Thursday, December 29, 2011

Real American Heroes? Forging A National Team Identity

You know we had to go with this.

Preston Zimmerman opened a can of worms. Pandora's box. He let the cat out of the bag. Choose your overused cliche, but American soccer took a look at the elephant in the room yesterday.

The former U-20 National Team member set Twitter abuzz yesterday (and doubled his follower count) with comments about U.S. Men's National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann's squad selection so far. Zimmerman, who plays in Germany's Third Division for SV Darmstadt 98, was outspoken in the belief that Klinsmann is choosing German-American talent (and those with tenuous connections to the U.S.) over better "real American" talent from U.S. colleges and Major League Soccer.
Zimmerman: Controversial tweets.
(Photo mined from "The Shin Guardian")

While many American soccer fans uttered a collective "who?" when the name Zimmerman and his comments broke on a slow soccer news day, we've been following the 23-year old Washington native's journey in a series of articles and interviews done over at our friends, The Shin Guardian. There Zimmerman documents five years of difficulty in trying to land a club in Europe. A much less satisfying version of "The Jay DeMerit Story".

With that as context, Zimmerman chose yesterday to take to social media to let out his frustrations about the evolving make-up of the National Team and the lack of quality results in Klinsmann's early reign. Both of these discussion are nothing new among American soccer fans (particularly the latter one), but perhaps it took a higher-profile individual (even if that person is a former USYNTer and journeyman in Europe) to punch these topics (particularly the former one) out of a Big Soccer discussion board and onto the "front page".

The full timeline of his remarks is included below:

The United States of America was founded, built upon the backs of, and flourished because of the contributions of millions of immigrants that set foot on these shore since the first colonies of the 1600s. Whether early Anglo settlers looking for religious freedom to African slaves (even if not by choice) to other Europeans looking for economic opportunity and to escape political repression of tyrants to our latest immigration wave; people have sought out the United States as place for the "American Dream".

The same could be said of our soccer history. While the arc of American soccer history is long (just as long as baseball here) it does not have the same depth as some of our other sports. With the exception of St. Louis in the early 1900s our soccer history is shaped by the contributions of mostly-immigrant sides of Bethlehem Steel, the Fall River Marksmen, and countless other "company teams" that, at-times thrived and at-other-times, struggled to keep soccer alive in the U.S.

Gaetjens: Real American hero?
The United States National Team recruited foreigners with skeptical citizenship connections to their adopted homeland to play on. Our history's most celebrated hero, Joe Gaetjens was the son of a Haitian mother and a Belgian father. He was allowed to play for the U.S. in that fateful World Cup of 1950 because he expressed his intentions of becoming naturalized after the tournament. That would never happen. (Gaetjens disappeared in Haiti in the 1960s under dictator Papa Doc). Two other non-citizens would feature for the U.S. side in the "Miracle on Grass"; Joseph Maca, who was born in Belgium and Ed McIlvenny, a Scotsman.

The list of immigrant connections to U.S. soccer continues. The "Shot Heard Round the World" taken by Paul Caligiuri in 1989 comes from an American of Italian parents. Thomas Dooley, born in Germany and took U.S. citizenship in 1992 to become a member of the 1994 World Cup team and captain of the 1998 squad in France. Carlos Bocanegra and (dare-we-say) Jonathan Bornstein both have a parent of Mexican decent while Benny Feilhaber (called into the January camp) was born in Brazil.

We could go on.

What Klinsmann is doing is nothing new to American soccer and the National Team. From the early days of soccer immigrants have combined with natural-born Americans to forge our soccer-ing identity. It hasn't led to most attractive of results and certainly not a clear "style" like "Total Football" or "Joga Bonito", but in that chaos is what makes it uniquely American.

A struggle to accept diversity and integrate it into an American fabric.

So what is a "real American" or a "fake American"? Sarah Palin tried to define that during the 2008 Presidential election and now Zimmerman has brought that discussion to U.S. soccer.

