By Paul Gardner
Tut, tut, Alexi Lalas, naughty, naughty. On a recent ESPN telecast Lalas had the bad taste, or the attention-seeking gall -- or was it simply the courage? -- to bring up what has evidently become a thorny subject these days: the place of Latino players in American soccer.
Lalas was referring to the policy of Chivas USA, and had this to say of Chivas USA’s recruiting: “It’s very clear that Chivas USA have targeted players that have Mexican and Hispanic parentage. Some people have called it racist, I don’t think it is -- but it is, though, exclusionary.”
Lalas went on to pose this question: “If you are a young boy playing soccer in Southern California right now, and you don’t have Mexican or Hispanic parentage, do you have an equal opportunity to play for both of your teams [i.e. Chivas USA and Galaxy] in Los Angeles? And I think the answer right now is ‘No.’”
Does he have a point? Yes, very definitely he does. And it’s a point that those of us who have been promoting the merits of Latino players need to acknowledge.
To get some irritating factors out of the way for a start. This discrimination against Anglo (i.e. non-Latino) players that Lalas is talking of needs to be seen in the context of years, decades, of the reverse bias -- that of a discrimination against Hispanic players.
American soccer -- and I’m very much including college soccer -- has a long and unenviable record of deprecating the Latin game and its players. The situation has been improving. The move by MLS to shift youth development away from the colleges into club academies is having an effect. Take a look at these percentage figures for Latino players on MLS club academies at the under-16 and under-18 levels:
Chivas USA 75%
D.C. United 25%
Kansas City 19%
Los Angeles 62%
New England 24%
New York 29%
Real Salt Lake 43%
San Jose 48%
For an overall average of 37%. A figure that is massively at odds with what we see from college soccer. It is a stat that ought to spell the death of college soccer as a pathway to pro soccer. A death from ineffectiveness, if you like, but shame should play its part as well.
Yes, Latino players have found it difficult in American soccer. So, maybe, the sort of bias alleged by Lalas can be overlooked as late justice? No, not really. The one prejudice does not excuse the other. But if we’re going to start making accusations of exclusionary practices, how about starting with an admission that most of the blame for this attitude lies with the Anglo side of the game?
I haven’t seen any evidence that Lalas has ever spoken out on behalf of Latino players, or against the difficulties they face in the American game -- so it’s hard to accept his criticism. But accepted it must be. Chivas USA should not position itself as being uninterested in Anglo players.
But as soon as we start talking about the qualities of players we are dealing with a specifically soccer issue. And this discussion starts with the fact that there is a specific Latin way of playing soccer, one that is recognized worldwide, and one that is seen as a style that features more ball-skills than any other style, and that includes elements of artistry and bravura that other styles lack or eschew. As its counterpoint, we have the no-frills, overtly physical game propounded by the northern Europeans, particularly the British, who claim greater action and excitement for their game, and like to see players “get stuck in.”
Those who do not, or refuse to, see these opposing forces do not belong in this debate. For they are the people who, lacking knowledge of the soccer nuances and subtleties involved, want to reduce this issue to a matter of racism, which it is not, and never has been.
The fact is that all soccer clubs in the world practice exclusion: Their coaches will have their preferences for the style of player that they like, and for the players that they don’t like -- and those likes and dislikes are intimately related to the style of soccer that they want their teams to play.
This type of discrimination is at work quite frequently in soccer, and it particularly involves attacking players. The departure of goalscorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Barcelona in 2011 came about because Coach Pep Guardiola felt he did not fit the Barca style. The same reasoning applied when Andy Carroll found himself unwanted by Liverpool’s new coach Brendan Rodgers.
Both cases could be damned as bias against huge center forwards -- sizeism, I imagine it would be called. You can see it that way, but it is essentially a matter of a soccer preference. There are, after all, plenty of soccer coaches who very obviously have no faith in small players.
It comes down to this. Chivas USA wants to play a Latin-style, even a Mexican-style, of soccer. Who else would it recruit to accomplish that, other than Latin-style players? Well, it should also be looking to see if there are any Anglos who fit the bill. There won’t be many, but you never know. A Landon Donovan or a Clint Dempsey would do nicely. So the answer to the Lalas Lament about young Anglo players in Southern California is that the bias he complains of will exist -- but it is one of many biases to be taken into account when considering the value of a soccer player.
Above all, it is not -- and Lalas was quick to acknowledge this -- racism. It is exclusionary, maybe unnecessarily so (though Chivas did have four Anglos in its starting lineup this past weekend), but in principle no more exclusionary than any choice that a soccer coach will make in deciding to recruit or reject a player.
At least Lalas discussed the subject on television. That is not what happened during the FOX telecasts of the USA’s team during the Concacaf under-20 championship. The team did well, getting to the final, improving with every game. For the final against Mexico, Coach Tab Ramos fielded a team in which eight of the 10 outfield players were Latino.
Yet ... during that 2-hour telecast of the final, neither of the TV commentators, JP Dellacamera and Christopher Sullivan, could bring themselves to discuss, to even make a passing reference to, the overwhelmingly Latino character of this team.
I find that extraordinary and, frankly, inexplicable. Not least because this was an exceptionally good performance from the USA. Actually, one of the best performances I have ever seen from any U.S. national team, at any level (my experience of U.S. national teams started in 1964, when I watched the USA, with one Latino player, get beaten 10-0 by England. Things have gotten better).
Mexican youth soccer can lay claim to being the best in the world at the moment, so for the USA, playing in Mexico, to take the Mexicans to overtime is impressive. Doubly so, because it was not achieved by relying (as has invariably been the case in the past) on intimidating physical play and good goalkeeping.
But things went way beyond the mere reliance on defensive qualities. We saw an American team playing with style, passing the ball well, crisply, accurately -- and, yes, excitingly -- trying, always, to play themselves out of tricky situations. All of the U.S. players looked comfortable on the ball -- I have never seen that before. This was soccer con brio, with artistry as well as commitment, with skill and determination.
What Tab Ramos and his team gave us down in Puebla was the breakthrough that American soccer has been seeking. Oh, if only ... I’m almost tempted to say that it was the breakthrough that the U.S. has been avoiding, because this has taken far too long.
A point has been made: That we have, in this country, a lot of exceptional Latino talent. But will that point, at long last, be accepted? Is there still a reluctance to allow Latinos their place in U.S. soccer? That telecast -- how was it possible for two experienced American soccer commentators to avoid discussing, to not even mention, the pivotal importance of what was happening in front of them?
Could it be that the antipathy for Latino soccer is still around. You bet it could. I’m sure it is not part of either Dellacamera’s or Sullivan’s DNA, but in being coy about bringing the subject up they evidently sense an awkwardness about it. As though it is not quite the done thing to discuss in polite company.
Yes, the old attitudes do hang on, but they need to be extinguished. You can see the contradictions involved by looking at those Academy percentages above. The overall trend is clearly toward accommodating Latino players. But not everywhere -- and some of the lower figures come from surprising places.
I suppose the biggest question to be answered, the one of immediate urgency, is this: Where does Jurgen Klinsmann stand? He saw the game, he knows -- he must know -- that he saw plenty of players on the field who match up to his desire for players who are fit, who play with an intense desire to win, and who play the sort of soccer that he claims to want.
And he knows that most of them were Latino. Then why does he not acknowledge that? He is “excited about the qualification,” and thinks it “well deserved,” he’s “happy for Tab Ramos.” He says “we look at the individual talent, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they connect with each other. There are a lot of elements we talk about afterward with Tab Ramos because they’re the future a couple years down the road.”
So -- does Klinsmann see a Latino future? Maybe. Maybe not -- he talks, in tepid, Scrooge-like tones, of “a couple of individual talents coming through the ranks there,” with no indication of who they might be. Maybe it’s the decidedly anglo goalkeeper who caught his eye?
This is very disappointing. On this matter, as a result of what went on in the U-20 final, Klinsmann should be speaking out much more loudly, much more enthusiastically. Instead, we get the traditional omerta that envelops the Latino player and the Latino style. One has to wonder what sort of vision Klinsmann has for the future of American soccer if he cannot get truly excited about what Tab Ramos and his boys did in Mexico. ...
For Alexi Lalas, then, a sort of bouquet for bringing up what almost looks like a forbidden subject. But a sort of brickbat, too, for dubbing it “exclusionary” without pointing out that such measures are not unusual when it comes to assembling soccer teams.
For JP Dellacamera and Christopher Sullivan nothing but questions -- above all, what is it that makes a virtually all-Latino team something that cannot be talked about?
For Tab Ramos and his team, nothing but praise. For proving that those with unfailing faith in the Latino game have been right. That we have plenty of exceptional young talent among the Latino ranks, but we have so far failed to make use of it. I wish I could be confident that Tab’s message will be heard throughout American soccer. But it has not been heard before, and the entrenched ignorance of, and opposition to, Latin soccer runs mighty deep among the get-stuck-in crowd.