- Jason Davis

Should there be pride taken from the provenance of the players on our national team? As a developing soccer nation, how much of our desire to win should be balanced against our desire to produce those winning players here? Is a straight line progression away from the Stewarts and Dooleys a goal we collectively possess, or does it not matter if the players who represent us come from somewhere else?

Germany's multi-ethnic World Cup team, a reflection of that country's new attitude both on soccer and national identity, has received a lot of attention. The side includes players born in several countries other than Germany itself; this would hardly be unique for a second-tier soccer nation like the U.S., but is noteworthy within the roster of a traditional power. The Germans, for lack of a better phrase, are less "German" than they used to be. And, from all appearances both on and off the field, this new look has fit the team and the nation well. German players are German because they learn their football in Germany; the nation of their birth hardly matters.

In the years the United States spent establishing itself as a respectable participant in international game, players with little connection to the U.S. were drafted into the National Team. Earnie Stewart ended his career as an American great, but he'll always be Dutch by birth and upbringing. The story is similar for German-American Thomas Dooley, who never met his American father, but was tapped by U.S. Soccer in 1991 and served admirably for his adopted nation. These men are Americans in the technical sense, and formed bonds with the country because of their National Team status, but neither were products of our system or representative of American soccer's growth.

The reasonable belief is that American soccer is now far enough along that our national team players should, and can, be reared here. Of the twenty-three selected by Bob Bradley to the U.S. World Cup squad, only two were born outside of the country: Stuart Holden, who arrived in the States at the age of 10, and Benny Feilhaber, who was six when his family left Brazil. Neither player is comparable to Stewart or Dooley because they received the bulk of their soccer education in the U.S.; both, in fact, played college soccer, an element that is wholly unique to our system.

Notably, between 1994 and 2006, the number of foreign-born Yanks in the World Cup dropped with each successive tournament (the number went from one in 2006 - Pablo Mastroeni - to two this year). With allowances made for players who, like Feilhaber and Holden, weren't born in the U.S. but spent their formative years here, the reliance on players developed elsewhere is essentially non-existent. The days of calling up a naturalized citizen with only nominal ties to the United States (see: Regis, David) appear to be long over. Thanks to the better utilization of domestic resources, it's no longer necessary; like the new Germany, the U.S. uses its varied ethnic makeup to form a team. Through parental connections, ten foreign nations are represented in the 2010 U.S. World Cup roster; but with twenty-one of twenty-three born in the U.S. and all twenty-three coming of age playing the sport here, the independence of the American soccer nation appears to be complete.

That doesn't mean U.S. Soccer or American fans have closed the door on the old ways. The potential inclusion of German midfielder Jermaine Jones, like Stewart and Dooley the son of an American serviceman, had many hearts racing on this side of the Atlantic. Because Jones was unavailable due to injury, it's impossible to know if Bob Bradley would have called him into the team; the difficult question of Jones' "American-ness" (meaning his worthiness to play for the U.S.) never truly materialized. As a matter of putting together the best team possible, Jones in a U.S. shirt made sense; but because we have largely left behind the days of relying on the other nations to provide us capable players, it's no longer a forgone conclusion that he would be accepted with open arms.

For American fans, the issue of what makes a player "American", and how forgiving we are in accepting "foreign" players like Jones into the team is only now becoming relevant. For some, nothing will ever trump the desire to win; if Jones makes the team better, it matters little how "American" he is, feels, or desires to be. In part because of the trails blazed by Stewart and Dooley, there may even be a bit of nostalgia attached to welcoming in a player of Jones' background. But as the fan base matures and expands, there is likely to be as much push back as there is enthusiasm; should the U.S. National Team be made of up of players meeting a criteria greater than the legal definition of "American"? As a soccer nation we're growing up, twenty years after our return to the World Cup. So...does it matter where our players come from?

Perhaps it's not a matter of philosophy or preference, but one of pragmatism. Jones' pedigree led most observers to believe he would walk into Bob Bradley's roster, if not the first team. Another German with American blood, Freiburg fullback Daniel Williams, received his own wave of will-he-play-for-the-U.S. interest when he broke into his Bundesliga squad. There simply aren't enough Americans of similar quality to reject outright the idea that these players might suit up for the United States. If U.S. Soccer failed to unearth players yet to be cap-tied by their native countries who have U.S. eligibility, certain segments of the fan base would accuse them of shirking their duty. "Leave no stone unturned" is practically a U.S. Soccer credo.

Soccer as the fringe sport, as the sport of outsiders, expats, immigrants and the younger generation in America means that we've never had to contend with analyzing our national team as a reflection of our national image. Nationalism and xenophobia are only cursory parts of the narrative, and even then come only from a discounted minority of marginalized voices. Unlike France, the failure or success of our team is not distastefully connected to the ethnic makeup of our country - win and the variety of ethnicities is lauded, lose and the same variety is a weakness.

Without the weight of national identity tethered to the make up of our soccer team, the U.S. is freer to explore the breadth of its player pool without complication. Despite the widely held belief that American soccer is disproportionately white and privileged at the youth levels, the National Team stands in contrast to perception; that the picture is more complicated is born out in the backgrounds of the men who represent us. Although the newness of the team's relevance means national identity plays a smaller role here than in many countries abroad, politics are still part of the game; the slow integration of Latino Americans into the U.S. setup has long been a point of contention for fans, and as long the national immigration debate remains unsettled, the two will inevitably collide. Thomas Rongen has called in a U-20 roster that indicates a new emphasis on Latin players; how this will shape the future of the team and whether it will hasten discussion of our National Team as reflection of American society is unclear, though it's undoubtedly a positive step from a soccer standpoint.

Meanwhile, the names Mwanga and Najar are on the tips of American tongues. The two young MLSers have burst onto the domestic scene brilliantly, each garnering their own bit of interest as potential U.S. players from anxious fans. Talent is talent after all, and with both players having landed in the U.S. as adolescents (Mwanga from the Congo, Najar from Honduras), they meet our rather low threshold for "American" status. Living and playing here is enough.

In the end, winning is the cure-all for any discomfort. Should another Stewart - clearly the best option at a position we simply don't have an American-raised player of similar quality - present himself and help the team win, fans will quickly get over their misgivings. Principle is a luxury the United States can yet afford; from a slightly different angle, this attitude is one of inclusiveness and opportunism, characteristics often claimed as part of the American mindset, not a condition which to shed as we continue our growth as a serious footballing nation.

In other words, we should be more like Germany.
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