Prior to her final game, Abby Wambach drummed up her best Donald Trump impersonation, including both his political xenophobia and TV-like firings. By now you know what she said. If not, listen to the podcast here.
Initial reactions criticised Wambach almost for taking any sort of position on the matter rather than the appropriateness of her comments. Wambach has never been a quiet leader. She notoriously drops the F-bomb to fire up her team.
Even prior to this interview, I don’t think Wambach would have been described as a particularly eloquent orator. We rarely expect our athletic superstars to be Lincoln-esque, yet, they do carry an additional responsibility to choose words carefully. That’s why publicists exist. In an edited interview, some PR person would have tapped Wambach on the shoulder after the words “foreign” fell from her mouth.
PR: Uh, Abby, excuse me… can you explain what you mean by foreign? Because it makes you sound a bit bigoted.
AW: Oh no no no, that’s not what I meant… I meant [insert your favorite explanation here about developing players in the US like Landon Donovan]
So, let’s look objectively at the heart of Wambach’s USMNT criticisms and go from there. Let’s assume the following:
1. Abby Wambach Has Every Right To Comment On The State Of U.S. Soccer, Including The USMNT
The initial internet commentary about this podcast reflected the still very prominent presence of sexism in soccer. Most commentators felt the need to point out her gender (we’re aware), her sexuality (not in the closet) or her looks (pretty sure she has more abs than you trolls).
FIFA is still struggling to adequately represent women on the international stage. So much so, #WomeninFIFA was a trending hashtag. The only truly eloquent response to Wambach’s comments came from one of the very players she referred to, Mix Diskerud.
Wambach has been a member of the USWNT since 2001. She grew up in the youth system and played for a U.S. college. While the overall experience for women is notably different than it is for men (college is generally not in the equation), Wambach has the authority to speak about what works and what doesn’t from an insider’s perspective.
The women’s side, despite being seated in economy class, has been a first class success story. Three World Cup titles, four Olympic gold medals and rarely a loss in any CONCACAF match. Meanwhile, we celebrate the men when they merely escape the group stages of a competition. Wambach has been a leader for three of those major titles. So yes, she can and should be a voice we listen to for all of US Soccer.
2. Some Americans Have Better Access To Soccer Than Others
I will first state my own bias here. I served in the U.S. Navy and have had family and friends attend military schools while stationed overseas. Those children likely have a greater understanding of American civic responsibility than anyone currently in Congress. I think we can all (except for maybe Trump) agree that an American is defined by a lot more than the zip code they grew up in. The fact that Jermaine Jones, the son of a servicemember, grew up in Germany’s youth soccer system is just like Michael Bradley, the son of a high level coach, growing up in the U.S.; it’s about exposure to the sport.
Here’s where Wambach’s world view may be off when analyzing the men’s system. Most of the women who end up on the national team grow up playing multiple sports in the U.S., even through high school. Some ultimately have to make a committed choice between two sports in which they excel as they head off to college (100% of the USWNT World Cup Roster graduated from a 4-year college in the US, while only 43% of the USMNT attended — not all graduated — college).
Wambach chose soccer over basketball and often credits the latter with her heading ability. Take Bradley for example, our 2015 U.S. Male Player of the Year. He was the son of a university coach, but went on to the IMG Academy over the university route. The sole purpose of this academy is to develop young players into professional players. It’s a unique and limited opportunity for promising males in the US.
At this point, everyone involved in US Soccer agrees that the youth program is not cutting it. What no one can agree on is how to change it. There are signs of life with increasing participation from MLS clubs such as the evolution of the US Development Academy and the formation of the United Soccer League Division III. Until this system is truly standing on strong pillars, the US will only win a major international title by shear luck.
3. American Fans Need A Backstory
Ok, let’s forgive Wambach’s lack of PC in describing Americans as foreign. She was incorrect. Because honestly, as someone from the West coast, I consider anything in the middle pretty foreign. I think what Wambach (and Donovan too) tried to imply is that Americans like to support a story.The USWNT has been winning on the world stage since they formed. And we LOVE them for it. 23 million viewers tuned in to the Women’s World Cup final this summer to make it the most watched soccer game ever in the US.
One major component of the USWNT success is their relatability. After Mia Hamm became the face of the team playing Michael Jordan in a Gatorade commercial and Brandi Chastain made black sports bras a trend, Americans have been paying attention to soccer. Parents started signing their daughters (and their sons) up for Tot teams at the age of 18 months. Even indoor fields can be found in every major, and not so major, city.
As the big 4 (American football, basketball, baseball, and hockey) lose fan interest with their shady practices and even sketchier players, these women are the athlete role models we’ve been demanding in professional sports. These women retire so they can attend medical school.
They actively engage with their fans through social media. They sign the jerseys worn by our daughters, our sons and even our dads. We even root for Hope Solo, the most (the only?) controversial player on the USWNT team -- best goalkeeper in the world troubled by the unstable support system she grew up in — because she represents the American story we love, to not quit when you’re down.
So when Wambach says recruiting “foreign guys [is something she doesn’t believe in]” she’s reflecting that it’s a story she believes most Americans won’t get. And if you look at the popularity of Donald Trump this fall, she sadly seems to be more accepting of reality than the rest of us.
Most Americans can’t relate to the backstory of Aron Johannsson or even Clint Dempsey. However, Jordan Morris, a Stanford University standout scores a goal and suddenly everyone wants to know if he will be the next face of US Soccer. Americans want familiarity.
4. Jurgen Klinsmann Is Biased Against The U.S. System
As mentioned, the youth pipeline in the U.S. needs to be fixed. That said, there is some serious athletic talent that can and should be developed stateside.
Klinsmann’s disdain for American soccer emerged immediately when he was hired a couple of years ago. He essentially threw out the lineup in order to experiment with his own biased view on talent. You play in the MLS? See ya! Klinsmann took an obvious shot at both Dempsey and Bradley as they returned to MLS from UCL teams when he said he didn’t think American players had the confidence to play in Europe. Ouch.
Rather than bow to the appeal of orange slice wielding soccer moms (his view), JK has decided to draft a team of talented egos. I think that strategy only works in basketball.
As Donovan bluntly put it in 2014: "There's at least a few players that are on your World Cup roster that are going that don't care in the same way that I do. I grew up as a part of this whole system. I feel like it is a part of me and I think there's players in that locker room who if you go three and out in the World Cup they'll go back to their club teams and won't even blink twice, whereas if we go three and out I'll be devastated and I think that's a piece that's important." His full interview here.
Donovan’s backing of Wambach here is greater than a disgruntled player left off the roster. Picking players with speed, talent and a European pedigree will only get your team so far during 11 v. 11. Donovan should have been on the 2014 Brazil roster even if he rode the bench every 90 minutes. Because, like Wambach this summer, you need that cheerleader’s voice in the huddle.
Those young and talented egos need that voice to point out things the coach will never understand. Sometimes the team literally needs that player to score a 90’ goal against Algeria or 121’ goal against Brazil.
That passion only comes from players who are committed to the flag on their shirt because it’s what they’ve dreamed about since middle school. They’re the ones playing for the 23 million watching fans willing them to score. By dismissing this aspect of the US game, JK will never understand how to win with the stars and stripes.