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Why LeBron wouldn't save U.S. soccer

July 4, 2010
Hruby By Patrick Hruby
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

LeBron JamesDavid Saffran/US PresswireLeBron James as a striker? In reality, that picture wouldn't work.

It happens every four years, as inevitable as presidential elections and surging public interest in short-track speedskating. The big, bad, rich n' populous United States falters at the World Cup. Meanwhile, skillful foreign mighty-mites from futbol-mad nations the size of Oregon shine.

Sitting at home, adjusting their pre-preseason fantasy football lineups, American sports fans pause to wonder: What if we had LeBron James at striker?

Or Patrick Willis enforcing the back line?

Or Dwight Howard in goal?

What if America cared about the beautiful game as much as every other country on the planet?

If only our best athletes played soccer. We'd kick [expletive]!

So goes the oft-repeated lament for Team USA, one echoed by pundits, sports writers, bloggers, television hosts and talk-radio callers alike. The basic idea works as follows:

Step 1: Have our athletic crème de la crème perform slide tackles and crossover dribbles instead of blindside tackles and, well, the other kind of crossover dribbles.

Step 2: Watch America dominate. Game over, Ghana!

Even Kobe Bryant -- who grew up in Italy wanting to star for Serie A powerhouse AC Milan -- buys into the concept, having once told reporters that "if myself, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James had a soccer ball at our feet instead of a basketball at 2 years old, it could have been something ... the [U.S. team] would have been pretty potent."

Would it?

Really?

Reggie Bush racing along the wing! Chris Paul controlling the midfield! Michael Phelps as wet-weather super-sub! The notion is tantalizing, downright irresistible, in a Dream Team-meets-"The Superstars" sort of way.

It's also spectacularly dumb.

Fact is, fielding a squad of our "best athletes" -- from football, basketball, et al. – wouldn't help America capture its first World Cup any more than sending Bryant to the G20 summit would help us badger other industrialized nations into pumping up deficit spending.

Better television? Probably.

Better soccer? No chance.

Start with muscle. Size and strength. Natural resources our non-soccer jocks have in abundance. From Adrian Peterson's piston legs to Ron Artest's granite pecs, we are buff without peer, getting more ripped all the time. (Even our punters are jacked!) Problem is, added brawn is of little use on the pitch. On one hand, a guy built like Terrell Owens might have an easier time breaking out of a Slovenian set-piece bear hug; on the other hand, anyone that bulky would be too gassed to take advantage.

Soccer favors stamina over brute force. Consistent effort over sporadic outbursts. Do the biomechanical math. According to the Times of London, the average Premier League midfielder runs more than seven miles per match, a 10th of that sprinting speed or close to it. Average recovery time between sprints? All of 40 seconds, with few substitutions and no timeouts. (Modern soccer is also getting faster: According to EPL video analysis, the amount of sprinting doubled during the last decade.) Extra bulk means extra weight to drag around the pitch, with extra energy expended to do so.

Now consider physiology. The ideal sprinter is tall and muscled, with a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers that quickly burn energy and produce short, explosive runs. By contrast, the perfect distance runner is of short to medium height, with a high percentage of slow-twitch fibers that burn energy slowly and facilitate endurance. Ask yourself: Which of the above sounds more like an NFL receiver? Which sounds more like a central midfielder?

To put things another way (I): There's a reason you don't see Landon Donovan chugging protein shakes and hanging out with Victor Conte. And it's not because soccer players aren't vain.

To put things another way (II): If Brian Urlacher ever excelled in a World Cup, it would have to involve rugby.

As for height? Similar story. Argentina's Lionel Messi is arguably the best soccer player on the planet. At 5-foot-7, he would struggle to see over the top of a Gramatica brother. Same deal for the legendary player Messi is most often compared to, Diego Maradona. And so what? In an adidas ad featuring Kevin Garnett and David Beckham, the otherwise-agile basketball player looks clumsy -- in part because soccer isn't his professional calling, in part because he's simply too tall to excel at a sport played low to the ground. James might be a terrific natural athlete, and a potentially great football tight end, but he'd make a mediocre striker for the same reason he'd get smoked playing cornerback: His center of gravity isn't low enough.

Still, for the sake of argument, suppose that in soccer-first America, only jocks with favorable body types suited up for the national side. Allen Iverson. Lance Armstrong. Defensive backs and point guards. Would this Team USA be superior to the current edition, last seen getting outclassed by Ghana?

Nope.

To believe the best-athlete myth is to fundamentally misunderstand American soccer's plight. Athletic ability is not the problem. In fact, it's generally considered a Team USA strength, along with competitive spirit. We can run and jump with the world's best. Compared to their superstar Argentine and Spanish peers, however, our best players lack vision, creativity and technical skill. On-ball magic. Soccer-specific attributes that don't transfer from one sport to the next, that can't be measured with the stopwatches and shuttle cones of a scouting combine. Does being able to hit a major league curveball automatically make you a PGA Tour prospect? The things American soccer needs to improve on come from immersion and exposure, from how you grow up in the sport.

And in that regard, our best isn't good enough. Not even close.

As a teenager, Messi attended the training academy of top professional club Barcelona, living and breathing the game's highest level; by age 19, he was playing in his first World Cup. In the world of international soccer, his story is the norm. It's also the norm in the United States -- provided you play football, basketball or baseball, where the minors and/or de facto minor league college sports prepare you to be a pro in sink-or-swim, survival-of-the-fittest fashion.

Play soccer, by contrast, and you'll likely spend your formative years in college -- well below MLS, a Marianas Trench removed from the big-money, high-pressure hothouse of European club competition. By the time America's top talents reach the international level, they're stuck playing catch-up. Though a shift to continental-style player development is taking place -- witness U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, who trained at the IMG soccer academy in Florida, went to MLS at age 17 and is now playing in Germany -- overnight dividends aren't a sure thing. How else to explain Freddy Adu?

In the meantime, the fever-dream of if only DeSean Jackson played forward! needs to break. LeBron will not save us. Should America eventually field a World Cup winner, it won't be because our soccer players are better athletes. It will be because our athletes are better soccer players.

Patrick Hruby is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.