Every World Cup year, someone writes an article speculating on the untapped potential of US soccer. The panacea is athletes from other sports – usually football and basketball – transferring their skillset to the soccer field. Rather than rehash this tired hypothetical (already wisely debunked here, here, here, and here), I want to explore two things embedded in the question: the changing nature of athleticism, and the soccer talent identification process.
US sports fans have an obsession with statistics. This obsession led to analytical breakthroughs like sabermetrics in baseball, DVOA in football, player tracking in basketball, and expected goals in soccer. However, this obsession also leads to quantifying athleticism, independent of effectiveness in a sport itself. The NFL has a combine microsite essentially dedicated to college players working out, NBA teams covet wingspan, and MLS itself highlights measurables.
An undercurrent in the “Best Athletes Play Soccer” articles is that athleticism is linear – that more height, weight, and speed is always better. It’s often the reason why people keep writing this article. If the 6’0″, 170 pound player is good, then isn’t a 6’3″, 220 pound player an improvement?
In The Sports Gene, David Epstein spends a chapter relaying the findings of Kevin Norton and Tim Olds, two sports scientists who focused on body types in athletics. As economic incentives and global scouting increased in all sports, body types diverged from all-around athletic types to what Norton and Olds call the “Big Bang of Body Types.” Epstein writes:
Just as the galaxies are hurtling apart, so are the body types required in a given sport speeding away from one another toward their respective highly specialized and lonely corners of the athletic physique universe” (p. 117).
Soccer is no exception. Like their counterparts in all other sports, soccer players have a specific body type at the elite level. An analysis showed the average player at the 2014 World Cup was just under 6’0″ and weighed 167 pounds. Here is a broader look at soccer height and weight, with the average for 50 different national teams, covering 1,785 players.
The data show a very clear, linear trend line, with Copa America-winning Chile a notable outlier. The average height and weight of this group is 71.7 inches and 168 pounds, nearly identical to the World Cup sample. The US average is 72.6 inches and 172 pounds, measures in the first quartile for height and top half for weight.
Not surprisingly, the guys that run up to seven miles per game skew toward the lighter side of professional athletes. Each sport finds its niche, with basketball skewing tall, football favoring mass, and baseball somewhere in-between. Serbia, Sweden, and Hungary are the upper end of height and weight in soccer, but even those countries’ players average 6’1″ and 177 pounds. Simply put, there is little overlap among the global soccer player archetype and US athletes in the other major sports.
For the sake of argument, let’s determine the potential upside and assume that all athletes from other sports in the general soccer height and weight range played soccer. We’ll also assume that heavier athletes from other sports would revert to soccer playing weight. There are roughly 150 players who fit this criteria, or 5% of our NFL, NBA, and MLB sample. Again, this simply accounts for height and weight, not other factors like speed, agility, and endurance.
Of course, we don’t need to identify the 150 players at the pro level – we need to find these athletes earlier. The NCAA provides a probability of turning pro for each sport, measuring the attrition from high school to college to the pro level. For soccer, 5.7% of high school players will play in college, and 1.4% of college players will go pro. This means we need to find those 150 players amidst a pool of more than 432,000 high school players.
And herein lies the second issue with the “Best Athletes Play Soccer” exercise: scouting soccer players in the US today is hard.
This past year, Will Parchman wrote an excellent article on the scouting crisis in the US. Parchman writes of attending marquee youth soccer tournaments, and being the only talent evaluator at certain games.
Talent evaluation is a combined effort across professional teams and national federations. In the US, both entities lack resources compared to other countries. The US Soccer Development Academy has nine technical advisors and around 100 part-time scouts, all for a country of 319 million people that spans a massive 3 million square miles. The Development Academy also offered 400 one-day Training Center programs, run by a national coach. Even if a scout does view a game, questions persist about a cohesive scouting philosophy.
Countries that we aspire to – Spain, Germany, and France – have more advanced club structures for player development, but also provide a benchmark for national team youth identification. Spain (46 million people across 195,000 square miles) has 19 regional federations and 57 national scouts. As Graham Hunter writes in Spain, a consistent scouting mission and training philosophy leads to continuity for Spanish players across all age groups. Spain also emphasizes instructional training, with more than 12,500 UEFA A and 2,100 Pro licensed coaches.
Uli Hesse and Raphael Honigstein have written extensively on Germany’s soccer revolution. In the wake of its Euro 2000 group stage exit, Germany (81 million people across 138,000 square miles) prioritized youth player development and training. The intent was that a training center should be no more than 15 miles away from a potential player. In contrast to the US Training Center program, Germany now has a national network of 366 training centers with 1,300 national coaches running programs weekly. This article on Freiburg demonstrates how a club’s dedication to youth development amplifies a national player pool.
In 2013, MLS and the France Football Federation announced a partnership aimed at incorporating French philosophy in to MLS academies. France (67 million people across more than 200,000 square miles) achieved world renown in the late 90s for its Clairefontaine program. France has 11 additional regional training centers, all with a focus on improving technique. An encouraging aspect of Clairefontaine is a focus on the art of instruction. However, even a system that produced World Cup and Euro winning players faces challenges. In The Blizzard, Matt Spiro outlined the tension in France between physique and technique for youth player identification, and individual training and collective play for development.
The comparison of the US to Spain, Germany, and France shows the fallacy of the “Best Athletes Play Soccer” reasoning. Until the 2011 introduction of Claudio Reyna’s US Soccer Curriculum (PDF) we did not have a stated framework for a soccer scout’s evaluation or a coach’s development, much less apply a philosophy in scouting and training. Add this ambiguity to a large country with few scouts, and the “Best Athletes” who rely on physical traits are actually well-positioned to reach the next level. If anything, the US has likely erred on the side of athleticism over technique in player selection. To conclude, a quote from Oguchi Onyewu during his time with Metz:
“Typically in Europe, it’s not in their culture to go in the weight room all the time,” he said. “When I first moved to Europe, actually my French coach made me stop lifting because he told me that football is a game of the mind, not of strength.”