The largest international youth soccer tournament in the Western Hemisphere took place this month in Blaine, which meant lots of schlepping (thanks, parents), screaming (thanks, fans) and superlatives.
Blaine’s National Sports Center is “the largest soccer complex on Earth” (thanks, Guinness Book of Records), which made it a grand host for Schwan’s USA Cup, featuring 14,000 youth soccer players from 17 countries.
Soccer isn’t America’s pastime, but watch a game or three and it’s hard not to wish that it were. Observing from the breezy, green sidelines in Blaine, and from various bar stools and living rooms during the televised FIFA World Cup in Brazil, I can’t think of a sport better fit to teach Americans an essential but evaporating life skill.
It’s called “delayed gratification.”
I’ve never seen such strong and agile athletes work so hard for 80 to 90 minutes for yet another, “Oooh! So close!”
This impressive madness seems truer the better a player gets. In the 2014 World Cup final July 13, Germany defeated Argentina 1-0 in extra time, with the only goal being scored by Mario Götze.
“Soccer can be a pretty cruel game,” said Neil Buethe, spokesman for the Chicago-based U.S. Soccer Federation. “You can be the best team on that day and play way better, but, for whatever reason, you’re unable to score and the other team is able to get one opportunity to score.
“That’s life, right? Sometimes, things don’t work out, even if you’re fully prepared.”
More often, fortunately, things do work out. Still, Americans’ demand for instant everything — from cash to caffeine to the entire second season of “Orange Is the New Black” — suggests a nation better suited to basketball, football and baseball. Admittedly, the latter sport can be low- or no-scoring, but at least there’s the constant drama of foul balls and the guy with cotton candy passing by every five minutes.
(Yes, hockey fans, you also get delayed-gratification bragging rights, but soccer remains more extreme, forced to work overtime to earn love in the United States).
More than 4 million Americans play soccer for organized youth and professional teams, Buethe said. About 14 million to 20 million play soccer for fun in their yard or local park.
After a bump in interest in the late 1970s (thank you, Pele), the number of American soccer players has remained relatively flat.
Nicholas DeVetter, 20, who began playing soccer at age 5, agrees that delayed gratification is a likely culprit.
Americans, he said, “want action now, scoring now, and you don’t really get that in soccer,” said DeVetter, a Minneapolis youth soccer coach and winger for St. John’s University. “A lot of times, it’s a lot of hard work for maybe not a lot of reward.”
That’s not only true for players. “The lack of goals and lack of statistics is also difficult for parents,” noted Andy Coutts, spokesman for the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association.
“In basketball, a parent can say, ‘The team lost, but my kid had 22 points and eight rebounds.’ Soccer is not easily quantified. It’s hard to capture data and measure performance. Sometimes, all you have is the scoreboard.”
‘Helped the whole team’
So why does DeVetter, who grew up playing basketball and baseball, and who wrestled and played lacrosse for St. Thomas Academy, feel a special passion for this crazy sport that makes him work so hard with absolutely no promises attached?
Here’s a story. When DeVetter was about 14, his Twin Cities soccer team was playing in a regional tournament in Illinois. It was a “big tournament,” he recalls, “with a lot of really good, high-level teams.”
DeVetter’s team was playing for the tournament championship. To win, they needed to at least tie. The other team scored within five minutes. For 75 more minutes, DeVetter and his 10 teammates just kept pushing, working together, trying to get the goal.
“We wanted it so bad,” he said. “This was all that mattered.”
Time passed; the clock was about to run out.
“In a split second, the ball fell to me and I just popped her in,” DeVetter said. “I still remember celebrating with my teammates. It was really, really cool. It was that feeling that what I did helped the whole team.”
Most sports offer our kids terrific benefits. Teamwork, focus, respect for one’s body, mental agility, sportsmanship.
But I really hand it to those disciplined young soccer players, who understand better than most that you can master all of the above and win — or still lose in the very last second.
So you do what you’ve been trained to do. You get up and play another day.
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum