Columns & Blogs

Andy Furillo: United States needs to put its best athletes on the pitch

U.S. goalie Brad Guzan reacts after giving up a goal to victorious Panama during a penalty-kick shootout Saturday.
U.S. goalie Brad Guzan reacts after giving up a goal to victorious Panama during a penalty-kick shootout Saturday. The Associated Press

A new week has dawned since our national embarrassment of losing to Jamaica and Panama in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, so it’s time to get past the finger pointing and the assignment of blame.

No single coach or player owns this double-debacle soccer indignity. Instead of calling for the resignation of our coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, or the head of our goalie, Brad Guzan, who didn’t use his when he threw that ball from outside the box to set up what proved to be the winning goal for Jamaica, we as Americans need to come to terms with the No. 1 factor that keeps us from reaching the highest rung of the international soccer pyramid.

The problem is this: Compared to the rest of the world, we don’t put our best players on the field.

Yeah, we’ve got plenty of good ones, and we’ve got some great ones coming up. You’ve got to like that DeAndre Yedlin guy, and you’ve got to hate it that Klinsmann, in the knucklehead move of the week, didn’t get him into the Jamaica game until the 76th minute. The 22-year-old is a star of the future. So is that Gyasi Zardes kid who is 23.

U.S. soccer fans, of course, love the likes of Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, the veteran stars of the men’s national team. At least they used to, before the Gold Cup. And there’s plenty to love in both, especially Dempsey’s 48 goals in international play for the U.S. men and his tinkling of the nets in three straight World Cup competitions. Bradley, in the midfield, looks at times like he’s got the game on the string, and he almost pulled us out of the sack in Atlanta with one second-half goal and a post shot off the Jamaican keeper in the 57th minute.

Dempsey and Bradley are good, and so was Landon Donovan, probably the greatest U.S. player ever with 57 men’s national team goals, and so is Jozy Altidore, who missed the Jamaica game – let’s pretend, please, that the Panama game for third place never was played.

But we can do better – a lot better.

Compared to the rest of the world, we don’t put our best soccer players on the field.

As much as you might like Dempsey, how do you think we’d do if we had an athlete like LeBron James up front? Or Steph Curry running things in the midfield? Or Mike Trout on the wings? Or a back line made up mostly of back-seven NFL defenders? Somehow, I don’t think Jamaica’s Darren Mattocks scores on that throw-in in the 31st minute Wednesday night if, let’s say, Earl Thomas, had him marked. And don’t think Thomas or dozens of other bigger guys don’t have the quicks to handle confrontations in the box with anybody in the world, including Lionel Messi.

Rod Underwood is the academy director for Republic FC, and it’s his job to find and develop young soccer talent. He was asked in an interview to imagine a U.S. team where Curry came out of the middle and distributed to a Trout who crossed to a Lebron, or even to a Floyd Mayweather Jr., with a back line made up of NFL linebackers.

“Yeah, that would be awesome,” Underwood said at the thought of Curry kicking the ball instead of shooting it. “A guy like him, you get him early so he understands the game, and the athlete he is – guys like him would be great in the game, if he could do with his feet what he does with his hands. He’s a creator, a passer, a finisher. I definitely see him in an attacking role, in the center of the field.”

On Mayweather: “His quickness, his mentality – he’s a winner,” Underwood said. “People look at athletes and they say he’s cocky, or he’s this or he’s that, but people like him have the DNA, and you’ve got to figure out where they best fit. If a guy has ice water in his veins and he doesn’t choke, you want him to be a forward. He might miss four or five goals, but the next chance he gets, he’s not going to be deterred.”

Maybe someday Major League Soccer will think big and lose the salary cap and let its franchises go after the best players in the world.

On Lebron: “He takes in multiple athletes. He can post up and be a scorer, or he can be the general who pulls the strings for the whole team. You can move him up to score goals. You need him to play defense? He could do that, too.

On Trout: “He could play almost anywhere. He could play up front. He could be what we call a box guy, a central midfield player who covers a lot of ground (from goal box to goal box).

We all know what it would take to get more top athletes into soccer, and that’s money. Nobody with LeBron James’ talent is going to play soccer on the cheap for the top league in this country that is minor league in comparison to the rest of the world – and will stay that way until it gets rid of its ridiculous salary cap.

Maybe someday Major League Soccer will think big and lose the cap and let its franchises go after the best players in the world. That’s when young athletes in the U.S. will go in big for soccer.

Until then, all you can do is dream. How’s this for one: a young Wilt Chamberlain in the nets? He’d be so good they’d have to rewrite the goaltending rules, just like they did in basketball.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

  Comments