Change can start early for the USA's next generation.Once upon a while ago a baby boy was born. His father lifted him up, wondering if he'd be an athlete, wondering if he'd love the same game his father loved.
Passions are never a guaranteed heritage in families. Athletes father accountants and vice-versa.
Besides, it wasn't the most popular sport in the country where the little boy was growing up.
But fathers have influence on their sons, and the little stuffed balls in the crib soon gave way to child-size versions of the real thing. The baby was now a little boy, playing with more confidence every passing day. Because there wasn't a lot of the sport broadcast, videos of classic games played on the family television set. Dad was never too busy to discuss details of formation and game strategy.
Sure, the kids on the street outside were playing different games, and the boy was talented and athletic enough to take part and do well. One day, however, the boy made a fateful choice. Dad's game was the one for him, no matter what his friends said or thought. He was going to get serious in the sport, and he was going to make the sacrifices needed to succeed.
It was a lonely pursuit at times, going against the grain of what was considered to be the ultimate sport where they lived. Yet the boy had certain advantages in his quest. Dad knew some local professional players in their sport, and while they certainly weren't the best in the world, they were among the best in that country. Certainly that level was a tough challenge for the youngster, who ran drills, practiced and worked hard to improve, dreaming of the day he would compete among the best in the world.
Years later, in the 2010 World Cup, the USA marched out on the field to take on Ghana in the knockout stages of the tournament.
No longer a boy, Kobe Bryant looked around at the flag-waving spectacle and wondered about if things had turned out differently.
Yes, the USA basketball star was on hand as the Americans tried to continue their World Cup run.
Bryant isn't a mere bandwagon fan of soccer. He lived in Italy for over six years in his youth. These were formative years that only ended when his family returned to the USA and he started high school. The Bryant family was there because Kobe's father had a contract to play professional basketball in a country known more than anything for its success in soccer. The Bryants were in Italy when the country hosted the World Cup in 1990 and the country went crazy for the tournament.
However, Kobe Bryant chose the sport his father played and loved - channeling his passion to great success in the sport, although it's a stretch to call the Los Angeles Lakers 'world champions' when it's only a league title Bryant has ever won.
Still, part of Bryant's heart was captured by the sport his young playmates were so devout about. He was on hand at the World Cup to cheer his country on.
Though the USA lost versus Ghana, on the field that day was a player whose story mirrors that of Bryant's in certain ways. Michael Bradley could have chosen to play baseball, the American pastime. Soccer was his choice partly because of the love of the game that his father passed down. As a youngster, he improved exponentially practicing alongside the pro players his father coached.
Part of me likes the questions that are now being asked about how to make soccer in the USA better, because I think different ideas are a great start. Sometimes, though, the speculation makes me cringe. I've heard more than once various ideas - that U.S. Soccer needs to recruit from poor neighborhoods, for example, that the largest athletes need to take up the sport, that the top prospects in the sport should be shipped abroad for training as soon as they become teenagers.
It's obvious, though, that the "recruit poor kids" argument falls flat when one considers that Kobe Bryant, a top player in basketball, didn't come from an impoverished background. Neither did Kaka, one of soccer's best. It's true that what needs to happen is that young soccer players shouldn't be dependent on money to get a chance to play, but that's a far cry from saying players should be sought after because they are economically disadvantaged. The idea that they might be 'hungrier' because they don't have enough to eat is ridiculous. Sure, fame and fortune drive some athletes, but the vast majority I've met are addicted to the thrill of winning and compete fiercely in their chosen arena to claim supremacy.
Soccer is also the wrong sport to be measuring young players early on for success. It's not about how tall Lionel Messi is or how strong Arjen Robben is - the answer in both cases is 'not very'. It's about what talented players can do on the field.
As Bryant told the New York Times: “I don’t think kids really understand the creativity that you can have playing soccer,” Bryant said. “Watch clips of Ronaldinho and see some of the things he can do with that ball."
The final argument, about the sending young prospects overseas as soon as they enter puberty also isn't the easy solution. After all, that did happen in one particular case - that of one Guiseppe Rossi. That didn't turn out well for the USA at all.
It's going to take more than waiting for a single superstar for the USA to build a team that can truly challenge to win the World Cup. Getting the variety of players ready may not be a one-size-fits all formula, but one central thing that seems to make a difference is the love of the sport.
That's why for me, one of the most hopeful elements to take from the USA's World Cup exit was the camera pan of the crushed American fans in the stands. There were so many of them; more than I've seen at many of the team's games in the past.
Beyond whether USA soccer needs to scrap the college system or hire a foreign coach, or any number of changes, the more people that are passionate about the sport means that out there, in houses large and small, families are sharing that love for the sport. The next generation in America is making a choice, and the more of them that choose soccer, the better the future looks.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America and is trying to remember to update her Twitter account.
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