Soccer Is Destined To Fail In The U.S.! Just Like Your Hiring Strategy…

Tim Sackett Candidate Pool, Hiring Bias, Tim Sackett 24 Comments

If you didn’t see it last week, and you probably didn’t because about 17 people in the United States care about soccer (or Football in every other part of the world), the U.S. Soccer team failed to qualify for the World Cup. The World Cup for soccer is like the Olympics for every other sport. It’s the single largest soccer tournament on the planet that is only played every 4 years and the top 32 teams in the world are invited to play in it.

THE TOP 32 TEAMS.

Let that sink in a minute.

The United States has over 300 million people. We lost to Trinidad and Tobago who have roughly 1.5 million people. The U.S. has more kids playing soccer than all of the country’s population of the team they lost to!  Okay, we also lost to other countries that were much smaller than us, as part of the qualifying process. So, this wasn’t a fluke. The U.S. is not one of the top 32 teams in a sport that most of the world plays as their number one sport.

If we dig into many of the reasons why the U.S. continues to fail at soccer on the world stage, where we have significantly more resources than most nations playing soccer, there are a couple that stand out as things that also impact how we select employees.

If you go to other countries around the world you’ll notice one big difference when it comes to sport, and especially youth sports. In every other country I’ve visited, I’ll see many soccer fields with young kids playing on them, and almost never see an American football field, a baseball field, a basketball court, a hockey ice arena, etc. Also, these fields are usually bare of grass. They get played on so much, it’s just hardpacked dirt. Many times the kids don’t have cleats or even shoes, they play in their bare feet.

If you play soccer in the U.S. you usually play on manicured fields, on club teams your parents are paying thousands of dollars for you to play on, with uniforms, cleats, and gear that cost more than most poor families make in a year, against a bunch of other kids who look very similar to you. And snacks! You always have some kind of organic, vegan grape, tofu mix sprinkled with protein powder and pine needles, again, costing more than most families spend in an entire week for groceries.

The reality is, soccer fails in the U.S. because we continue to select soccer players who are coming from a small, privileged part of our society. They are not the best athletes. They are the best athletes of those playing soccer, which might be the fourth, or fifth, or sixth most popular decision for athletes in the U.S. In Trinidad and Tobago every kid can and does play soccer. From the moment they can walk. Money is not an issue. Everyone has an opportunity to get in the top of the funnel.

The more I get into my career in HR and Talent Acquisition, I’m realizing so many companies are hiring like the U.S. selects soccer players. We only go to certain schools. Goldman Sachs isn’t headed to North Alabama University to hire. They go to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, etc. Google isn’t going to Southwestern Missouri U to hire developers, they go to USC, University of Michigan, MIT, Stanford, etc.

Elite schools must mean elite students, right?

When you look for your next Director of Finance, you’re not looking at John’s Trucking Company, you’re looking at the 27-year-old who worked at Facebook. We are an elitist country that has bought into our own bullshit. We are stuck on brands at every level. Working for the right brand makes you feel like some sort of celebrity. But, it doesn’t actually make you elite.

Soccer is not a hard sport to dominate. The United States should easily be one of the top 3 teams in the world each and every World Cup. It’s simple economics of resources and population, except for the fact we only touch a tiny fraction of the population when it comes to soccer. Can you imagine if Lebron James grew up having the opportunity to play soccer? Or O’dell Beckham, Jr? Or Aaron Judge?

Most organizations are hiring in the same manner, yet we’re perplexed when we keep getting the same results. The key to great hiring, and apparently fielding a world-class soccer team, is inclusion, not exclusion. It’s not about more money. It’s about opening up opportunity.

Comments 24

  1. Yes you nailed it like a perfect “set piece”…My daughter was one of those priviledged kids playing sports (soccer and volleyball) thru high school….she had no dilussions of Olympic or World cup glory. But some of the kids, or should I say parents, did. And a few even played Division 1 and 2 ball in college….but the reality is their is always someone better and often they come from demographics that don’t match the elite mind set…So yes Tim, you nailed this one…and as a major soccer fan who just attended the USA/Costa Rica qualifier a few weeks ago, the wounds are deep…we can be better, recruiters can be better too. If they just woke up and recognized Talent, not priviledge.

