Sunday night, the United States Men’s National Team fell in the Gold Cup Final to Mexico, which served as a disappointing dessert course to the unbelievable feast provided by the Women’s World Cup victory earlier in the day. The women deserve to be celebrated, as they continued their unbelievable dominance on the international stage. However, we’re going to touch on the Men’s Team, which continues to underperform on the world stage.
I’m not even going to try to address the USMNT’s most pressing issues like the pay-to-play youth system or lack of high-level coaching in the sport (though one could argue that the premise of this article would also involve some of the best coaches from the NFL, NCAA, NBA, etc. becoming soccer coaches instead of their respective sports). However, let’s take a look at some athletes from America’s most popular sports and see how they could benefit the men’s team if they’d been pushed toward soccer instead of the sport they currently star in.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume that the athlete would have prioritized soccer early on, and followed training regimens typical to soccer, rather than the sport they play now. What does this mean? If we’re talking about an NFL player, they probably wouldn’t have done as much lifting and put on nearly as much muscle as they did for football. Soccer players are generally more slender, with frames designed for endurance rather than strength.
Take someone like Jadeveon Clowney. In our timeline, Clowney is 6’-5” and 260ish pounds. In the hypothetical timeline where he focuses on soccer instead of football, he’s probably not as muscular in the upper body, and probably plays somewhere around 210-220 pounds, if not lighter. We can still assume he would be a strong and athletic player relative to soccer, but he’s not going to be the absurdly physical, but not-quick-enough athlete would be at 260 lbs.
We’re also only going to be using athletes playing right now and in their 2019 form to simulate what the USMNT team could look like *right now*. Obviously, it would be great to have someone like peak Deion Sanders running up and down the sidelines as a wing or fullback, or peak Michael Jordan up top as a striker, but they’re both in their 50s now and could obviously not keep up on a soccer pitch in 2019. Patrick Peterson and his 4.31 second 40 yard dash time would be an obvious candidate, but he’s almost 30 years old and probably couldn’t post that time anymore (However, he’s still a really high-level athlete, and his skill and versatility keep him in contention for consideration anyway).
For the purpose of this, we’re going to be building our team around the Dutch 4-3-3 formation which has become one of the most common offensive systems in the world.
At 6’-7” with a 7’-3” wingspan, Kawhi Leonard has cemented himself as one of the most tenacious defenders in the NBA, and would be an absolute mountain of a goalkeeper between the pipes. For reference, Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois, considered to be one of the best keepers in the world, stands 6’-6” and 207 pounds. Keepers don’t generally have their wingspan measured, but it’s safe to assume his is probably nearing seven feet. Kawhi is probably an equal, if not superior athlete to Courtois, so it’s safe to assume that combing his instincts, size, and athleticism on the pitch in front goal could make for a generational talent at goalkeeper.
In order for left and right backs individually mark (defend) wings and wide midfielders, typically the fastest players on the pitch, they generally need to have a good nose for intercepting passes, be able to defend on-ball, and have plenty of speed to burn. Sound like a position in another sport? Obviously I’m referring to defensive backs in the NFL. The skill set and athletic requirements for both positions are virtually identical, so it would be a natural transition for a lot of NFL defensive backs.
Right now, the Bears’ Kyle Fuller is probably the best man coverage corner in the league, and he has plenty of speed and agility to cover virtually any receiver on the outside, and led the NFL in interceptions in 2018. When it comes to covering their man down the field, nobody is better than Kyle Fuller. His footwork is elite, and virtually mirrors the routes of his coverage assignments, perfect for marking the quick and creative wings that have flooded world soccer.
Just a young buck headed into his sophomore season in 2019, Derwin James made a huge impact in his rookie season, and cemented as one of the best and most versatile safeties in the NFL. He’s got plenty of speed to burn, was second among safeties in passes defended in 2018, and proved to be an effective edge rusher, recording 3.5 sacks on the season. Speed and one-on-one coverage are obviously king for left and right backs, but having the versatility to rotate inside to a center back position in a tight spot is extremely useful, and James’ versatility to play outside against the speed demons or in the middle among the rest of the chaos would be key.
In the back of a 4-3-3, center backs primarily need to be strong in order to contend with the more physical strikers, the athleticism to defend heading opportunities, and good instincts for picking off through passes. Sounds like a great job for an athletic linebacker.
Undoubtedly one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL, Mack is an easy choice for center back. He’s got great instincts, and is plenty strong enough, even at his reduced soccer weight, to contend with even the strongest strikers. However, he also posted the best 40-yard dash, broad jump, vertical jump, and shuttle among linebackers at the NFL Combine, so he’s more than athletic enough to defend crosses and keep pace with speedy strikers on through balls. Who knows? He’s probably also got a cannon leg to put home some shots from outside the box.
