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On Soccer and Athleticism

Ahh Saturday's picture
June 27, 2014 at 2:59pm

I was going to post this in one of the current soccer threads, but it seemed way too long.  As I look at it now, it still seems way too long for a forum post as well. My apologies.

An argument that always seems to surface when soccer is the topic is that the US would be better at it if our best athletes played soccer rather than, say, football or basketball.  Maybe, but maybe not.  While speed, strength, and agility --the typical toolbox of an excellent athlete-- are certainly assets for any soccer player, on their own they do not make for even a decent soccer player, where at least a great one.  Instead, all those typical attributes of an athlete are put in service to a different set of attributes, touch, endurance, and vision.

Exhibit A is, of course, Lionel Messi.  For any who don't know, Messi is plain and simply the best player in the world, sorry Ronaldo.  He is also about 5'7" and 150 lbs.  This does not mean that Argentina is a country of little half-men, nor does it mean that Manu Ginobli would have been a better soccer player than Messi had he chosen to play soccer instead of basketball, and it certainly does not mean that Messi isn't a great athlete. What it means is that you don't have to be Bo Jackson to excel in soccer and that, in fact, being built like Bo Jackson doesn't guarantee any success in soccer.

So, what makes a great soccer player?  The first and most obvious answer is endurance.  You have to be able to run and run, and run some more. When I played soccer, the warm up for each practice was a two-mile run.  The cool down?  Another two-mile run.  Phillip (Freaking) Lahm making a 60 yard dash in the 94th minute to save the win for Germany in Thursday's game should serve as a fine example of the sort of endurance necessary for soccer.  Could Braxton Miller beat Phillip Lahm in a 60 yard dash?  Undoubtedly.  But I have plenty of doubt whether he could do it in the 94th minute of a soccer game.

Touch is the trickiest and most essential skill for a soccer player to develop which is why, if you've ever watched one of your kids at soccer practice, young players spend so much time just juggling the ball.  For those of you who have never played soccer, but maybe have played golf, just think about what it takes to make par. The biggest, strongest guy might drive the ball a mile (if he manages to actually make contact with the ball) but that mile might be slicing or hooking.  It might end up in the sand or the water or the shopping cart of some woman in a nearby parking lot.  This same guy gets even more useless when you put him on the green.  If you want to know what soccer touch looks like, check out Van Persie's diving header against Spain, or lousy, stinking Ronaldo's cross to tie the game for Portugal, or Clint Dempsey's little outside- inside-into the corner for the first goal against Ghana.  Benching 400 pounds doesn't help you do that, nor does running the 40 in 4.3 seconds. You have to develop that touch, and not everybody can do it.

Finally, to excel at any sport requires an understanding of the game.  We see this every year in college football when some heralded recruit seems to be having trouble figuring out what to do on the field with all his athletic skill.  I want to proceed carefully here and emphasize that I have a ton of respect for the intelligence required to understand one's positional obligations in football.  Recognizing all the different formations and knowing your responsibility within those formations would be daunting to anyone from any sports background and is an often underappreciated aspect of football.  Although it might seem an odd comparison, I think of football as classical music.  The playbook is like an elaborate score and the coach is the conductor.  Soccer is like jazz.  Like jazz it starts from a standard spot, in a certain key, but where it goes from there is up to the players abilities to improvise off of each other. Also, like jazz, it can seem to break down into chaos at times. To stretch the metaphor just a little further, not every classical musician, regardless of skill, can learn to improvise. To make things more direct, the ability for a WR to run a great route does not automatically translate into the ability to sniff out the offside trap when timing one's run.

I'm not saying that a great football player couldn't also have been a great futbol player had he chosen that route.  What I am saying is that just as clearly as Messi would fail to excel in a sport like basketball, there are great athletes out there who would fail miserably even if had they tried their hand, or feet, at soccer.


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UrbzRenewal's picture

Any sport where they measure "distance traveled" by a player as a relevant statistic surely requires an intense bit of athleticism.

+5 HS
jeremytwoface's picture

This is my take....

Yes, some of our best athletes might not be all that great at soccer if they switch right now, but if soccer were the sport they were playing their entire life (instead of football or basketball), I think the essential qualities that you mention (touch, understanding of the game, endurance) would all be there.

