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In Sports Commentary

Goalkeeper Tim Howard is one of five African-Americans on the U.S. men's national team. (PHOTO: Photo Works / )

Development diversity may be the only way to make U.S. a World Cup contender

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The World Cup begins this week,one of the greatest sports events in the world and again the United States is going to be there, one of the top 32 teams in the world.

This is the first year that I've truly been engaged with the World Cup, having only recently become a convert to the game worshipped by millions in every corner of the globe.

I'm glad the U.S. is in the tournament, but the prospects for advancing to the round of 16 are dim, as we are in a group with Germany (ranked No. 2 in the world) Portugal (4) and Ghana (37). The U.S. team is ranked 13th.

World Soccer Talk, a very respected magazine, fed all the team data into a computer and came up with odds. Germany has a 92 percent chance of advancing to the round of 16, Portugal, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, the best player in the world, has a 64 percent chance and the United States had a 35 percent chance.

Ghana has almost no chance, but the team has been a thorn in the side of the United States several times over the years.

Last Saturday I went to my grandson Charlie's soccer game. He's 8 years old. It was at Uihlein Field on Good Hope Road. There were 21 soccer fields. Every single field was filled with kids playing soccer. They were filled all day long.

The Milwaukee Kickers has 550 teams with over 7,000 kids between the ages of 5 and 13. The Kickers have been going since 1968. I coached my daughters Emily and Alli and their teammates starting in 1980.

Kids have been playing organized soccer in this area for four and a half decades. Multiply that by 50 states and there are a lot of kids -- I mean a LOT of kids -- who have played soccer.

And still, this country, which leads the world in baseball, basketball and football is still in the second echelon of soccer in the world.

The answer to why we are not among the elite used to be that soccer was ingrained in other countries. It was part of the culture and was a new and strange game in this country. Those days are pretty much past as soccer is played at all levels in this country now and it's no longer a game where nobody knows the rules or doesn't have anyone to root for.

It's not a question of numbers anymore. We have lots and lots of kids playing soccer.

This may be a little uncomfortable to talk about, but I think the problem is that we don't have the right kids playing soccer.

Look around at a field like the one I saw on Saturday. Lots and lots of white parents and white kids. A few Hispanic families, very few black families or kids.

I picked a Major League Soccer (MLS) team at random and came up with the Sporting Kansas City team. There are 26 players on the roster. Four of them are black players from the United States That's just over 15 percent.

It would be impossible to find another major basketball or football program in America with black athletes comprising only 15 percent of the roster (Major League Baseball is struggling with this, too, but is actively addressing it).

In addition, our World Cup roster of 23 players has only five black players.

I don't think this is a question of money. The Kickers, for example, have a wonderful financial aid program to help needy families pay the registration fee and purchase equipment for kids.

What we are missing is a concerted effort to convince young black kids and their families that soccer can be fun, can get scholarships and if a miracle happens, can get a big contract into the pros. What the world of soccer needs is to get it out of the hands of the white people who have dominated the development of the sport for so long.

The NBA, NFL and MLB have taken concrete steps to increase minority participation in coaching and front office ranks. Those efforts have been very successful.

The world of soccer needs the same kind of developmental efforts to get more black kids to play the game. You can't pay lip service to this, you need to make the kind of commitment that is long lasting and run by people who know how to do this.

Once that happens -- if it happens -- the day may actually come where our national soccer team has a legitimate chance to really contend for a World Cup.


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