Why Does the U.S. World Cup Team Have So Few Latino Players?

No sport is more synonymous with Latinos than soccer (duh), and surely no group exhibits more love for the beautiful game than our Spanish-speaking brethren—as evidenced by the ever-reliable congregation of Hispanics on soccer fields all around town on any given weekend.

But despite soccer’s massive appeal to Latinos, who constitute at least 17 percent of the total U.S. population, this group is greatly under-represented at the competitive level. Just look at the U.S. Men’s National Team—there are just three Hispanic players. The 2011 U.S. Women’s National Team similarly had just two Latino players. And Major League Soccer? Despite efforts to recruit Latino futballers, there are relatively few U.S.-born Latinos in the organization (though foreign-born Latinos are higher in number).

What gives?

In short: the elitism of the U.S. soccer industry, as researcher Brandon Valeriano points out.

Club is King

In other countries, soccer is very much the everyman sport and talent is tapped into wherever it may be—from the poor to the rich. It’s not uncommon for players to be preened for top play starting in their early teens, and provided with institutional support from that point on. Of course this phenomenon also occurs in the American basketball and football industries.  

But Valeriano discusses the different course soccer takes in the U.S. Here, college talent gets picked up through the club system in high school and middle school, and the barrier that clubs represent to Latinos means their enthusiasm in youth soccer seldom lasts past the teen level. For club soccer, you see, is ever-so pricey (typically requiring participants to pay for all their own equipment, traveling expenses and club fees), not to mention mighty time-consuming. Plus, it retains a sort-of (white) country club feel—all of which acts as a barrier to Latino participation.

Likewise, participation in high school and college teams requires the freedom to play sports after school—untenable for many Latinos who must begin earning an income for themselves and their families as soon as possible. 

Fallout from U.S. Soccer Pipeline

The result of our constricted pipeline? Besides the obvious Latino disenfranchisement, U.S. soccer simply isn’t as good as it could be. It misses out on crucial and large pools of talent—all the more if we include untapped black and Asian communities. And more than simple numbers, diversity has been found to contribute to the effectiveness of international teams, since different backgrounds can produce a synergistic combination of playing styles.

Moreover, as soccer accrues more (sometimes fanatical) popularity around the world, the game continues to be only of middling interest in the U.S., generally. The soccer industry here no doubt hopes the sport will finally break through, but without support from ethnic populations, this may never really occur. In fact, Latinos in the United States tend to support other national teams, often reflecting their ancestral country. Such is their malaise toward the U.S. system.

Larger Problems

Of course, as Valeriano points out, ultimately the elite pipeline of soccer talent that disenfranchises Latinos is reflective of larger inequity in our education and political systems. Wouldn’t it be great if in the near future, one of the best democracies on Earth revamped its institutions to become one of the stalwart nations of the great everyman sport? And maybe along the way, we could help combat machismo and increase the pathetic number of Hispanic girls who participate in soccer. Win win, right?

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