For decades now, pundits have talked about the "American player" as some kind of exception in the soccer world, separated from his European and Latin American counterparts by class, education and temperament. The American player was often (though not always) a middle-class kid, maybe a second- or third-generation immigrant, who played in organized leagues and ate orange slices at halftime.
His team went to Memorial Day tournaments in Maryland and Arizona, and everyone received a trophy regardless of how the team finished in the standings. Soccer, never a passion, was just another activity, no different than piano lessons, Greek classes, or Model UN.
The slums of Buenos Aires, the tower blocks of Marseille, the dusty streets of Monrovia -- these places might as well have been on the moon. For a while, the
Even the founding of Major League Soccer didn't do much to change the world's opinion of the American player, as Eurosnobs didn't respect anyone who didn't play in Europe. Well, respect this.
This winter transfer period saw another three U.S. internationals -- Everton's
Admittedly, I included injured stars
The best sign, though, is that the Europeans no longer seem to view them as "American players" in the traditional sense. They no longer wonder if they will become homesick for the SoCal sun or the struggle to learn the local language. They no longer invoke an American's nationality when presenting a critique.
And some even see a U.S. passport as a plus, because U.S. players are still undervalued in the marketplace. "Landon Donovan has been the best signing of the January transfer window so far," former Liverpool great
Look beyond the marquee names, and there is more food for thought. A growing number of American teenagers are joining foreign clubs -- and the clubs are welcoming them with open arms. Guys like Mainz striker
Even on these shores, things are changing. In the first round of this year's MLS SuperDraft, only six of the 16 players selected played four years in college; the rest came out early to pursue their career, and one,
Something is certainly being lost with these changes. But from a purely soccer perspective, I see nothing but positives from the direction we are moving. Yes, as many of you have noted over the years, I'm generally an optimist when it comes to the future of U.S. soccer, maybe too much so. But that's because I've lived through and observed the tumultuous rise of American soccer over the past two decades.
The last 20 years have been rife with the high points (the 1994 World Cup, MLS' founding, the '02 World Cup,
And now I see the U.S. ready to hit its stride. Does that mean
This is the last "Outside the Box" column I'll be writing for SI.com. Other opportunities mean I am moving on. I want to thank everyone for reading, for e-mailing me, supporting me, arguing with me, even hurling insults at my mother on occasion. It's all been good.