The U.S. World Cup Team Is Notably Diverse, but the Pipeline Needs Help

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You may have never heard of him, but Desmond Armstrong was a pioneer. In 1990, he became the first Black player born in the United States to represent the country in a World Cup match.

Never mind that the United States, then returning to the World Cup after a four-decade hiatus, was knocked out by Czechoslovakia in a 5-1 loss. By starting as a defender for the US team on June day in Italy, Armstrong signaled that his homeland could produce elite non-white players.

Sadly, with few exceptions, his pioneering role did not receive much press attention that day. That also didn’t happen during the pre-tournament run, or when the U.S. team played Italy in a near-draw in the group stage a few days later. Another talented Black player, Jimmy Banks, also joined the United States team in 1990, making a substitution for his first act against the Czechs. The role of banks as rule-breakers is similarly overlooked.

Armstrong color is not surprising.

“It was normal for the media to ignore it back then,” Armstrong told me this week as we discussed the omissions. He is 58 years old now, still fit and healthy, and runs a youth soccer club in Nashville.

“It’s like Jimmy and I are on a team, but in addition to the team that’s made history since the U.S. hasn’t made it to the National Cup for 40 years, we’re also making history,” he said. “It’s just that what we’re doing is not being acknowledged by many.”

“We have been recognized as a footnote, if any.”

Armstrong and Banks, who passed away in 2019 after battling pancreatic cancer, deserve our recognition, respect and appreciation.

Thirty-two years ago, they helped pave the way for the current men’s national team of the United States, which will play the Netherlands in Qatar on Saturday after making it through the group stage of the tournament by maximum margin.

Team USA looks much different now, due to a number of factors. The rise of football as a mainstay in the professional sports scene. The allure of non-white stars like Armstrong and Banks and the sparsity of players following in the footsteps of successive national teams. Transition of part of the African-American population to sports-rich suburbs.

The current 26-man squad has more players of color than any team in US World Cup history. It includes several people with Latino heritage and nearly a dozen Black players.

In this group is Tyler Adams, the first African-American to be the only captain of a US men’s team in an entire World Cup. Aside from his tenacious play on the field, Adams recently stood out for his grace under pressure during a press conference in Qatar in which an Iranian reporter pressed him about racism in the US.

After politely apologizing for pronouncing “Iran” incorrectly, Adams noted that “everywhere you go there’s discrimination.”

“One thing that I have learned, especially from living abroad over the years and having to blend in with different cultures, is that in the United States we are continuing to improve every day. “

Armstrong took that answer with deep satisfaction.

“I’m definitely proud of this team,” he said. “And proud of my part in the change. But other than that, I’m happy for those people and the scope of rep.

He reminds me of the racist taunts he faced from European fans in the games leading up to the 1990 World Cup and the harsh insults from opponents. He talks about the loneliness he sometimes feels, and the constant pressure to prove he’s on par with white players.

“This year’s team,” he said, “isn’t just one guy who has to be everybody’s Black.”

There is much to celebrate now. And yet, as Armstrong and anyone else interested in American football and its long-term viability know, the current team also conceals a bitter truth.

Apart from the elite of the elite, a lot of things remain the same. “Everybody knows accessibility is an issue and football is largely seen as a sport for affluent white youth,” no less than the president of the United States Soccer Federation, Cindy Cone, at Aspen Institute’s Play Project Summit in May. “I won’t rest until every kid who wants to play our game has not only access to our game, but a chance to succeed.”

As with other sports looking to expand the demographics and talent pool of young players – tennis and baseball, for example – this is a matter of part economics and part of it. how difficult it is to break down the stereotypes inherent in people of all races about who can thrive in what sport.

In a country where racism and institutional segregation have made wealth a sometimes insurmountable obstacle for most Black and brown families, the cost is making football could not deliver on its true promise. The Aspen Institute recently found that the price of a typical teen football season hovers around $1,188 — more than families pay for baseball and basketball. Football, less reliant on travel teams, costs half as much.

It’s no surprise that young people’s football participation rates are stuck in a difficult cycle of bumps that keep the game from gaining traction. For children aged 6 to 12, outdoor soccer participation was at 10.4% in 2009, dropping to 7.4% in 2018, increasing the following year and falling to 6.2% in 2020, according to the Aspen Institute.

Ask Armstrong about this, and he will be uncompromising. He’s spent most of the past decade in Nashville, trying to get kids there to play a game that has become popular in the suburbs, and focusing as much as he can on directing young people with dark skin. Color comes to the game and raise them through the ranks. .

his hero The football club has 550 players and many teams, from recreational to elite level. He makes up for what he lacks in specialized facilities with his determination to wear heels, hopscotch around the city to find space on public courts, and often pay entrance fees and provide clothes for the players. Young players spread the economic range. Some are white, others are black and Latino. There are migrants from Africa, Asia, Mexico, South and Central America.

“A lot of the diversity on the US team is players who grew up with the advantage, coming from the suburbs,” he said, adding how he can be related because he knows soccer at the age of 11, after his family moved to Colombia’s suburban soccer center, Md.

He wondered, what if we added that? What if football became possible for the whole instead of in part? “It’s a huge country with people from every background imaginable, and football doesn’t take full advantage of that. That’s the missing piece of the puzzle,” he said.

Armstrong fears, unless that puzzle is solved, it will be difficult for U.S. men to go from regular World Cup participants to regular World Cup contenders.

“I’ve been hearing about how football is developing in America since I played in the World Cup,” he said. “I am sick of saying that we have made some progress. We need to go out and get this. Even though we’re still in this tournament, we’re not there yet. Not even close.”

Thirty-two years, seems like a long time?

In 1990, much of the media missed the opportunity to frame Armstrong’s place in history with the nuance he deserved – perhaps reflecting the way race and the issues surrounding it. it has been ignored and overshadowed for centuries in America.

However, I found this quote by Armstrong from a 323-word article written in 1990. “A lot of kids love football, but they don’t get exposed to it,” he told Roscoe Nance. by USA Today.

Thirty-two years. How much has really changed?


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