the importance of the technical aspect of the game. He then moved to the US and spent time moving from state to state. Eventually, Benny and his family settled in California. There, he won the national championship with his club team from Irvine, but was only lightly recruited coming out of high school. The Brazilian-born American of Austrian descent decided to attend UCLA. He would have to try-out. Feilhaber made the team and went from someone who was unsure that he would even play college ball to a freshmen starter on one of the best teams in the country.
Based on his performances at UCLA, the walk-on was selected to the United States U20 National Team for the 2005 World Youth Championships. He was offered a contract by Bundesliga power Hamburg. He accepted, left UCLA, and made starts in the Champions League.
Since then, Benny has moved onto premiership side Derby County, and while early playing time has been surprisingly tough to come by on the relegation-zone team (wtf?), he is a mainstay in the lineup for the US MNT. He is the number 10 that the US has never had, and it appears that Bob Bradley believes in him (a good sign for a man unwilling to play a lot of the younger prospects). Hopefully that trust continues.
How, then, can someone of Feilhaber’s caliber fall though the cracks of the national team system and not go noticed until after his first year in college, which oh by the way he had to walk onto? Some will say that it is the flawed scouting system in place that leaves too many rocks unturned. Others might say players development at different stages and Benny was a late bloomer. But how do you explain his amateur, teen-aged success? The answer speaks more to the type of player that the scouts are looking for. Feilhaber doesn’t have the physical attributes that seem to make American scouts drool. He’s not big, rippled with muscles, or exceedingly fast. He is just a skilled tactical player who understands the game.
Until the U.S. produces more players like Feilhaber we will all be confined to watching “soccer” when we tune into our national team. Hopefully the emergence of Benny and others will lead to more footballers being brought into the national team fold. Who knows, maybe the USSF reverts back to its original name, the U.S. Football Association, a variation of which the organization used from its inception in 1914 until it dropped the word ‘football’ in 1974. Until then, we’re left with soccer.
Born and raised on Long Island, Ryan O’Hanlon currently attends Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he plays varsity soccer (tied for first place in the the first division’s Patriot League in case you were wondering). His reporting can be found at American Soccer Daily.
banner photo credit: ISI Photos