Let’s be honest and restate the obvious. The best male athletes in America do not play soccer. Football, basketball and, to a lesser extent, baseball skim the best athletes right off the top.
Even the second and third tier athletes in this country — those who aren’t good enough to make it in college or the pros — commit themselves to those sports early. They see the attention and adulation that athletes in the big three sports receive and the money they earn, and they specialize in football or basketball even though the chances of them playing at the next level are nil and soccer might actually suit their body type or skills better.
Consider this: The U.S. women’s soccer team, which does get the best athletes for the most part and doesn’t have to compete with football, has been an international force. In six World Cups, they have won twice, and finished second once and third three times. In 19 World Cups, the U.S. men have finished in the top four only once — third place in 1930. (One caveat: There are fewer women’s teams than men’s teams — soccer power Argentina, for instance, doesn’t even field a women’s team.)
In the rest of the world, the top athletes play soccer. As soccer aficionados love to point out to Americans, soccer is the biggest sport in the world, other than in North America.
It’s a credit to the depth of American athletes and to the culture itself that the U.S. came within one goal of making the World Cup quarterfinals, losing to Belgium in extra time.
But as Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel noted, goalie Tim Howard, who had a record 16 saves in the Cup-ending 2-1 loss to Belgium, “was the only player who could match the Belgians in ability. He was the only one as good as they were. Belgium was bigger, faster and more precise. It dominated. It was 27 to nine in shots on goal .”
What might Americans accomplish in the World Cup if they sent their best athletes? It’s always intriguing to wonder what stars in one sport would do in another sport, even when reality crushes fantasy (Michael Jordan’s aborted baseball attempt). But what if America’s best athletes had taken up soccer in their formative years? Imagine sending a team composed of some or all of the following to the World Cup:
LeBron James — Let’s see a Belgian try to overpower him in the box. Put him somewhere back on defense. And here’s a bonus: He’s already got the flopping routine down pat. The only drawback: He’d be trying to recruit stars from other countries to form his own team — or country.
Darren Sproles — Watching defenders break their ankles while trying to stay with the 5-foot-6, 190-pound Sproles would be entertaining. His speed is decent but his ability to change directions and cut is phenomenal. Give him one of the forward spots. Danny Woodhead, Randall Cobb and Wes Welker could also fill the same role.
Devin Hester — His vision, speed and agility helped him return 18 punts and kickoffs for NFL touchdowns; now put him on the pitch at forward or even a midfielder spot.
Richard Sherman — He could play anywhere — midfield, defense, forward — but with his ability to shut down receivers, put him on defense. If you want to know how great he is, just ask him.
Kevin Garnett/Dwight Howard — With wingspans of about 7 feet, they’ve pretty much got the goal covered. Or you could start Ndamukong Suh, who is about the same width as the goal. He certainly would be an intimidating presence, with his 300 pounds, his agility and his reputation for dirty play.
Russell Westbrook — Another big athletic basketball player whose skills would transfer nicely to soccer.
Derrick Rose — Ditto. You just have to keep him healthy.
Darrelle Revis — One of the purest athletes in the NFL, he could play any position in soccer.
Tony Parker — Sorry, the French claimed him in a case of the rich getting richer. It’s easy to imagine him attacking the goal the way he attacks the basket.
Michael Vick — His burst of speed and ability to evade defenders would make him an asset anywhere on the field.
J.J. Watts — A 6-foot-4, 300–pound athletic freak, Watts goes straight to defense. Nobody is running through him or “tackling” him. Rivals might flop as soon as he’s in their area code.
Chris Johnson — One of the fastest players in NFL history, Johnson would be a nice fit on offense.
Kawhi Leonard — Where do you put a 6-foot-7, 230-pound kid who can move? Anywhere. He played for the Spurs, so he’s all about the team.
Kobe Bryant — He’s not always about the team and doesn’t like to pass, but he could slither his way through a defense at one of the forward spots.
Others to consider: Chris Paul, DeSean Jackson, Derek Jeter, Anquan Boldin, Brandon Marshall, Dez Bryant.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org