By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 29, 2011) US Soccer Players — When I was a kid, there was a guy at my church who was the son of a professional baseball player. His dad spent 14 years pitching in the big leagues. The son played major college football and minor league baseball. Obviously, this was of interest to those of us who were into pro sports – meaning every kid I knew.
One thing he made clear was that we had no idea about the degree of difficulty at the professional level. Watching games either on television or in person tends to normalize what you’re seeing. Actually standing in against a 95 mile per hour fastball or getting up after taking a hit from a player that’s faster than anyone you’ve ever encountered in football? Completely different.
He told us a story about being in a spring training game and doing fine against a young pitcher. Eventually, that team swapped in one of their regulars, and ‘doing fine’ quickly turned into realizing that there was a world of difference between another wannabe Major Leaguer and one of the best pitchers in baseball. Playing in the majors meant facing a type of talent that quite simply only exists there. You can train for it, but it still requires an adjustment that very talented athletes are unable to make.
I experienced this for myself my freshman year of high school. Playing Fall baseball, a recent graduate showed up to help out the coach. We were all excited. After all, we were about to spend time with an actual professional, a player that had just finished his first minor league season. The outfield wall at my high school backed onto the student parking lot. On the other side was the football stadium.
We watched our real life professional take a couple of swings with a wooden bat he took out of a bag with his name and number on it, then start crushing the ball into that fortunately empty parking lot. Once properly warmed up, he was reaching the football field. I’d watched a lot of baseball up to that point, lots of minor league games and a few games at the nearest Major League city five hours south, but I’d never seen it out of its element.
Here’s the thing. The player in question signed a pro contract to be a pitcher for an American League team. His bat wasn’t considered professional quality, even as he showed us a completely different level of the game. At the time, it wasn’t exactly motivating. None of us had any feeling that there was a path that got us from where we were standing on that high school field to some minor league team with a creative nickname. We weren’t going to be Myrtle Beach Sea Dogs, much less Altoona Curves or Las Vegas 51s. We knew the game, were passionate about it, and were under no illusion that our skill set translated.
That held when we started playing other high schools and saw how much better a handful of players were than everybody else. Take an entire state, and a handful of that handful would get a real shot at the pro level.
Pick a sport, and it’s the same story. Short of growing up with a future professional, stick with any sport long enough and you’ll encounter that moment when you realize that your definition of ‘good’ needs a rewrite. You see professional athletes doing things you recognize. Like the story from the old minor leaguer, extraordinary skill looks normal when the basic level of the game has been raised. Things that would be amazing on a park field near you are just part of the game, and it takes truly exceptional talent to amaze.
Taking that for granted is easy enough. After all, they’re professionals and that minimal level is part of the job. In a place like England where soccer is dominant and there are 92 professional clubs, it’s almost taken for granted that someone you know got a tryout or trained with a pro club. Yet we all know there’s a distinct difference between the lower divisions and what happens week after week in the Premier League. We can also probably take it for granted that these trialists and might have beens got a taste of what’s needed at the highest level.
In the United States, that’s what makes stories like Clint Dempsey’s, Tim Howard’s, or Jay DeMerit’s so amazing. These are players that didn’t move from strength to strength from a very early age. Dempsey and DeMerit played college soccer, but not for powerhouse teams with a trophy cabinet full of championships. Howard started his career in the American minor league.
As professionals, all of them had to prove they belonged. Dempsey is the standout of these examples, but he spent his Rookie of the Year award winning season trying to show he should’ve gone higher in the draft than 8th. Howard might have been fast-tracked from the minors to Major League Soccer, but he spent two seasons as a backup with the Metrostars. DeMerit’s story is so unique it was turned into a movie.
What makes that fascinating is how all three of them – and again these are just three examples -adapted to various levels of good. There’s a substantial difference between youth soccer good, college soccer good, and Premier League good. Even now in the United States, how to define good isn’t as obvious as it is for the other major leagues where clubs compete against each other to sign and develop the best players. There are 240 minor league baseball teams to go with the 30 Major League teams. Basketball and football have hundreds of colleges creating their definition of good.
Though it’s changing, that’s not the same for American professional soccer. Even with the attention the rest of the world pays to the United States as a potential outlet for players, the net still has holes and players still have to prove they’re among the elite well after they would’ve been identified by the other professional sports.
When you think about it, that might not be a bad thing. It certainly keeps the dream of making a career out of professional soccer alive for players that would already know the limits in baseball, football, basketball, or hockey鈥?not to mention professional soccer in the countries where it’s the top sport.
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