Midfield General

How the Pivot to Asia Could Ruin American Soccer

German-Americans raised on U.S. bases in soccer’s Fatherland have carried the team to the Round of 16. Can our Asian allies really produce the soccer stars of tomorrow?

By escaping from the Group of Death at the World Cup, the United States finally gave the lie to the notion that Americans were bad at soccer. Except Americans were never bad at soccer. The good soccer players just didn't know they were Americans.

You can thank James Madison and the gang from 1787. If not for their foresight, the United States wouldn't have made it to the Round of 16 some 227 years later. That's because the framers in Philadelphia left one item sufficiently vague when it came to determining eligibility for Brazil: whether "natural born Citizen" applied not only to those born within the confines of the 50 contiguous states, but also to those born to Americans overseas.

Their punt is how John McCain, for example, could run for president despite being born in the Panama Canal Zone. It's also why Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, and John Brooks are all eligible to make Belgians spit out their moules frites: all three were born to American servicemen stationed on an overseas military base.

As you've heard by now, it's Deutschland über alles except not über Amerikaner. All told, five of the 23 members of America's World Cup team are German-Americans. They speak German to each other during practices. They marry Miss Germany. They're the core of the American squad. You can thank Citizenship and Immigration Services officer Jürgen Klinsmann, who sings the national anthem of the United States before each match.

And yeah, star midfielder Jones has a pretty thick accent. But no matter, right? We've always been a nation of immigrants. Go USA!

But exactly where will the USA go... from here? Can we still rely on a steady supply of players birthed in soccer's great Fatherland? Nein. When Jones was born in 1981, almost a quarter million (!) American troops were stationed in Germany. As of a few months ago, merely 40,000 called Deutschland home.

So where might our overseas talent pipeline be coming from, come 2034? We know where: Go east, young man.

For years now, the Obama administration has been trumpeting a pivot to Asia -- and we're definitely positively totally for sure gonna do that, just as soon as we can pivot away from Ukraine and Syria and Iraq and Nigeria and Sudan. (But it's gonna happen, pinky swear.)

So what will the "pivot to Asia" mean for our soccer team a generation from now, after so many of our resources have been devoted to Indonesia, the Phillippines, and Japan? Can we possibly remain such a mighty footballing force with which to be reckoned? Or will it be goodbye to the American Outlaws... and Hello Kitty?

Let's check the tale of the tape on four crucial metrics:

Fire power. With a rocket against Ghana last week, the joint top scorer in the history of the World Cup is a German, Miroslav Klose (tied with Brazil's Ronaldo). His tally is 15 goals. That's one more goal than the entire Japanese team has scored in the history of the World Cup. Uh-oh.

Air power. Let's be honest -- with the second-smallest squad in Brazil, Japan is not exactly winning a ton of headers in the box. Korea, on the other hand, is ranked seventh for height. (What did we put in the water over there?) I guess we know where our centerbacks and strikers are going to come from, at least until our allies in the East start producing as much human growth hormone as China.

Soft power. There's something deeply wrong here. The German influence on American soccer has recently extended to... Filipino soccer. That's right -- Thomas Dooley, the German-American former captain of the United States, is now coaching the national team of the Philippines. Guys, it's supposed to go the other way around!

Staying power. As Germany charges on to the quarterfinals -- with the tallest team in the tournament, sniff -- it's an inauspicious fact that no Asian team remains. That's counting Australia. And the four teams that made it to the tournament were culled from a pool of 47. Compare that to the six out of 10 that came from South America.

Is it too late to call for a "pivot to Argentina"?

Patrik Stollarz / AFP / Getty Images

Midfield General

Argentina's Soccer Is More Coherent Than Its Politics

Want to find out what an Argentine politician stands for? Ask him about soccer.

Argentina's history in soccer is every bit as turbulent, if less bloody, than its history in politics. In soccer, three schools of thought have dominated the past 40 years. In politics, two have. But while Argentina's soccer philosophies are readily identifiable and distinguishable, its political philosophies are slippery and ever changing.

Ask any serious Argentine fan what kind of soccer the national team should play, and you're likely to hear one of three answers: Menottism, Bilardism, or Bielsism. Each represents a former coach, and each comes with a mixture of political and cultural baggage as well as implications for soccer tactics.

César Luis Menotti coached Argentina to its first World Cup victory in 1978, before the advent of Diego Maradona. His was an Aristotelian style that emphasized the realization of players' maximum creative potential, both to influence results on the field and society off it. He called soccer "a joyous fiesta in which human beings must participate, because it expresses their feelings and delivers the happiness of being alive." He wanted to win, he said, "because my team played better, not because I stopped the other team from playing." For Menotti, soccer was a force for good and could only be played in a positive way.

Not so the soccer of Carlos Bilardo. The coach of Argentina's winning side in 1986, he advocated a style that, in dichotomy with Menotti's, could only be called conservative. He wanted results at all costs, even if that meant stifling his opponents and winning ugly. When Diego Maradona managed the national team in South Africa four years ago, he declared his team would be Javier Mascherano -- a defensive destroyer in midfield -- and ten more. "Bilardism has taken hold of me," Maradona said, and indeed Bilardo himself was among the mercurial genius's advisers during his unsuccessful campaign.

More recent is the school of Marcelo Bielsa, who took Argentina to the final of the Copa América and the gold medal in the 2004 Olympics. Known as "El Loco," Bielsa obsessively pored over diagrams and videos, refining his strategies before putting players through technical exercises whose objectives were not always obvious. He found inspiration through research and hard work, searching for mismatches and holes in the enemy's defenses, rather than wispy ideas. Yet his uncompromising intellectual approach came to be seen as almost mystical, inspiring legions of adherents.

Each of these three philosophies bears the name of its inventor, but each also represents a clearly defined set of tenets. Indeed, there is often more red meat in a discussion of Menottism versus Bilardism than a political debate. The reason is simple: The leading political philosophies in Argentina also bear the names of their inventors, but little else.

What, for example, is Peronism? Peronist politicians, from the original Juan Domingo Perón through Carlos Saúl Menem, Nestor Kirchner, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, have espoused wildly different policies. Perón was a devoted protectionist; Menem joined the World Trade Organization. Menem privatized industries; Fernández de Kirchner still struggles to control them.

Even Kirchnerism, the label given to the era of the husband-and-wife presidents, seems to have few goals beyond the preservation of power for their faction. They raise and lower prices, subsidies, and exchange rates as it suits them, always trying to spread around enough handouts to maintain their electoral majorities. (In some ways, they are not so different from the Republicans and Democrats in Washington.)

The Kirchnerists will nominate a new candidate, probably Gov. Daniel Scioli of the province of Buenos Aires, for president in the election next year. Almost certainly, his policies will be quite different from those of Fernández de Kirchner, who faces a two-term limit. But he will still be the candidate of Kirchnerism, with the full force of their machine behind him.

His lack of a clear party platform will be a liability for the Argentine people, however. There will be no guarantee of the ideals he stands for, and thus no accountability if he strays from them. Hopefully, a clever panelist in the presidential debates will ask Scioli if he's a Menottist, Bilardist, or Bielsist. Then, at least, voters will have some idea of what he stands for.

AFP / Getty Images