By Dee Schmidt
One of the things you need to know about me is that while I’m counter-cultural and an American through and through (you can be both, my brothers and sisters), my paternal ancestry is seriously Teutonic. Dig: My dad was Austrian and because the heyday of Austrian football came in the 1930s — bet you didn’t know Das Team finished 4th at the 1934 World Cup, and runners-up at the ’36 Olympics — his loyalties and interest (and mine, by extension) naturally shift to the Germans, who, even critics will allow, are totally outta sight when trophies are at stake. The finest tournament performers in the history of world football, I reckon.
The other thing you need to know about me, if you don’t already, is that my soccer experience was interrupted in 1973 by the 32 years I spent in a weed- and ice-induced state of suspended animation (see details here: The Story of Dee).
So it’s with great interest that I follow both the American and German teams at the World Cup now underway in South Africa — not just because I have national rooting interests, but because the make-up of these teams today is nothing as I or any other self-respecting football-freak would have expected them to be in the early 1970s.
I watched the Germans roast and pluck the Australians on Sunday, 4-0, and the result wasn’t nearly so mind-blowing as the German roster: Two Polish-born goal scorers (Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski), backed by a withdrawn striker of clear Turkish origin (Mesut Özil) and a defensive midfielder named Sami Khedira, who was born in Stuttgart to a father from Tunisia. The two strikers who came on? Why, naturally it was a fellow named Mario Gomez (father: a Spaniard) and Cacau, who did what Brazilo-Germans are supposed to do: score on his first-ever World Cup touch.
In my day, Die Mannschaft was the whitest, most purely German thing in the country. I’m not about to use the word “Aryan” to describe it, but the national team was a clear reflection of a very white, quite homogenous country. This has changed, and viva la difference, to quote a famous Alsatian (!).
Team USA also features a diverse juxtaposition of flavors, colors and textures. But I have to say, 36 years ago it was an accepted fact that, eventually, the country’s Latin flavor would come to dominate the game here in America. I’m from San Diego (Encinitas, to be exact; my colleague and blood brother Hal Phillips likes to call me “Encinitas Man”, after some movie about a once-frozen cave man) and we could see it happening even in the early 1970s.
So, I’ve gotta ask, what happened?
I look at this team, and though I marvel at its overall skill and athleticism (I really do; the progress we’ve made as a soccer nation makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck), I’m frankly perplexed by how few Latin players are in the team and how Northern European the American style of play remains.
In my day, American soccer was very direct, very straight-ahead, very aerial. And this could be credibly explained by the fact that most of the foreigners coaching American kids back then were British or German. But it would appear that not much has changed. The American style remains Northern European. One look at either of the Mexico-USA World Cup qualifiers shows how much the Mexicans want to hold the ball, and how quickly the Americans want to get rid of it, up the field, in the air.
More pointedly, where are the Mexican-Americans? If the bleats of politicians in Arizona are to be given any credence, should the U.S. roster not be peppered with Latino kids who grew up playing in California, Arizona and Texas?
Carlos Bocanegra from Upland, California, just north of L.A.? Check.
Herculez Gomez? No doubt.
Jose Francisco Torres? Yeah, I think so.
Ricardo Clark? Nope. His dad’s from Trinidad.
Benny Feilhaber? Another Brazilo-German.
Jozy Altidore? Of Haitian descent.
Clint Dempsey? He’s from Nagadoches, Texas, but he ain’t Latin and neither is his style of play.
I’m not saying the USMT isn’t a melting pot. It is.
And I’m not saying that there should be some sort of Latin quota.
It merely strikes me as odd that with so many Mexican-Americans in America, our national team program has not tapped this rich vein of talent more markedly. We used to say that when it does, American soccer will develop a unique hybrid style that is not just its very own, but very difficult to beat. But if it hasn’t happened by now, one wonders when and whether it will.