Another important trait of any good center back is an ability to command the defense and call out shifts and adjustments during the game. What better candidate for that role than the best middle linebacker in the NFL, Luke Kuechly? He has more tackles (948), interceptions (17) and takeaways (25) than any other linebacker since entering the NFL as a 2012 first-round pick, so he’s certainly got the instincts to defend nearly any situation. He was also a top-3 performer in EVERY SINGLE COMPETITION at the NFL Combine except bench press, which he was the sixth. Kuechly’s the total package, and a perfect compliment alongside Khalil Mack.
Speed and shooting ability are nice additions to the midfield, but quickness, passing vision and accuracy, dribbling skill are the most important attributes. If that doesn’t scream point guard to you, I don’t know what will. Some people here might suggest a quarterback due to the intangibles required for the position, but their arm talent is really difficult to translate to soccer since they, you know, don’t use their hands.
As the best point guard of the last decade Chris Paul has clearly demonstrated a knack for passing vision and dribbling ability, and is a good defender to boot. Lots of great soccer teams are led by older players in the midfield or at the back, and at 34 years old Chris Paul is still quick enough to hang in the midfield provide veteran leadership for the team.
De’ Aaron Fox
One of the most exciting young point guards in the NBA, De’Aaron Fox is electric in transition, and a really high level defender and distributor. His court vision and shooting touch are still developing, but his speed and quickness make for a great foundation to pair alongside Chris Paul’s veteran leadership.
Center Attacking Midfielder
This player is technically part of the midfield, but takes a greater role in setting up and scoring goals than the central midfielders, with a smaller emphasis placed on defending. The CAM needs to be an excellent dribbler and passer, and needs to be a clinical finisher in front of the net, as they’ll be relied on to provide some scoring punch. Ability to deliver quality free kicks is a nice bonus here as well. Basically, the CAM is going to be your most technically proficient player on offense.
For the central attacking midfielder, it makes sense to go with the most skilled combo guard in the NBA, and arguably one of the best ever. Curry is one of the best distributors and ball handlers in the NBA, but what makes him special is his ability to take over a game with his own scoring. He’s not the most athletic player in the league, but he’s plenty quick enough to work in space, and it’s a fair bet that if he focused on soccer, Curry’s ball handling and three point shooting would easily convert to dribbling and shooting, especially in free kicks.
Left and right wings are primary catalysts of the offense on the outside, delivering cross into the box, and making their own runs into the box to create scoring opportunities. Skill-wise, wings need to be excellent long passers and dribblers with an ability to finish in front of the net. However, the trademark trait of wings is generally speed, as they’ll be counted on to chase down long through-passes from the mid and backs, as well as making their own dribbling runs up the sideline.
If you need any hint as to why the Men’s team has struggled for so long, Pulisic being the only real USMNT member to make our hypothetical will tell you all you need to know. At just 20 years old, Pulisic might already be the most talented USMNT player ever, and likely will be considered such in the near future. He’s lightning quick with a tight dribble, and a great feel for the game. He’ll be an excellent fit in the offense with Chris Paul and Stephen Curry feeding him through-balls. He’ll be a star for at least the next decade for the U.S., so let’s hope his generational talent doesn’t go to waste.
O’Dell Beckham Jr.
Beckham makes sense to include for consideration just based on his athleticism and overall skill level (which we’re assuming would be converted into soccer skill), but O’Dell is a shoe-in when you consider that he was actually a USMNT prospect up until his early teens when he decided to focus on football. By his own account, he would have turned into a Cristiano Ronaldo-type player (ultra-skilled speedster), and I would agree with that assessment based on his athleticism and skill level. In fact, I would probably be more excited about Beckham being on this team than Pulisic.
There are a few different directions we could go with this. We could go with a big, strong striker that specializes in play in front of the last line of defenders as target man that gets the ball in front of the last line of defenders to distribute to streaking wings, or head home crosses from outside. We could go with a goal poacher that doesn’t necessarily create a lot on their own, but is an expert at being at the right place at the right time to receive a key pass or clean up deflections. Finally, we could opt for smaller, quicker, and more skilled striker that won’t necessarily be a threat in the air, but is plenty capable of creating plenty of goals on their own.
My personal preference is a quicker player that can create goals on their own, as well as off through-balls from the wings and midfielders.
The Giants’ star running back is an unbelievable athlete, with speed, power, and skill to be a home run threat every time he touches the ball. That should translate nicely to soccer. He’ll be able to drop some upper body weight for soccer, which would only accentuate his quickness and agility, so he’ll be more than capable of creating his own goals. However, he posted a 41” vertical leap at the NFL Combine, so he should be plenty capable of still being a threat in the air.
In the end, literally none of this will happen, but it’s still fun to wonder what might happen if or when the U.S. ever adopts soccer is one of its major sports. Did I miss anyone? What changes would you make to the team?