The Chip On Our Shoulder
Updated: Oct 31
"The perception in Europe, mostly, is that the American player is willing to run, willing to fight, has good mentality, but technically they're not very gifted and tactically they're not very aware and their experiences aren't very big...I could see right away that Frank Lampard's idea of Christian Pulisic was shaped a lot by the fact that he was American and not that his football education came a lot from what has happened in Germany. Since then, I think Lampard has learned that Pulisic is a lot better than he gave him credit for." - Jesse Marsch
Jesse Marsch is just the latest person to confirm European football's deeply held and often repeated stereotype of American soccer players: they are simply not good enough. It is not a fiction. The stereotype exists. It is real and well known. But is it justified? Is it deserved?
In a really interesting but a bit forgotten article from 2014, The Atlantic delved into the subject of national stereotypes of soccer players. Country by country the author catalogs pervasive and oversimplified perceptions, listing the stereotype followed by the author's view of reality. The Spanish stereotype: formerly underachievers who have become perennial winners. The reality? "Yeah, Spain are still really good."
What about England? The stereotype of a collection individual superstars who fail to come together to achieve collectively rings true. The reality according to the author? The stereotype is probably accurate.
And the United States? The stereotype is "[c]hipper, harmless underdogs who just learned how to play “soccer” last week or so and probably compete in some sort of amateur league back home. Weirdly good at producing internationally renowned goalies. Can’t seem to decide on a color for their uniform—are they red? White? Blue? Some combination featuring stripes?" The reality according to the author? "Tough defense, good on the counter-attack,very fit, maybe not as tactically expert."
That stereotype and the author's view of reality are not far off from Frank Lampard's view 6 years on. Is the stereotype of American soccer players still deserved? Of course it is!
Stereotypes are tricky things. People often assume stereotypes are always wrong or unfair. Even the word stereotype has negative connotations. It has almost become synonymous with unfair prejudice or discrimination. I think the word stereotype is gravely misunderstood. At least for purposes of soccer, let's strip the word of any extra baggage society has placed upon it and focus on the essential meaning of the word.
According to Oxford's Dictionary, a stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. Note that the definition does not tell us whether the oversimplified image or idea is wrong or unfair. Oversimplified does not mean wrong or unfair. It just means that some details, supporting factors, explanations or nuances are not present in the statement. The fact is stereotypes can often be wrong, but sometimes they can be very accurate!
Try this test:
A. The majority of cars on the road have internal combustion engines.
B. Cars have combustion engines
The first statement has a statistical qualifier - "majority". Most of us would define "majority" as more than 50% and based on our own personal experiences and what we see on the roads, we all believe that electrical vehicles, while popular at the moment, have not yet taken over our roads. The presence of statistical support lining up with our own observations causes us to believe this statement is likely true and not an overly generic stereotype. The data matters, right?
The second statement has no statistical qualifier, but it is equally and unquestionably true. Right? It is also a stereotype. The fact that electric cars do not have combustion engines does not make the statement that cars have combustion engines false. It is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified idea about a particular thing. Think about it a slightly different way. An opinion can be completely true, but not truly complete.
Now lets try a soccer version of the test and flip it around:
A. 0.0039% of soccer players currently playing in La Liga are American.
B. American soccer players have what it takes to play in La Liga.
The first statement is absolutely and mathematically true. Out of 507 players in La Liga, there are only two Americans playing, Sergino Dest and Konrad de la Fuente, both at FC Barcelona.
The second statement is also completely true, but it is not truly complete. So let's flip it around and look at it a different way:
"American soccer players do not have what it takes to play in La Liga."
On its face that statement seems grossly unfair. Is it way too general and a very oversimplified way of viewing the talent of American players? Some might even say it reflects a biased or prejudiced view of American soccer players. I'm betting you won't say that. You've read this far so you know the stats. There are just two Americans playing in La Liga at the moment. That statistic is coloring your view (hey, it should be coloring your view!) and I'm betting you're now agreeing with the stereotype that American players don't have what it takes to play in La Liga. At least we can agree that the overwhelming majority of American players don't have what it takes.
The current stereotype of male American soccer players is true. (The recent dominance of American female players is an entirely different subject.) We need to acknowledge it and own it. The stereotype is the result of decades of arrogance and complacency. There is a lot of blame to go around, from players to parents, to coaches and youth clubs, "elite" leagues, DA, ECNL, colleges, US Youth Soccer, US Club Soccer and US Soccer itself. And we should be extremely angry and frustrated about it. But anger and frustration is not enough. The stereotype of American players is like an Original Sin - American players are born with it. For that reason, American players should have a chip on their shoulders, and they need to use that chip productively to help focus their energies on changing the stereotype.
What can change stereotypes? Data, information and behavior that is consistently different than the stereotype - that's what changes stereotypes! But it must be truthful. Spain were known for years as underachievers, until their style of play changed to Positional Play (some called it Tiki Taka) and they started winning. The world started to look at Spanish players differently, studying how players like Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Silva and Villa learned to play this way and following the trail to FC Barcelona and Valencia CF. Suddenly, the stereotype of Spanish players is about tactical geniuses and technical maestros of small stature who know how to keep the ball and play a beautiful collective game.
To change the stereotype, you need to change behaviors, and the change needs to begin at the American youth club level. Here is something really important to remember about how Frank Lampard is warming up to the fact that Christian Pulisic may be (and in my humble opinion is) an exception to the stereotypical American player. Pulisic's most relevant educational experiences came from Germany. Even Jesse Marsch, an American coach, points to that fact. This points to another important stereotype: the quality of football education in Europe is better than in the United States. What does your heart tell you? If you are American you may be offended. What does your brain tell you? If you're an honest American you know the stereotype is true.
To change the stereotype we need to change the type and quality of our training in the United States. That's it. But it isn't easy. The change needs to happen on many fronts and there are opponents. Remember when Jurgen Klinnsman said that Americans on the men's national team needed to be training and playing in Europe? American players should no longer settle for playing in MLS. They needed to be guided and even pushed toward European clubs. He got skewered for saying the truth out loud. But the reality is that many of the players on the men's national team were pretty far along in their development and were definitely not the kind of players European clubs want. Klinnsman described it as a "sign of reality" that European clubs were not really interested in the players on the US men's national team.
At Eagleclaw we are changing the stereotype of American soccer players. We've been doing it from our very first day. We provide the type of soccer education and developmental experiences European coaches imagine only exist in Europe. We are not a typical American "big box" club focused on "elite" leagues. We are not satisfied with players being known for being tall, strong and very fit. We want more. We begin with a player profile that is very Spanish. There is nothing wrong with learning from other soccer cultures, taking positive influences and best practices and adapting them to our own environment. Together with our partners at Valencia CF, we represent the daily fight to change the stereotype of American players. The difference is we aren't stupidly or pointlessly outraged by the stereotype. We acknowledge the stereotype and the reality that it is accurate and based in fact. The difference between Eagleclaw and the vast majority of American soccer clubs is that we are deeply committed to doing the hard work, player-by-player, to change the facts creating and perpetuating the stereotype. We are using that chip on our shoulder to change the stereotype. What are you doing?