Americans have tuned into this year's World Cup in record numbers, cheering one of the only truly underdog teams the U.S. fields in any international sporting competition. It seems the Beautiful Game has finally turned a corner stateside.
Yet with this shift in the sport's perception, many Americans are still left wondering why the team itself doesn't necessarily reflect the shifts in our constantly evolving population. Soccer has long dominated the Hispanic fanbase, garnering higher ratings and attracting more eyeballs among Latinos than the NFL. It begs the question, then: Where are the Latino-American soccer stars?
Currently, the 23-man roster features three Latinos: Alejandro Bedoya, Omar Gonzalez and Nick Rimando. That's actually a decline from 2010, when there were four Latino players, and a return to 2006 levels. As of 2012, Latinos constitute at least 17 percent of the nation's population -- a number likely much higher when one accounts for undocumented immigrants. Despite soccer's immense popularity among Hispanics, a number of economic and institutional barriers are clogging the pipeline of talent from the youth leagues to the professional level. In that way, the plight of the Latino soccer player can be seen as emblematic of the struggles American soccer faces as a whole.
It's largely accepted that one of the major issues preventing the advancement of U.S. soccer is domestic players' lack of exposure on the international level. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has stated that his biggest hope for his team in Brazil is to take advantage of that global stage, to entice foreign scouts who can bring players to teams on which they'd face the highest competition in the world.
By the same token, many young Latino-American players face significant challenges in trying to break into club soccer, where the elite talent resides. Club soccer is largely suburban and cost-prohibitive; SBNation estimates that between equipment, uniforms, fees and travel, club players are on the hook for upward of $300 a game.
Things don't get much better at the high school and college levels. As Brandon Valeriano notes in the Washington Post, the Latino education gap can be seen as much in secondary and university soccer participation as in any other aspect. You can draw many parallels between the decline of black baseball players and the relative dearth of Latino soccer talent. Baseball and soccer aren't big-money college sports with heavy scholarship funding, and access to these levels remains the key issue in addressing the nation's inequality in athletic and economic opportunities. "The lack of development of Latino players is a symptom of the deeper problems in American society," Valeriano writes.
That said, some take issue with the characterization of Latino-Americans' soccer problem as purely economic. In a two-part series, "Hispanic identity and U.S. soccer," Fox Sports' Elliott Turner asks us not to allow "the myth of the Poor Mexican" to overshadow the role direct prejudice plays in barring Latinos from pay-to-play. He notes the culture clash that arises, especially when it comes to language and the tension between accommodating and assimilating immigrants.
Institutional bilingualism is an obvious solution here, and an easy one at that: There are more than 37 million Spanish-speakers in the U.S., a 233 percent increase from 1980, and a number that will only continue to grow. Addressing the more deeply embedded factors in lower Latino soccer participation is much more complicated, but hopefully the blossoming of the World Cup among American audiences this year will provide the motivation to help us yield a team of players with the most talent -- not the most opportunity.
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