  2. After digging in a bit, the other thing that happens is that kids in other countries are IDd at a young age and put into feeders for the big professional clubs. Not like travel soccer here, but you go live at the academy from 12-18 years old and say goodbye to your family. Also, no college soccer ever, which apparently is laughed at by the rest of the world.

    Coaching in our travel soccer system, skill development, etc is apparently lacking as well.

    KD

    1. KD –

      If that’s the real problem, why does Basketball thrive in the U.S. under a very similar system as soccer? We don’t throw our basketball kids into professional club feeder programs, and the AAU coaching might be some of the worst coaching in all of sports. Yet, we rule basketball in the world.

      I think those on the basketball side would then say well, we have the best athletes, and a larger number playing that sport. Which then comes back to numbers and raw athletic ability, with money and coaching not meaning as much.

      T

      1. Tim,

        What you are ignoring in this comparison is that all the best basketball players, programs, etc is already in the US. In soccer, all the best leagues are in Spain, England, Brazil, etc.

        So then what do you do? Should all the most promising kids move over seas (ex. Pulisic) to then come back and play in the qualifiers and World Cup (when we make it) When this happens, the best US players fall off the radar so young athletes have no one to look up to.

        So then do they come back to the US and play in the MLS. Well we saw what happened there…Bradley, Dempsey, etc failed to lead us back to the World Cup.

        All of your arguments about elite society, tons of kids to choose from, resources, etc….they don’t matter.

        The US is good at basketball because all the best basketball players are here.

        In soccer you have to travel (A lot) to play decent competition. Or send you kids overseas.

        Logan

  3. I’m being that guy, but I am a proud alum. University of North Alabama – Class of ’04. Go Lions!

    Otherwise, spot on as usual.

  4. Hi Tim,

    Some of your arguments are sound.

    My thoughts:

    1) The Olympics has soccer, so the World Cup is a totally separate beast
    2) Yes the pay to play system seems flawed.
    3) A few of your comments seem downright offensive. To assume every other country is playing on dirt fields, in bare feet, kicking rocks, is a tad offensive. In high school we had a German exchange student that was allowed to play on our team. He laughed at the poor quality of our fields. So I can assure you, other countries are investing as many, if not more resources into soccer as the US
    4) I’m curious where you see all these manicured fields in the US?
    5) Clint Dempsey grew up in a trailer park, and relied on the help of his teammates’ parents to cover many of his soccer related costs. He want to Furman, which most people would have to Google to even figure out where it’s located. The notion that soccer only US soccer only chooses athletes from a privileged part of our society is totally flawed. Though the argument for or against the pay-t0-play model could be made.
    6) “Soccer is not a hard sport to dominate. The United States should easily be one of the top 3 teams in the world each and every World Cup.” This comment is really just laughable. And it’s totally opposite of many of your other arguments. You seem to be arguing here that we should be good because we can throw more money at the sport than most other countries. Yet, we do do that through pay to play and you call that elitist? Whats the argument.

    In reality, there are many good teams that miss the World Cup every cycle for a myriad of different reasons. Sometimes its coaching, sometimes talent, sometimes bad luck (see the Ireland and Henry Hand-ball) Believe it or not, these countries that beat us do have good players…many of which play in the MLS. We just couldn’t figure it out this time round.

    Last, the assumption that top athletes in other sports would be good at soccer is silly. I wouldnt assume that a top Web Developer candidate would have been a good doctor….why would sports be different?

    1. Logan,

      1. Ugh – really, Olympic soccer and the World Cup are totally different?

      2. We’re in agreement

      3. I’m telling you what I’ve seen when I travel. Sure I see good fields, but I see way more poor fields, it’s not even close.

