A special thanks to Mark Muzzi (one of the inspirations in the “M&M Gems” name) for his assistance with this blogpost.
In the past couple of years soccer has made significant gains in vying for fans. Last season the MLS averaged larger crowds than both the NBA and the NHL. ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup in 2010 led to more people in the United States watching the event than ever before. And the MLS Cup on Sunday promises to have the largest viewership the event has had in years. While men’s soccer continues to grow in the United States, our success on the international stage is lacking. (We have of course experienced much success in women’s soccer.
I’m a firm believer that the United States has the best athletes in the world and I feel like the collegiate and professional leagues that we boast are perfect proof of this. We have the best hockey, basketball, and baseball leagues (and football of course) in the world. We have dominated Olympic competition in nearly every sport except men’s soccer. Soccer is a sport where successful teams are defined by speed and athleticism which begs the question:
If America has the best athletes in the world, why has the United States been so unsuccessful at men’s soccer?
Seems like a difficult question but the answer is really simple: because in every other country in the world, the best male athletes play soccer – in America this just isn’t true. Our best athletes are in the NBA and NFL which caused my friend Mark and I to think about the soccer team the United States would field in the World Cup if our best athletes did indeed play soccer. In putting together this team, we focused on American athletes who play sports professionally (except for soccer of course).
America’s All-Athlete Soccer Team:
Goalkeeper: Larry Fitzgerald, Wide Receiver; Arizona Cardinals
In soccer a goalkeepr’s job is simple (in theory at least) keep balls from getting in the net. The most valuable commodity that a goalkeeper can have is a great pair of hands considering that they are the only player on the pitch allowed to use them. Fitzgerald has the height, ability, and agility necessary to defend a goal and nobody can deny that he has large hands that can catch almost anything and was the obvious choice for goalkeeper.
Centre Back: Ed Reed, Safety; Baltimore Ravens
Ed Reed is one of the best safeties to ever play football and those skills would translate well to the soccer pitch. In the NFL, Reed is notorious because of his vision and the ability he has to “see the entire field”. He is also known for his speed and instincts that allow him to cover a lot of territory very quickly and always be near the ball. As a center backer these abilities would suit him perfectly in his primary responsibilities: stop the other team from scoring and force turnovers.
Centre Back: LeBron James, Small Forward; Miami Heat
Oguchi Onyewu is the tallest player in U.S. National team history and is known as a hellacious defensive player. But, athletically – he has nothing on LeBron James. LeBron has great height and quickness. Coming off the corners he would be nearly impossible to stop. On the court he is known for his ability to make the big play on either end of the court. As a centre back, James would swarm to the ball and make Fitzgerald’s life a lot easier. He has the strength and the height needed for a good centre back combined with the instincts that would make him difficult to score on.
Left Back: Darelle Revis, Cornerback; New York Jets
If Revis Island can be where big plays go to die in the NFL, why not in the MLS or FIFA World Cup? Darelle Revis possesses a rare combination of athleticism, speed, and depth perception. He has instincts that allow him to see how a play will unfold before the fact. He is a master of reading body position and understands how that position plays into his opponent’s next move and his own. A good fullback is expected to have a lot of stamina and be able to cover the flanks with blazing speed. This is what makes Darelle Revis an obvious choice for this position.
Right Back: Eric Berry, Safety; Kansas City Chiefs
A couple years back I watched Tennesee play LSU on national television and I realized just how special Eric Berry really was. His combination of speed, instinct, and agility was simply astounding to watch. Even now in the NFL (before he was injured) Eric Berry seemed to always be at the point where the ball was. Eric Berry is like Visa, he’s everywhere you want to be and that would make him an exceptional right back. With an amazing awareness for where the ball is and ability to cover large amounts of the pitch very quickly, Berry would be a ferocious defender.