I think that's the difference between out athletes in the NFL/NBA and the worlds athletes in soccer. Someone like LeBron James or Adrian Peterson might not be as muscular and bulky because there would be no reason for them to be that way and play soccer. 

If any of that makes sense at all......

I've played soccer just for fun in some rec leagues... I never played in high school (I regret that) and so when I played for fun after high school, I was kind of crap lol. I had some decent qualities (endurance, good coordination and balance) but not having the knowledge of the games that my friends who played in high school had made me a pretty crappy soccer player. It takes a lot of work and years to get that touch and that knowledge of the game.

Now I'm just out of shape with a beer gut so I probably wouldn't last 5 minutes running around on a pitch.

And when we win the game, we'll buy a keg of boooooooooze!! And we'll drink to old Ohio 'till we wobble in our shoes.

+7 HS
BuckeyeQ6's picture

I agree that if more of our most athletically gifted kids grew up playing soccer we'd be much better.  U.S. soccer also lacks the kind of coaching and training that high school and college football and basketball players get to perfect their game.  Yes, different attributes are important in soccer from football and basketball (e.g. strength and leap are less important), but many of our gifted athletes have great speed and agility that are helpful in soccer.  Imagine the moves someone like Braxton could have if he were comfortable with a soccer ball.  And imagine if soccer players developed the same precision and vision of some NFL quarterbacks or the covering ability of shut-down corners.  I imagine we would improve a lot.

The great thing is, I believe that we will improve with greater numbers of kids embracing soccer.



+1 HS
jeremytwoface's picture

The amateurism in high school and college level sports is also hurting American soccer...

In other countries, a player can sign a deal with a club's youth academy at a very young age (Messi was 11 when he signed a deal with Barcelona's youth academy). If the player doesn't pan out, the contract is cancelled and he can go to school and college like a normal person. If the player is a special talent, then they can be signed to the club and start playing professionally at a very young age. That can't happen in America because of the NCAAs rules with amateurism.

College athletics are very odd to the rest of the world. With these youth academys, you get to play the best of the best of the kids in your age group. In College (if you are good enough to be a professional), you probably will only play one or two players a season that are professionally skilled. That doesn't seem like a good way to hone your skills.

That is why Jurgen is grabbing up all of this young talent from overseas. Players like Julian Green, John Brooks, Timmy Chandler and Aron Johannsson are these type of players. They didn't play in college... they played against really stiff competition in youth leagues from the time they were young teens.

I think that's where the future of USA soccer is going... and it's where it needs to go if we are going to try to be at the level of other countries.

And when we win the game, we'll buy a keg of boooooooooze!! And we'll drink to old Ohio 'till we wobble in our shoes.

+2 HS
willshire58's picture

I don't disagree with any of this. I always think the argument implies that if you take the number of athletes that go into football/basketball/etc. and have them play soccer their whole lives, we would produce a lot more world class(or close) soccer players. Soccer is the primary sport almost everywhere outside of the US. Just from a sheer numbers game, having more kids play and stick with soccer throughout their lives would greatly improve our country's national team.

TresselourgodUrbanoursavior's picture

To be honest, I didn't read this because it was too long. But on the Messi v. Ronaldo bit, I question whether Messi would see the same success in the EPL (a better and more physical league top to bottom) like Ronaldo did.  Thus, I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that Messi is better than Ronaldo.

OldColumbusTown's picture

I'm glad I saw this post in its infancy, because it's a great topic for discussion for those of us who played or love soccer.

I completely agree with where you are going here.  Soccer is a player's game, and the skill required to be successful at the top level is something that can trump the "athleticism" advantage that someone else may have.  Many of us familiar with soccer have heard the term "let the ball do the work" and that really is the definition of the beautiful game.  Moving the ball around successfully into areas quicker and more efficiently than a defense can contain is what makes you a potent attacking side.  The ball, in motion, generally moves at a much faster rate than a runner.  What does it take in order to do that?  Touch and understanding, just like you said.  More importantly, first touch and understanding of the game.