On the face, as a National Team, we should never accept anyone that isn't willing to give everything to the American cause. That goes for any player natural-born or otherwise. But as an increasingly diverse nation and one with a massive global reach through history (thus so many children of American GIs now eligible for the U.S.) we must accept that our team will reflect the confusion, chaos and struggles that are a reflection of our national debate over what is and isn't "American".

Klinsmann has a diverse vision for the USMNT.
The discussion is good, but the end result must be that we, as National Team fans, should want the best eleven players on their field to compete. These players will come from California, Texas, New York, Mexico, Germany, and countless other countries around the globe. If those are culled from American universities or MLS or wherever we must field our strongest possible side. If the domestic game is being overlooked, as Zimmermann alleges, then Klinsmann's and his staff must have their reasons. We want to see the domestic game as strong as possible, but also acknowledge that we might (or probably) not be there yet.

Not because the United States Soccer Federation becomes a mercenary group snagging people in some sort of A-Team exercise, but seeking committed individuals to participate in the National side.

Some of these players will have less of a connection to the U.S., perhaps even speaking little English, but if the commitment to the idea of American soccer is clear then who are we to question that?

Klinsmann said it himself in an interview with Sporting News' Brian Straus:

“It’s a different part of American culture. It’s the global picture that America represents,” Klinsmann told Sporting News before a match in Paris. “Those are kids who came through military families or for whatever reasons, working reasons of their parents, then they grow up with a different educational system, which gives them in soccer terms an edge ahead of American kids growing up in the U.S.”
“But those kids (Fabian Johnson, Timothy Chandler, etc), they have a very special connection to the U.S. no matter where they’re born," the coach said. "The opportunity to represent the U.S. on the soccer field is another big emotional piece of their connection to their country. Now you live in this dual-citizenship world that is normal. It’s globalization. It’s just the way it is. If you’re Mexican-American or you’re coming from the Caribbean, South America or Europe, everyone has a special connection to the United States. That shows you the path of the U.S. Not only that it’s a country of immigrants into the U.S., but it’s also an export country. It goes both ways.
This new era for American soccer is confronting our identity issues head on. Klinsmann, when named National Team Coach earlier this year, said a hallmark of his reign would include scouring Mexico and Europe for players overlooked during the Bob Bradley-era (although Bradley did give Chandler, Gomez, Torres, their first caps). Ironically, this has been at the expense of the outstanding Hercules Gomez. Some people will be left on the outside looking in. That is up to the coach and for us Monday morning quarterbacks ("Post-International-Friendly-Couch-Captains" doesn't have the same ring to it) to debate.

Zimmerman has every right to asks these questions. The results for Klinsmann have, thus far, been disappointing, but the connection between results and recruitment is thin. We need more time to see how the Klinsmann Experiment (Grant Wahl... a new book?) will play out.

(Related note: All 20 players called into the January camp are U.S.-born).

We as an American soccer community has every right to debate them as well. As we move forward as fans of our evolving National Team these issues will continue to confront us. We must accept that there are no easy answers to this issues; as a National Team or a nation.

But our National Team will reflect our national identity of a conglomeration of races, ethnicities, religions, and increased globalization. As long as each player can show a love for country, commitment to the cause, and contribute to the team we must accept them as "real Americans" just as we have for millions of others for hundreds of years in this nation

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  1. Great read...Zimmerman is a douche. I have no problem with a US Nat teamer not being able to speak English, provided that he's proud to wear the red, white and blue.

  2. This a loaded topic and a multi-faceted one. Bravo to you Dan for taking it on.

    First, I wanted to mention that I think it's going to be hard-pressed for Klinsmann to cap as many Latino players that Bob Bradley did (which I think was "18.")

    On topic, if you remove Zimmerman's poorly choosen wording or "real American" and make this a more technical discussion about "the qualifications and business of the national team" then it is not a simple topic obviously.

    Regardless of race, creed, color, living situation, parental situation, whatever....should looking at players outside the US who grew up in another team's national system be as easily assimilated into the US program.

    The answer to that is a tangent. The US through lack of funds and perhaps some poor management -due to the needs of sponsors what have you--has not developed players at the quality level necessary to sustain the *growth* of US Soccer's positive global trendline.

