Style, The Image of Character

Saturday, September 10, 2011 | View Comments
- Jason Davis

The theme most prevalent thus far in Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as USMNT head coach - all month and change of it - is the movement towards integrating America's abundant Latin soccer influence into the team. In part because Klinsmann has made it his cause cause célèbre (in concert with imbuing in the team a more attacking, fluid style - more on that in a minute), we can't go more than a few hours without a new piece waxing on about it, without the Paul Gardners of the world bellowing "FINALLY!" at people on the street, or without the overarching generalizations that are part and parcel of sweeping soccer-style speak.

There are only so many ways to describe the possession-based, pass heavy, high pressure, attack-minded style of play that Klismann is intent on imposing on his new team. Barcelona and Spain play the celebrated "tiki-taka", and are the undisputed champions of the modern standard. On this side of the world, it's called the "Latin style" due to the regional influence of Mexico, where possession is valued from the youngest levels of the game all the way through to the national team. Forgiving a nuance here or there lost on 95% of the soccer-viewing public, they're essentially the same thing, an idealized way of playing that embodies more of the "beautiful" in "the beautiful game" than any other style. Hence the appeal, and why Klinsmann's experiment has bought him patience on the part of the USMNT fan base. It a seismic shift. Those only happen slowly, with plenty of upheaval.

Whatever Klinsmann chooses to call it, and I've yet to hear him apply a singular label, the American appreciation of what the transformation entails is complicated by the word "Latin." We've yet to reach a point in the US where we can separate the style itself from the people that purportedly play it; because the style is Latin in name, and because Klinsmann himself has spoken expansively about integrating more of America's players of Latin persuasion into the program, there's a danger that the ethnic backgrounds of players will become more important than their ability to play a possession-based style we're so anxious to have be successful. These two things - Klinsmann's style overhaul and leveraging a long underutilized community of Latin Americans - are intrinsically linked in our minds. There's a feeling that for the style to take and work, the Latin integration must happen. One begets - or at least is fundamental to - the other.

Practically speaking, for the near future, it's probably true. The USMNT isn't going to go from defend-and-counter to possess-and-attack without at least a few of the available Mexican-bred players (because, while the word "Latin" is used almost exclusively when talking about the style, it's the Mexican-American players that are the crux of the movement) stepping in to important roles. Jose Francisco Torres is finally getting the opportunity to prove himself capable of playing in the center of the US midfield, and shows signs of being the skilled player the Americans need there. Torres fits the style-shift because of the way he plays, and he fits the initiative to bring in more Latin influence because he's Latino. The former is product of the latter, mostly because it facilitated Torres developing in Mexico rather than in a kick-and-rush, overly physical philosphy that typically holds sway in the US at the youth levels (and because Torres went to Pachuca at an age when American players would still be playing club soccer - I'm not going to assume that Torres would have played for a Texan club [perhaps Mexican-American in character] that played a possession game). Latino players are crucial to the the success of the style overhaul in the short term because the player pool is finite, and those most ready now to play Klinsmann's game happen to be Latino, developed in a Latin atmosphere and therefore bring a "Latin" mindset.

The US-eligible players most versed in possession are Latino, but not all Latino US-eligible players are versed in possession (or, in some cases, good enough for it matter). More important than their surnames or from where their parents came is in what environment they learned the game; Torres fits, so it's not unreasonable to think players like Edgar Castillo or Orozco-Fiscal would as well. Neither of those players, however, have impressed during their respective opportunities under Klinsmann, and despite their provenance, can't be regulars in the team just because they are Latino and grew up with the Latin style. Klinsmann might be guilty of forcing them into the team get more of the Latin-American influence, but as long as he's willing to move on quickly, recognizing that there might be other non-Latino or non-Latin developed players better suited to the style shift, we needn't worry that the coach sees a Latin infusion of players as the only way to effect his desired change. In other words, as long as he's wary of the trap of conflating Latino players with Latin-style to the exclusion of better non-Latin players, than the more important of the two goals - the one that has to do with winning - can be met.