This is where the US still lacks in comparison to other nations.  Kids grow up in Brazil, Germany, France, England, Italy, Argentina, and so on, dreaming of playing for Manchester United or Barcelona, or playing in a World Cup.  They spend free time dribbling, juggling, playing pickup with other kids in the streets or fields.  Most do not have the luxury of video games.  They do not have the ease of viewing television as most American kids do.  Instead, they develop a natural feel for the ball and for the game because it is what they do.

Americans, rather, are resigned to getting kids to commit to a club team by paying money for "top coaching" (which is normally a crock).  Kids play when they're at practice.  They're drilled to understand the game through the eyes of their coaches or teammates.  They spend little, if any, free time playing freely and without instruction.  The one advantage they do have over many other nations - the ability to watch soccer on cable at almost any time of the day - is rarely used.

All this goes back to your main point of top athlete vs. best skills.  If you put the best athletes in the world against the best skill, best skill wins every time in soccer.  Obviously amazing athleticism paired with top level skill is the best alternative, but in America we aren't quite there yet.  In time, hopefully.

+1 HS
Scarlet_Lutefisk's picture

Americans, rather, are resigned to getting kids to commit to a club team by paying money for "top coaching" (which is normally a crock).  Kids play when they're at practice.  They're drilled to understand the game through the eyes of their coaches or teammates.  They spend little, if any, free time playing freely and without instruction.  The one advantage they do have over many other nations - the ability to watch soccer on cable at almost any time of the day - is rarely used.

I'm going to have to disagree with this part a bit. I went to a Catholic school through the 8th grade. We didn't have a football team so I played soccer prior to high school.

In my experience there were plenty of kids who were dedicated to the sport. They drilled constantly. When they were just hanging out doing 'nothing', they'd be dribbling and interacting with the ball. This was in the late 70's - early 80's so while there weren't random pickup games going on like there were for baseball or basketball, there were kids who belonged to soccer 'families' with multiple siblings who grew up playing one another. Their homes would typically become the neighborhood gathering spot for other kids who played. Not quite the same as in countries where the sport was more popular on a national level, but (at least in my area) there were kids who did literally grow up with soccer. A lot of those guys went on to play for pro indoor teams.

If you've ever seen the movie Gracie, it definitely rings true in regards to some of the families of kids I grew up playing soccer with.

+1 HS
OldColumbusTown's picture

Believe me - my comment wasn't meant to paint a broad stroke and include every single youth player in that group.  Obviously there are plenty of individuals who do commit themselves to the game, and some groups who commit together.  There special circumstances and outliers to the general public.  However, in general I believe what I wrote holds true.

I coach a bit.  Our team is generally pretty successful in our area.  Yet, we're filled with some kids who love the sport and spend some of their free time touching the ball, and others who don't understand the game at all.  It's just something for them to do and be involved in.  And that is fine, but as a "soccer nation" we have far too many talented players who just don't commit themselves to their craft until later in their playing careers, or haven't familiarized themselves enough with the game.

+1 HS
Scarlet_Lutefisk's picture

I don't really disagree I was just throwing that out there as food for thought. I tend to believe that the players who break through to be successful at the highest levels are the ones who have dedicated themselves to that single goal. In all the sports I participated in growing up (soccer, baseball, football, wrestling) there were kids who lived the sport and those who were just there (for various reasons).

I tend to believe the same holds true in other countries. There aren't armies of little Brazilians single-mindedly preparing themselves to dominate the world in soccer. I guarantee that out of every group a good chunk of them are no more dedicated than the half-hearted kids in the US.

rdubs's picture

Messi may not be physically imposing but he is one of the quickest players on the field.  His feet move faster than anyone else.  Imagine Nate Robinson or Allen Iverson playing soccer with their quickness.  

Obviously touch is extremely important, but that comes with playing the game and I think all of these types of arguments assume that players who spent their time learning to hit 3 pointer after 3 pointer or make a diving catch could also learn the skill required for soccer if they spent the same amount of time playing the game.  