      4. Everywhere! In almost every decent sized city in every state! Giant complexes with ten or twenty fields. You know you have those in Grand Rapids!

      5. Trailer park to Furman is your example to show me poor people in the U.S. play soccer? I win.

      6. Not money – trained athletes by the millions. China will one day kill the U.S. in basketball. It’s a numbers and willingness game.

      7. Yes – my assumption is if you’re a world-class athlete in basketball and football and track and field, you’re more likely to be trainable in soccer at a young age. Not picking it up at 21. Also, I do think a top Web Developer could make a great doctor given the training and desire from a young age.

      Bam.

      T

      1. 1) Well in the men’s game, it’s U-23. So yes, it’s like the JV teams.
        3) Tim, you appear to be the expert based on your vast international travels…so I will defer to your knowledge
        4) Bullsh*t
        5) I live in the city here in Grand Rapids and see kids playing on fields of all varying shapes and sizes. Some are goals in the corners of small parks, some are built over baseball fields. Kids are playing everywhere. You should really get out more
        7) Bullsh*t
        8) Still your overall statement that the US should be top 3 in every World Cup is stupidly arrogant and laughable.

        Did you every play or follow the sport before the last few years?

        Logan

        1. Tim Sackett Post
          Author

          There you go! Let’s get personal!

          I actually watch a ton of soccer – my oldest son I would put up against any American on his knowledge of the international game, and I’m not just talking Premier and LaLiga, but even the lower leagues across the world. Welcome to the world of Fifa being played online across the world! He was crushed we missed the World Cup.

          1. Tim,

            Not my intent to get personal! I was crushed as well. Apologies.

            But when I read articles that make sweeping generalizations and say things like “Soccer is not a hard sport to dominate” and “The United States should easily be one of the top 3 teams in the world each and every World Cup” I have to wonder if the writer of said article really understands that sport.

            I guess I would like to hear how you would design US Soccer to lead us to a 2022 World Cup Final. If it’s so easy to dominate…5 years should be plenty of time 🙂 Especially when you’ve already identified all the problems…

  5. Just a note, that as in too many companies, this article ignores the fact that the US Women have had a fabulous winning record in soccer. Just sayin’

    1. Tim Sackett Post
      Author

      You’re right! Male bias!

      I will say, I can watch both men’s and women’s soccer and enjoy them equally. ALso, I actually like women’s volleyball way better than the men’s game. I can’t do that with basketball. I try! But, it’s just not the same. Is that sexist, or just preference?

      T

    1. Tim Sackett Post
      Author
  6. My original comment is stuck in moderation, hopefully just because I included a link to the Wikipedia page with women’s soccer rankings. As Patricia noted above, the US women’s team is actually quite successful: currently ranked #1 in the FIFA rankings.

    I normally enjoy the sports analogies here at FoT…let’s see a post about the irony of a bunch of men bemoaning the lack of success of a team of men while completing ignoring the enormous success of a team of women doing the exact. same. thing.

    1. Tim Sackett Post
      Author

      Susan!

      Ugh, you are so right! The U.S. women do rock!

      So, why is that, as compared to the men? It seems like in the U.S. the system is the same for both sexes. Could it be the U.S. is farther ahead of the world when it comes to women’s athletics? I honestly don’t know.

      Tim

  7. Thanks for the good read, Tim. I am little late to your post here, and I agree with Paul’s mic drop on $.

    I grew up playing in these clubs as well and the system is completely biased to those who have the dough to throw toward their kids.

    In comparison to hiring, I believe Atlanta United is a good example of diversifying their selection process and not picking what is the “best” talent out there. As a start-up and new team, they hired out of a competitive candidate pool, but picked several B players from Venezuela, Paraguay, Trindad & Tobago, Argentina, Chile, Germany, and locally grown ATL folks. ATL United is in it’s first year in the MLS and they are in the 1st round of MLS Playoffs… could their inclusion of these players across different countries give a glimpse of hope or shed light of a team trying to grow differently in a sport that is constantly ridiculed in the USA?

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