Both goals, changing the American style to one of possession and precision passing and increasing the Latin influence on the team, wholly independent of each other, are noble. Latino-American players should be better integrated into the US program, both because they're underrepresented and because doing so should help influence the choices of dual nationals down the line. Actively including Latino-American players might not only make the team better, it will improve the perception of the USMNT in communities that have long cultural ties to the game by bringing the program closer to the American ideal of inclusion. It can and should be done, but only because it will make the team better in the long run, and not as a type of affirmative action simply meant to right a wrong. Latino-Americans, in many cases, are a better stylistic fit for Klinsmann's plan, so it's natural he should want to increase their role in the program. But if the style shift is going to take and remain in place long after Klinsmann, the "Latin style" has to become the norm for American players of all type and background.

The US should include Latino players an essential part of any national team, because they are an essential part of America's soccer fabric. But the US should also strive to play whichever style it decides without using a player's ethnicity as a factor in choosing him.

As a society and as soccer fans anxious to see our team succeed, we're obsessively attuned to any perceived prejudice in the negative, especially is the excluded group carries promise to improve the team. Latino players are, and have been for some time, a focus of those concerns. But prejudice can just as easily work in the positive in the form of preferential or predetermined treatment masquerading as good soccer policy. That condition is no more preferable than the alternative if it leads to the pendulum swinging too far.

Reyna's Revolution

While Klinsmann works with what is available to him, methodically shaving square pegs to fit into round holes, it is Claudio Reyna and his youth development plan that are more key to the long term success of a new American style. Klinsmann, for all his experimentation now, at a time when he can be forgiven for the team's lack of offensive output, still must win games when it matters. The could mean compromising dreams of fluid attacking soccer if need be, if and when the shift in style refuses to give the team the best chance to win. Reyna, meanwhile, has formulated a new curriculum for coaching players as young as six that emphasizes technique and skill over the traditionally valued American characteristics of speed and power. The closer the American soccer culture gets to valuing the ability to control and pass the ball as much as it does speed and strength, the better equipped it will be to play the style Klinsmann is attempting to make stick at the highest level. Playing a "Latin style" by relying on Latino players is a temporary solution akin to placing a band-aid on a gaping wound. Reyna's plan, should it change the culture for the better and produce players - regardless of background - capable of passing, moving, and attacking with the verve that only Latino players are perceived to possess now, would leave little sign a wound was ever there.

If Reyna's plan works, we can toss the problem of needing Latino players to play a Latin style in the dustbin. The two issues can be completely divorced from one another, and with a predominance of quality American players emerging as senior professionals ready and able to kick the ball around like our Mexican rivals, having a Latin flavor to the program will be more about including a passionate part of the American soccer community than it is about leaning on their particular style of play. Player selection can be, as it should, about picking the best American players to fit into a cohesive team structure rather than notions of ethnic background and style of play.

Positional Pigeonholes

Miriti Murungi of Nutmeg Radio deftly tackled some of the issues stemming from generalizing players based on race in a piece where he discussed the lack of African-American playmaking midfielders, as compared to the long-held prejudice against black quarterbacks in American football. Flawed thinking and cultural bias about intelligence and athleticism kept African-Americans out of American football's marquee position throughout much of the post-integration history of that sport. The set of questions Miriti poses crystallizes the troubling fact that black American players are largely (completely?) missing from the number 10 position in the United States, perhaps due to some of the same nonsensical thinking that nearly made Warren Moon a wide receiver. Football eventually woke up to the stupidity of that prejudice. American soccer can hardly afford, never mind the terrible unfairness involved, to have one just like it.

The flip-side of pushing talented black players out from the center is pushing Latin players in towards it, based simply on their ethnicity.

Included in Miriti's piece is a quote from Brad Rothenberg, founder of Alianza de Futbol, a program that runs tournaments and tryouts for Latin American players, to Soccer America.

"Latinos offer three unique ingredients: 1. Latino kids have superior ball skills and are more comfortable in tight spaces. That seems to be taken as gospel now by the soccer cognoscenti. 2. Latino kids “need” the game to bring them opportunity. 3. Those same kids often play — are even given no option but to play — “unstructured” soccer where they develop a confidence and style that elevates their game — much like African-American kids playing on inner-city blacktops changed basketball and the NBA."