Bolt's picture

I actually think basketball employs a lot of the same principles as soccer. A lot of running and cutting and coordination and touch. What makes intelligent basketball players is the same thing as making intelligent soccer players...the use of space, vision and use of angles. A great athlete can step out on the football field and be effective on pure athleticism. Soccer and basketball are skill sports which take years and years to hone the skills necessary to play them. Steve Nash was a phenomenal soccer player and a phenomenal point guard as a good example. I think Chris Paul would be a phenomenal soccer player had he played it his whole life for a lot of the same reasons.

A lot of peoples' responses to the "if only our best athletes played soccer their whole lives" argument is, well Messi is only 5'7" and 150 pounds and he's the best player in the world, so LeBron wouldn't be a good soccer player because he's huge. LeBron is huge...but he also is as fast as anyone, as quick as anyone, has as good of balance as anyone, as good of vision as anyone and has as good of touch as anyone. He's an athletic marvel but it's all of the skill and intangible things that he does that make him truly great. Imagine if he'd spent years upon years developing soccer specific skills as opposed to basketball related skills. I have little doubt that he would be a world class soccer player. Imagine LeBron James as your center back and shudder at how formidable he'd be. Who's going to beat him for a header in the box?

+2 HS
Unky Buck's picture

Pretty good analysis...or at least I think so.

I was just having a conversation with one of my best friends about these soccer players and how you won't find a single one of them with more than 4% body fat. It goes to show you how in shape you have to be to do it and your point about constantly running is spot on. I'd love to see how many miles these guys run on average per match. 

Rock over London; Rock on Chicago. Timex: It takes a lickin' but keeps on tickin'

+1 HS
kmp10's picture

Disclaimer: I played organized football from age 10 through high school. I've never played (nor had any interest in playing) soccer. Having said that, in my opinion American football separates itself from most other team sports, especially soccer, with one undeniable facet; football requires more guts/balls/toughness/courage… whatever adjective you care to use… than baseball, basketball and soccer combined x1000. No one in soccer (or baseball & basketball) needs to be concerned with someone trying to do them bodily harm every time the ball is in play. Football players require world class athleticism and world class courage. Hockey is the team sport closest to football in terms of the necessity of blending athletic ability with toughness to become an elite player. You can be a great athlete, but without physical toughness you won't last a down in the NFL. Soccer simply doesn't require that toughness. Conditioning, hand eye coordination, athleticism? All necessary in soccer - but the mental and physical toughness and courage that are mandatory in American football are what separates it from the most of the other team sports… specifically and especially soccer. 

+2 HS
OldColumbusTown's picture

Welp.. At least you said it's your opinion.  No downvote from me.  But, I strongly disagree.  You may have more physical confrontation in football, but that doesn't make you any more courageous or determined than an athlete of a different sport.

kmp10's picture

No problem. Debate is part of what makes this site interesting. I guess we'll agree to disagree, but how someone can say playing soccer takes the same amount of courage as going across the middle in the NFL or trying to bring down Earl Campbell when he has a head of steam is something I'm unable to wrap my mind around. Again, I never played soccer so maybe I'm missing something, but when you have to have your head on a swivel playing football, not only for the purpose of catching the ball or looking for a hole to run through in the D-line, but to avoid being hammered senseless by someone like Chris Spielman or Bill Romanowski… I see nothing comparable in the sport of soccer. Nothing even remotely close. But I do enjoy the conversation/debate...

cdub4's picture

Facing a pitcher throwing a baseball inside 95 mph, and standing your ground when that same pitcher throws a 79 mph curveball.....from 60 feet takes a bit of courage.

William's picture

Pretty sure that walking out onto a field and playing soccer in swampy-ass Brazil, in front of 80,000 screaming hooligans, while representing your country takes mental toughness and courage, or whatever other BS descriptor you'd like to use. 

And if you don't think bodily harm can occur at any time in soccer, just watch those Stoke City asshats break legs in the EPL every year. 

+1 HS
Seattle Linga's picture

One of my friends is a writer for the A.P. and he thinks all --- and I mean all professional football players are pansies when I asked why his explanation was each play only last on average - 8 seconds and you don't have to be in condition to play professional football. WOW did he get destroyed when he said that statement. I strongly disagree and can't imagine calling a few animals in the NFL lazy and not in condition. 

chicagobuckeye's picture

Albert haynesworth might disagree with you...

sarasotabcg's picture

soccer put me through college. After my playing days I was a FIFA ref for a long time and then did a little coaching. I used to keep in touch with former pros and a few USMNT members but that was a long time ago. The game's been good to me.