    Is the US a top 30 team right now? That's a big "if." The challenge is the talent that is exclusively in the pipeline domestically wasn't-or-isn't going to make the US into a top 20 team.

    Secondly, for those that have the talent thrive, some (Geoff Cameron) are perhaps stymied by lacking a work permit, agent ties or what-have-you to playing in better club destinations...and playing in a domestic league where the competition does not make it a top 8 league.

    And that's the conundrum. First, no knock on MLS--it's growing and the talent is can only do that at a certain rate. I would be highly scared if I were the SPL for example as the MLS player-talent ratio is getting better everyday.

    So now it comes down to the player involved. The way that each non-born American player answers answers the question of whether the he is joining the US ranks out of love for America, just playing for a national team or a business reason will probably impact your opinion some.

    There are no real Americans or fake Americans--I don't think this point should be belabored as it is at best subjective and worst moot by statement. If most of the motivation of playing for America is genuine by non-born Americans and they respect the flag then there is no issue.

    That said for a series of players who have grown up in the US system and are limited to the US league right now because of work permit issues then I'm sure there will be frustration at being at the expense of a player who's never worn the uniform.

    For my two cents, I think this is where Preston was coming from. he is a fiery and passionate kid and that he speaks his mind I personally value since most players are PC and get chided if they aren't. I detest that.

    Thought it would be fun to end this comment with the tidbit that Omar Gonzalez started following Preston Zimmerman on Twitter.

  3. My biggest problem with the "zimmerman tweets" is the tweet he released the next day.

    "I love my country & am passionate about it, w/ that comes duty to speak my mind & stand up for what I believe in"

    What exactly does he mean with the "stand up for what I believe in" jazz?

    He is young to be sure, but does he really believe that these Kids from Germany (that he doesn't seem to know personally at all) don't want to play for the US?

    The Ethos of the United States is pursuing your dream (or at least it once was). Perhaps the dream of Timothy Chandler is to play in the world cup. The USA is giving him the ability to live his dream. Perhaps even though he speaks only german he tears up when he hears the anthem. Perhaps it really has some deep meaning to him or to Danny Williams? Who are we to know?

    If we step away from the highly xenophobic comments by him the real issue here is that he insinuates that college soccer playing us kids are getting passed up by the national team, which is odd given that Zimmerman probably spends exactly 0 hours scouting the college ranks to see if these kids playing a few months out of the year are better than kids getting paid and playing in Germany/Elsewhere.

    It seems an odd statement to make.

    The whole language thing as a whole is a completely crazy "chance" issue. If we look at a player like Darlington Nagbe (who is trying to immigrate to the USA) He was born in Liberia. Liberia's (oddly enough for a west coast African nation) first language is English. If he immigrates and gets better and plays for the USA, he is merely lucky that he didn't grow up a few miles to the north in Guinea where the national language is French.

    BTW: If you have read Capello's completely mind numbing quotes on nationality and the German team, now is the time to find them. Somehow Capello misses the fact that a few of the "so-called" turkish players for Germany were actually born in Germany.

  4. I actually read PZ's comments a little differently. I don't think that he is against scouring the world for players to reperesent the US. My interpretation was that he was against the players who (for lack of a better term) are "settling" for the U.S. In that point, I agree with him. However, that's where the topic gets very subjective because who decides something like that?

    Example: In my heart, I believe that Jermaine Jones plays for the US because Germany didn't want him. I appreciate his (meager) contributions to our national team pool thus far but I don't take as much pride in watching him donn our kit because I feel like we were a consolation prize. However, the other side of that is, what the hell do I know? I've never met him. He has never said anything derogatory about the USA or publicly said that he only chose us because he was unwelcome in Germany's squad (that I'm aware of).

    The bottom line is that with the every-growing globilization, and in turn the erosion of singular citizenship, our hope for our Yanks should be the hope we have for any team we support... a squad of loyal, hard-working, team-oriented men who inspire us and make us proud every time they take the pitch.


"Anyone who tells me soccer is boring, I'm going to punch them in the face."
- Former Dallas Burn (aka FC Dallas) coach Dave Dir

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