By the time of the fourth goal in Argentina’s comprehensive 4-0 drubbing of the United States men’s soccer team Tuesday night in Houston, the excitement of the Americans making the Copa America semifinals had entirely worn off. In its place is the familiar doubt that the U.S. will ever be able to compete with powerhouse international teams like Argentina. The only certain thing is that there are no easy answers.
Some choose to focus their criticism on coach Jurgen Klinsmann, whose game management is again under fire. Even if Klinsmann had waved a tactical magic wand over his team, though, the USA was so comprehensively outclassed by Argentina that it’s hard to imagine anything but a narrower loss. The national team has been in this situation before, and more highly regarded coaches have — with a couple of exceptions — produced the same failure. Shuffling the American lineup might have made the score closer, but it wouldn’t have closed the vast gap between the teams.
It’s tempting to blame the USA’s soccer development system for not producing more talented players. The fragmented American system, which encompasses everything from high school and college soccer, to pay-for-play club teams, to a few burgeoning professionally run youth academies, does not have a history of producing world-class talent. Such a system, though, is not a cure-all. Take Mexico, the most soccer-crazed nation in North America. Mexican clubs operate a comprehensive youth development system, from under-17 teams on up. They have every incentive to develop young players to the fullest potential. And yet Mexico hasn’t won a knockout-round game at the World Cup in 30 years, and got routed 7-0 by Chile in the Copa America quarterfinals.
Some will criticize the still-growing MLS for stunting the further growth of professional players. The theory is that the lack of a high-level league at home hurts professional American players from developing into world-class talents. The mere presence of a top-flight professional league doesn’t fix things either, though. Take England, which has the Premier League, one of the top three leagues in the world. The country won the World Cup in 1966, but in the half-century since, has only made it as far as the semifinals of a major tournament twice — and lost both times.
The Americans’ loss to Argentina reminded us that the USA isn’t close to winning a major tournament. It’s worth remembering, though, that Argentina — with their world-class players, with one of the best two professional leagues in the Americas, and with their long and storied history — hasn’t won the World Cup in 30 years, or the Copa America in 23. This will be a long road ahead for the USA, if it’s to reach the top of the soccer world, and there are no easy answers.