Many countries around the world surround youth, and thus, their potential players, with a soccer culture from birth. It's not a conscious developmental decision -- it's simply the popularity of the sport around the globe. TV broadcasts, radio coverage, print journalism and loyal fans are the order of the day in many cities worldwide. When these children head out to play in the streets and the fields of their neighborhoods, the game is invariably soccer, and their aim, at some point, is to emulate the sporting heroes constantly paraded before them.
It has been a different story in the U.S. For years, soccer heroes were rare outside of ethnic enclaves. Many parents viewed the sport as little other than a safe physical pastime for their children to indulge in until they were ready for the more "serious" sports like baseball, basketball or American football.
In the absence of an enthusiastic soccer atmosphere or soccer-knowledgeable parents, an interesting element stepped into the developmental gap, one that helped guide many young stars today, though virtually without notice.
Call it the Sibling Mentorship Model.
Two of U.S. soccer's most exciting prospects, both national team members, followed that same instructional path. The soccer careers of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey might have had entirely different outcomes, otherwise.
Both Donovan and Dempsey had siblings who introduced them to the game at a young age. Donovan couldn't quite remember the first time his elder half-brother, Josh, tried to get him to kick a soccer ball: "He was five years older, so as soon as I could walk, he wanted someone to play with."
The gap between Dempsey and his own soccer instigator was identical.
"He's five years younger than me," explained Ryan Dempsey, who was the first in his close-knit clan to get bitten hard by the soccer bug. "It was a daily thing for me, and then for everyone in my family."
Nearly the same amount of years separated Sarah Wagenfuhr, a women's U-20 national team player, from her brother David, a player with FC Dallas in Major League Soccer. The gender difference in addition to the age difference didn't deter the siblings from competing regularly together.
"When we were little, we'd play every game together," Sarah said.
Having the challenge of a significantly older and constant rival would prove invaluable to the younger players. The learning curve was steep, but that only increased their determination.
"I wanted to be able to compete with him," Donovan recalled of matching up against Josh. "This was in everything -- ping-pong, basketball, football, whatever we played. I was enjoying it, because it was my older brother I was playing with. He was pushing me to get better, just so he could have someone he could play with. It worked out pretty well."
So even without soccer playing often on the television, or cheering crowds inspiring a young player to get better, the daily test against the older sibling became an important motivator.
"It was very heated," Ryan Dempsey said. "It was very competitive out in the front yard. It wasn't just like going out there and having some fun with your bro. It was like war. Clint's just that kind of person. He still is. You can't beat him in a video game, even now, without him taking it personally."
Besides offering an incentive to improve and a regular practice partner, an older sibling often provided a tough physical trial, even while giving an example to emulate.
"It's been good to have a role model and someone to shoot for -- to try beating them and being better than them," Sarah Wagenfuhr said.
Both David and Sarah Wagenfuhr are defenders, so it's fairly evident that she was picking up childhood lessons that have served her well to this point.
Dempsey, for one, was forced to adjust to his older brother's tactics.
"It helped develop his physical game at a younger age," Ryan said. "[Clint is] really good shielding the ball. I think he developed that in the front yard, playing against somebody older and bigger, like me."
The addition of a younger brother (Lance) to the family soccer sessions added a new element to Dempsey's game.
"We'd have our younger brother out there, so we'd have two versus one," Ryan said. "They were able to form a chemistry and develop a passing game. There's a lot of opportunities to fake the pass and take the ball in and dribble. He really got good at that, just by playing two versus me."
After struggling to match his older brother, Donovan said that club matches were almost easier by comparison: "I 'played up' [competing against older players]. I could just figure things out a little faster than the other kids."
The soccer exposure wasn't just physical. The Dempseys were at a tryout for Ryan to audition for an elite soccer team when Clint was spotted and given a chance to join one of the best youth teams in Texas.
Later on, Ryan's somewhat sour college soccer experience provided Clint with a firsthand look at what to avoid.
"I played guinea pig with soccer," Ryan said of his role. "My collegiate career was a big letdown. But because I knew why, I was able to pass that information along. I know for sure Clint took it very seriously and had a different outcome."
That's partly how Clint Dempsey ended up at Furman, a university not known as a top soccer college.
"Most important was which coach would identify with an upbringing like Clint's -- which one would be able to not hinder his abilities, but to bring them out," Ryan said. "He had a lot of good questions to ask when he went on these [recruiting] visits, whereas I just went to the first place that offered me money."
Wise counsel could also concern the doings on the field. Donovan recalled some early advice his half-brother passed along early in his playing days.
"He had been through the ... skirmishes on the field. He would tell me, 'Just wait outside, get in the spot where you think the ball is going to pop out.' Sure enough, every game there'd be two or three times where it would just squirt out, and I'd be in front of the goal. I'd just be sitting there waiting, instead of running around, kicking the ball with everyone else. At that time, it was just figuring out problems on the field and finding solutions."
In situations after matches, Sarah Wagenfuhr still turns to David for assistance.
"I call him after every game and sometimes after practice," she said. "We talk about what happened. If I'm tired or something, I ask him, 'Do you think I should jog more or what do you think I should do?'"
Despite the closeness, it's not surprising that having a formidable opponent in such close proximity caused tension at times.
Ryan Dempsey recalled, "Clint was getting to the point where he was sick of being the younger brother, losing all the time. There were plenty of times when we would just not talk to each other for a whole day because of something that would happen on the field."
Donovan's frustration was similar, though he laughs about it now.
"[Josh] would kick my ass. Until I was 15 and really started growing, and becoming comfortable with my body -- getting faster, he would kick my ass. I was never as good as he was, at that point."
Thanks partly to the exploits of players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, soccer continues to gain stature in the U.S. There are more and more role models for today's young talents to look up to. Today's parents are also more aware of both the history and trends of the game. The generation so directly influenced by the older soccer sibling factor may be a unique one. Still, that doesn't diminish the boost they have given both U.S. soccer in general and their younger family members in particular.
"If I'd never had someone to play with, if I'd never gotten into soccer, who knows what would have happened?" Donovan speculated. "I could be working at McDonald's right now, you never know. It's funny how that works."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.