Center Mid-Fielder: Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback; Green Bay Packers
I still don’t think Jon Gruden has gotten off his knees yet from watching Aaron Rodgers dismantle the Vikings on Monday Night Football. After that cacophony of praise I am having a hard time giving credit to Rodgers but there is no doubt he is a phenomenal athlete. What makes Rodgers such a great quarterback in the NFL is his ability to distribute the ball and make the players around him better. In a sense a center mid-fielder is the quarterback or point guard of his team. There is no doubt that Rodgers is a natural leader and can distribute the ball. On top of that anyone who has ever seen him run a bootleg knows that he has the speed and athleticism to lead his team down the pitch. Watching Rodgers is like watching an artist at work. He is deceptively fast and incredibly efficient. Think of Spain’s Xavi here but even better.
Center Mid-Fielder: Chris Paul, Point Guard; New Orleans Hornets
Like Rodgers, Paul is a great ball distributor and makes his teammates better. He is quick and has great feet. He is a natural leader and understands match-ups. There was no doubt in either of our minds that Chris Paul would make an excellent mid-fielder. He has the speed and natural instincts necessary to master this position.
Left Mid-Fielder: Reggie Bush, Running Back; Miami Dolphins
If you want to understand the ability that Reggie Bush has to change direction and cover a lot of space very quickly – just go watch the USC vs. Fresno State game from his junior year. When you see the play I have in mind you’ll know it – he somehow ran from one sideline to the other and back again to scamper more than 30 yards for a score. He is naturally left-handed and left-footed which makes him a natural fit for this position. Anyone that has seen him return a punt knows his ability to get up the field. Mark described Reggie Bush as having “world class speed and agility. Think [Tottenham Hotspur's] Gareth Bale but more agile.”
Right Mid-Fielder: Devin Hester, Wide Receiver/Kick Returner; Chicago Bears
Devin Hester has an amazing ability to understand defense. He naturally can find the ball and once he has it – find a seam that he can exploit to go the distance. If you find Devin Hester unguarded with the ball breaking away down the right sideline – good luck stopping this guy because you won’t be able to catch him. Hester could be a world-class right mid-fielder.
Centre Forward: Derrick Rose, Point Guard; Chicago Bulls
The centre forward has one job – to score goals. If you ever watch the Bulls play, Rose has the ability to penetrate defenses and drive to the basket. He has an incredible ability to shoot a gap and an understanding of angles to know what steps he has to take to get to the goal. When you think of Derrick Rose translating his skill set to soccer, think Carlos Tevez.
Striker: Darren Sproles, Running Back; New Orleans Saints
Mark always likes to describe Sproles as having “phone booth quickness” and to be honest, I really can’t disagree. Despite his size, this guy amazes me with his speed, quickness, agility, and ability to make guys miss. I believe that he has the footwork necessary from the multiple times I’ve seen him tiptoe 40 yards down a sideline for a score. As Mark put it, “If Sproles has any kind of skill, Messi can kiss it!”
Reserve Goalkeeper: Calvin Johnson, Wide Receiver; Detroit Lions
The only reason that Calvin Johnson is dubbed Megatron instead of the Freak is because “the Freak” was already taken (twice actually). Calvin Johnson is a remarkable combination of size, speed, and agility and lives by the motto of “If you can touch it, you can catch it.” I feel that Johnson would be incredibly difficult to score on and with his remarkable height, strength, and leaping ability – would be a prime candidate if you needed to throw someone in the game to head a ball in.
Substitute: Adrian Peterson, Running Back; Minnesota Vikings
Peterson plays the game of football with a sense of violence and urgency that could come in handy inside of the penalty box. He is difficult to tackle and once he has momentum, incredibly difficult to stop. Peterson has quick feet, is very shifty, and can change direction on a dime. In a game his best fit would probably be as a right mid-fielder. While not as quick as Rose or Sproles, he could also serve as a full back in his ability to attack a gap and naturally figure out where he needs to be in order to get to the goal
Substitute: Metta World Peace (Ron Artest), Small Forward; Los Angeles Lakers
There is no denying the athletic ability of the basketball player formerly known as Ron Artest. This was purely a Mark pic but I can’t deny the reasoning. Artest would be great at getting to the ball and tipping it in when it bounces off the goal. “Every team needs a garbage player” and nobody could feel that role better than whatever his name is this week.
There is no doubt in my mind that if our best male athletes were brought up playing soccer as opposed to basketball, football, and baseball – that our FIFA teams would enjoy similar success to our women’s teams. The question has to be though – here’s our team: