Last week, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times both ran profiles of U.S. Soccer manager Jurgen Klinsmann, two articles with very similar information but very different narratives. The Journal described Klinsmann as trying to make "U.S. soccer better by making it more American," while the Times piece teases: "How Jurgen Klinsmann Plans to Make U.S. Soccer Better (and Less American)".
The Journal argued that Klinsmann latches onto "the defining American characteristic -- a visceral hatred of being dictated to" -- and that we Americans want to "take things in your own hands," on and off the field. American soccer, the Journal believes, is making a transition from rigid, structured formations to free-flowing creativity, which will require incredible fitness. The Times, on the other hand, references "big bodies" and "physical aggression." These concepts overlap considerably, yet one is called more American and the other less American.
In their own ways, both pieces are correct. Klinsmann is disposing of historical American soccer traits for newer, traditionally continental concepts, by heavily recruiting European players with American eligibility. But, as the Times piece intelligently details, nearly all soccer teams are becoming multinational, both in roster composition and tactics. Italy plays like Brazil, Brazil plays like Germany, Germany plays like Spain, and everybody tries to play like Barcelona except for Atletico Madrid, who plays a bit like Italy used to.
Those teams are eschewing their previously established tactical identities, but American soccer was characterized not by tactics as much as by a mindset, albeit a nebulous one. To say that working hard is an inherently American trait is bizarre, just as saying creativity is a European one. The fault lies in pegging American soccer to any kind of national character. American soccer has pegged itself to -- and is now trying to break from -- a national identity that was never accurate to begin with.
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The Journal compares Klinsmann to French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, who characterized the American spirit in the 1830s as more brawn than brain. "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation," he wrote in Democracy in America, "but rather in her ability to repair her faults." This has been, and probably still is, the American soccer ethos: We will make up for our mistakes with muscle and hustle.
This strategy never worked. As Noah Davis wrote, American soccer history is an assortment of minor victories nestled between total failures. Likewise, Will Leitch pointed out that no era of American soccer is worthy of nostalgic idolization. Similarly, the America that de Tocqueville traversed is hardly worthy of our admiration. That America was expanding rapidly as a direct result of killing the natives and stealing their land, and 15 percent of its people were in chains.
In his two years traveling this country, de Tocqueville saw something special in the American spirit, a notion that still appeals to us 180 years later. Klinsmann's predecessor Bruce Arena recently expressed some ideas that best can be described as soccer isolationism. "I believe an American should be coaching the national team," he told the Times. "I think the majority of the national team should come out of Major League Soccer. The people that run our governing body think we need to copy what everyone else does, when in reality, our solutions will ultimately come from our culture."
It's the soccer version of "American exceptionalism" -- another idea that dates back to de Tocqueville, who wrote:
"The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional … their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature and the arts, the proximity to Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism …"
Here is a classic example of a turn of phrase morphing into a concept entirely divorced from its original meaning. De Tocqueville believed that our proximity to Europe's intellectual rigor compensated for our shortcomings in that area. He was not arguing for American superiority at all, but rather that circumstances gave us certain advantages that other countries lacked. The term is now used most often to suggest moral and economic superiority, bearing no resemblance to de Tocqueville's original meaning.
In The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe are Alike, UCLA historian Peter Baldwin makes a convincing data-driven case for America's similarity to the European Union. By the 21st century, our attitudes regarding free trade and the free market have actually aligned with Europe's. Our unions strike about as often as their Italian counterparts. There are fewer guns in America per person than in Finland. For all de Tocqueville wrote about the glories of American participatory democracy, a smaller percentage of our population now votes than in Europe. Baldwin's work shows that every meaningful difference between the U.S. and E.U. -- murder rates, child poverty levels, prison population -- can be traced to the one truly identifiable feature of American society, past and present: our shameful plundering of minorities.
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Since 1990, American soccer has embraced the idea that it can win without being like Europe. This means different things to different soccer fans, but it's a way to preserve that anti-European American identity while enjoying a non-American sport. As a strategy, it's meaningless.
American soccer differentiated itself from the European game only because it had to. Italy could have played an attacking style at any point, but it chose not to until recently. In the 1950s, Brazil adopted an individualistic, talent-driven style, because they had five of the best forwards in the world on the same team. England typically has deployed a rough defensive style, relying on long balls, because it fit their talent pool. Likewise, American soccer has relied on physical prowess and lots of running, because that's what you do when you don't have the instincts and skills to be in the right place at the right time. The team developed its identity not to align with American ideals, but because it was not very good at soccer.
But we are getting better, and as a result we are evolving. Largely due to an influx of continental players, the U.S. team has options now and is reaching beyond its previous identity, the way a toddler goes from a crawl to a walk. It's a natural progression of a growing, improving entity, and here again, it has very little to do with a national identity.
We are not that different from Europe, but we are very different from what we imagine ourselves to be. The German journalist Josef Joffe once said that America is "less a country [than a] canvas, a continent-size Rorschach blot, on which to project their own preoccupations." His observation holds true for American soccer. We can look at the same manager and come to two diametrically opposed conclusions as to whether he is a representation of American ideals, because America is whatever you want it to be.