Different sports require different skill sets. Soccer requires skill, speed, and endurance (that's in order, fyi). In my playing days we'd put in about 6 miles of running in every game, but all that speed and endurance is worthless without skill.

Bottom line: The key to soccer is to have great skill and use that skill with pace and be able to do it over and over again for 90 minutes.

+1 HS
BucksfanXC's picture

I think the most important thing for soccer along with endurance is creativity. It's not so much about playing it for years and starting training at a young age, which does help, but the biggest help and where it America is really separated from Brazil and England etc is the pick up games. In the USA, kids play soccer or gymnastics or Little League etc. but then they go home and during the non-game/practices they play pick up games of basketball or football or baseball. Street games of hoops or stickball are to America what pond hockey is to Canada and back alley soccer is to Brazil. Once kids start playing soccer in America on their own, pick up games on the street, that is when we will be a great soccer nation. And it takes years, generations even. There are pockets in the Pacific NW and the South near the Mexican border that this is already happening. Give it time, it will become more prevalent. Youth training centers that identify the standouts early and get them trained will also help. That is the way they do it in Spain, Germany, etc. We have started it here in the US, but not large scale. Donovan was trained in Florida at a center from an early age for example.

“Any time you give a man something he doesn't earn, you cheapen him. Our kids earn what they get, and that includes respect.”  - Woody

+1 HS
sarasotabcg's picture

one point of clarification: you don't have to start at a young age like I did but I would say that the 10000 hrs rule applies to soccer. What allows guys like Messi to do what he does is because he's done it so many times in practice that the game slows down for him.

Trust me, when you cross that threshold it's a pretty awesome feeling.

Jack Fu's picture

Casual American soccer fans' constant cries of "these aren't our best athletes" annoy the shit out of me. The USMNT is always, but always, one of the most athletically-gifted teams in the world. In sheer athleticism terms - how fast you are, how strong you are, how high you can jump, etc. - we're second to none. But soccer is a sport where other things matter more, namely skill, creativity, and positional awareness (sensing when and where to pass, or cut, or defend). Put another way: I do not recall ever watching a USMNT loss and thinking "we lost that game because we were less athletic than the opponent." 

+2 HS
LA BUCK's picture

I'll say this. Soccer (Futbol) can be either the most boring or most thrilling sport. Played at the highest level it is a beautiful and exciting game. But I find it very uninteresting when played at a lower level because the sloppiness negates the sport's essential fluid play. It takes an incredible amount of time and dedication to develop the requisite soccer skills to play at a top level. It's not farfetched in American football for an athlete who's never played before to begin playing in high school and earn a D1 scholarship. That could NEVER happen in soccer. In soccer athletes must develop sufficient skill in their feet to do the same thing the hand does in other sports. Ever try to drop a ball that's rocketed toward you within a couple of feet of where you stand? Could you also do the same while on a full sprint? It's the combination of skill, speed and split second decisions and reactions that make soccer, when played at the highest level, the most thrilling sport.

Things turn out best for people who make the best out of the way things turn out. - Woody Hayes

Ahh Saturday's picture

By the way, the flipside is interesting to consider.  Weird things start happening in a country when Football is not available as an outlet for athletes.

Braxton2Devin's picture

Soccer simply requires more skill and dedication than any American sports. American sports just require you to be blessed with a certain height and be a freak athlete

osu407's picture

I really like your musical analogy. Also, can you imagine if soccer was the sport in de soto Texas? Dontre Wilson might (or might not) be amazing. He is also not gigantic, same as Messi. Anyways, my point is if you take a certain population and a particular amount of individuals will be very good whereas a certain group will not be. But my personal belief is combining those that happen to be good at footwork  absspeed required for soccer at a young age also having the speed of our highly regarded football recruits would provide a very near unbeatable result. 

lamplighter's picture

you have to give the players their due for their skills and dedication. That being said, I would rather have a root canal than watch a soccer match

+1 HS