Most glaring in this quote is Rothenberg's position that "Latino kids have superior ball skills and are more comfortable in tight spaces"; if he's implying that they have those skills simply because they're Latino, he's guilty of the same type of stereotypical thinking that led to prejudice against black quarterbacks and might now explain the lack of African-American playmakers in soccer. Ball skills are learned, not inherited, so Latino-American players are no more predisposed to them than non-Latino-Americans. It is true, however, that Latin players tend to have better ball skills once they reach a certain age, when playing the game in their communities has imbued them with an ability to possess and move the ball in a way that is a traditional part of the futbol heritage. While promoting Latino-American players up the ranks of the US system make sense in part because of that fact, it shouldn't discourage American soccer as whole from working to give all kids - again, regardless of background - an environment that promotes those skills. It's dangerous to say "Latino kids have superior balls skills" as a blanket statement, or, as Rothenberg says the "soccer cognoscenti" has done, take it as gospel. Doing so could lead to a type of reverse discrimination wherein Latino players are put in positions that require better ball skills, simply because they're Latino and not because their talent warrants it. One of American soccer's strengths should be its diversity; allowing ethnic generalizations to bleed over into choosing positions for young player - when they reach the crucial age of establishing what it is they do best - turns that diversity into a glaring weakness.

Players should play where their skills are best suited. Period, end of story, no questions or prevarications allowed or forgiven.


The phrase "pay to play" was intentionally left out until this point specifically because it colors everything that American soccer is and can be, and while it remains an obstacle to be dismantled, it should not exert influence on how kids that do have the ability to connect with a prominent club are treated individually. Including it here, as detrimental as it is to the United States developing a truly organic and egalitarian environment in which soccer players can grow, would distract from the point that equal opportunity isn't limited to access. Equal opportunity should be part of the game at every and all points, from appreciating who is capable of playing whatever style is en vogue on the day to which kids are put in which positions and why. Systemic prejudice, in this case socioeconomic and therefore tied directly to race and class in the United States, is insidious. But the failings of the system shouldn't preclude those within it from shaking off the chains of bias.

American soccer faces the same problems, in the microcosm of a sports context, that society does on a much larger scale. Utopia is not possible, and subconscious biases cannot be wished, legislated, or ordered away. Claudio Reyna's curriculum could be absolutely perfect, the best plan for youth development the world has ever seen, and still fail because the culture refuses to budge from deep-seated beliefs hammered into it by decades of doing it wrong. Breaking old habits is hard, and it will take constant pressure from Reyna and US Soccer to prevent coaches at levels from under-6 on up from defaulting to their basic settings of preconceived notions. The bulk of Reyna's job isn't really about setting out the teaching plan at all; it's about convincing coaches to follow it, keeping them on task when they do, and tackling all of the subtle and annoyingly ambiguous irritations bound to pop up across a vast country with its millions and millions of youth soccer players. If this is going to work, the culture has to police itself. It has to want to change. Utopia is impossible, but we should never stop trying to reach it.

Fortunately, it won't take utopia for the situation to get better, for American players to get better, and by extension, for the USMNT to get better.

Jurgen Klinsmann wants to impose a new style on the USMNT. He'll go about his task by looking for players capable of executing his plan. If he wants to win, he can't afford to worry about hitching the new style directly to his other aim - integrating more of America's Latino flavor into the team. He can do both, but he should be careful that he doesn't send the message that the style can only come with Latin flavor. American soccer is already rife with stereotype and generalization. If Klinsmann falls victim to them or even appears to, it will only reinforce beliefs that will hold back the sport here in the years and decades to come. That will only make Claudio Reyna's job harder, handicapping a program already facing an uphill road to success.

Let's go for that attractive style Klinsmann wants to play, and let's do so with all the abandon for which the American people - be they Latino, black, white, or other - are known. But let's keep in mind that style, as Edward Gibbons once said, is the image of character. American soccer's character should be inclusion, inclusion, inclusion; inclusion to the degree that the word no longer applies because there simply is no bias, and therefore, no need to label the role of any particular group of people as "included" as if some other group is being excluded.

Let our style truly reflect our character, be the product of it. If not the one we have, the one to which we aspire.


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