Our U.S. soccer men lag behind our women, and here’s the reason whyBy RICK CLEVELAND,
≈Team USA – the women’s team that is – dominates international soccer. Last Sunday, the U.S. women won the World Cup for the third time since 1996, defeating Netherlands 2-0.
During that same time period the U.S. women have won Olympics Gold four times and have consistently been ranked No. 1 in the world. The U.S. men have won nothing nearly so grand. Last year, our men did not even qualify for the World Cup. Iceland did. So did Tunisia and Senegal. Uruguay, a nation slightly bigger than Mississippi with a population of 3.4 million, has won two men’s World Cups. The U.S., a nation of 325 million, has won zero.
So today’s question: Why is this? Why do our women dominate while our men are dominated?
I believe I know. Most of our greatest male athletes might play soccer as young boys, but move on to football, basketball and baseball as they grow older. That’s why.
Take former football great Deuce McAllister for example. McAllister was a budding soccer star as a young teen, playing on select teams on a regional basis. As you might guess, he was faster, stronger and better than most of the kids his age. He played striker and sweeper and often dominated.
Then he reached the ninth grade at Morton High School – and, as he put it, “I had to make a choice.”
In small-town Mississippi, football was – and is – the biggest attraction in town. Morton was no exception. Soccer? Not so much. Football Friday nights are the biggest happenings in town. Then there’s college football on Saturdays and the NFL on Sundays and Mondays. Plus, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss all have 85 players on football scholarships. None of those schools play men’s soccer. Great athletes, who play football, can get their college paid for and then make a fortune in the NFL. Great athletes who play soccer won’t have the same opportunities.
“I loved soccer, I really loved it,” McAllister said. “Speed more than anything else made me a pretty good player. But there was just so much more opportunity for me in football. The choice, for me, was obvious.”
Modest, almost to a fault, McAllister says he probably did not possess the ball skills to become a world class soccer player. “I was playing so many sports, I didn’t have the repetitions it takes to develop all those foot skills,” he said.
Yes, but if McAllister had grown up in Mexico or Uruguay he would have been playing soccer year round. He would have the reps – and he likely would have been sensational.
So many of our greatest football heroes would have been soccer sensations. Walter Payton? Oh my gosh: He had the speed, the athleticism and the footwork to have excelled at soccer. People forget he punted and kicked off for JSU. Sweetness could boom it. The guess here is that Ray Guy, who excelled at anything that involved a ball, would been an unbelievable soccer goalie. Tall, long-limbed, strong and quick, Guy could really jump. And he surely would have been the first soccer goalie to kick the ball into the stands at the opposite end of the field. Hell, he did that in football.
Back in the day, Lance Alworth would have been a soccer superstar. Alas, they weren’t playing much soccer in Brookhaven in the 1950s. And can you imagine AJ Brown or DK Metcalf on a soccer pitch?
And it’s not just football that robs soccer of so many potential stars. So many of our best male athletes choose basketball or baseball. You think basketball great Monta Ellis wouldn’t have been a terrific soccer player? How about baseball’s Jake Mangum or Billy Hamilton?
When Hamilton came out of Taylorsville High, he was the best football player, basketball player and baseball player in the state. He had scholarships in all three and actually signed with Mississippi State in football before opting for a Cincinnati Reds signing bonus. Hamilton, often hailed as the fastest player in baseball, would have been a terror in soccer. Said McAllister, “If Billy Hamilton with all that speed and agility had played soccer, it wouldn’t have been fair.”
Taylorsville didn’t field a soccer team. Many small-town schools in Mississippi do not.
Former Ole Miss basketball great Rahim Lockhart coached Hamilton at Taylorsville. Asked how Hamilton would have been as a soccer player, Lockhart answered, “Billy could have been a professional bullfighter if he wanted.”
My point: If Hamilton had concentrated on soccer from the time he could walk – as do many athletes in other countries – he might have helped the U.S. men get off the snide in the World Cup. But in the U.S., and particularly in the Deep South, that’s just not the way it works.
Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattisburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016