"Think about who you try to disenfranchise." - Mix Diskerud to Abby Wambach, December 2015
For over a year, an uncomfortable topic has been debated quite publicly by prominent U.S. men's and women's national team players: Foreign-born Americans and their commitment to representing the U.S. national team and the crest over the heart of the jersey they don.
In the social-media-charged age of 2017, any public comment along those lines, one way or another, will be interpreted and spun a bevy of ways. And any clarification of comments can easily be viewed as an admission of guilt—a way to backtrack, placate and become more acceptable in the public eye. It's important to note that not all comments on this topic are created equally. Some absolutely reek of tone-deafness and insensitivity, while others, although not phrased in the most appropriate of ways, may shed light onto deeper chemistry issues inside the locker room.
So when Tim Howard questions the pride level of some foreign-born U.S. players, as he did in interviews in Los Angeles over MLS media day, is he making a sweeping generalization about all U.S. dual-nationals? Or is he, someone who has played for the U.S. for 15 years and seen different iterations of the team, giving a glimpse into the true, harsh reality about the state of the team? Either is possible, but it's incredibly hard for anyone on the outside to know which it is. No matter, it opens an awkward discussion, one that emits reactions across a wide spectrum, including from those closest to the topic.
"It's dangerous stuff where you have to be careful what you're saying," German-born midfielder Jermaine Jones told ESPN FC, in response to Howard, his teammate for both club (last season in Colorado) and country. "With all the respect for Timmy, I feel it's not if you're half American or full-American. It's more what you have in here [your heart].
"If you go on the field and you give everything for this country, then of course sometimes there's a situation where you're not playing good. But it's normal. That can happen to everybody, and that's what you have to understand."
Jones is absolutely right. Pride in the national team isn't exclusive to someone born in the U.S., and when things go south, it's not because of a player's birthplace.
The fact is—as has been reported over the last few years for those following closely enough—the U.S. men's team has not always been tuned to perfect harmony, and roster overhauls haven't always been seamless. As with teams in any sport and at any level, cliques and factions may develop, motivations can differ and unity isn't easily achieved. When results don't go the right way, these issues rise to the surface. That doesn't mean it's only because specific players weren't born in the U.S., though it is possible that it can be a contributing factor depending on individual situations.
Howard clarified his initial remarks to try and say as much.
"Some of them are [dual nationals], but I think others are players who have their roots here in America too. It's not exclusive to them because some of our dual-nationals have been brilliant," Howard told ESPN FC. "Jermaine Jones has been a rock for our national team. He's been one of the heartbeats. Fabian Johnson has been brilliant for us. So, no, that wasn't aimed at any one person in particular."
When it comes to representing a national team, certainly pride in that country and a stake in its fortunes is a factor. It has to be. For some, that may mean that if you're involved in representing the U.S. for a longer time, then you're more personally invested, and you're more likely to be involved for a longer time if you're born or grew up on U.S. soil.
For example, Landon Donovan told Sirius XM Radio last December that, upon being cut from the U.S. World Cup team in 2014, he told Jurgen Klinsmann: "There's at least a few players that are on your World Cup roster that are going that don't care in the same way that I do. I grew up as a part of this whole system. I feel like it is a part of me and I think there's players in that locker room who if you go three and out in the World Cup they'll go back to their club teams and won't even blink twice, whereas if we go three and out I'll be devastated and I think that's a piece that's important."
It's possible there's plenty of truth to that. It doesn't necessarily mean it's an attack on all foreign-born Americans, no matter how it's perceived. It's an individual's statement based on a close-up observation, and it will surely irk anyone who won't entertain the possibility that there's an unbiased foundation and basis for the remark.
Notable dual-nationals in U.S. soccer history
Joe Gaetjens - Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Joe Gaetijens, who scored the illustrious goal that lifted the United States to a 1-0 victory over England in the 1950 World Cup, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. After returning home a hero, Gaetjens was tragically killed.
John Brooks - Berlin, Germany
Brooks, who scored the game winner in the United States’ 2014 World Cup opener against Ghana, grew up in Berlin, Germany. Although he has never lived in the United States, Brooks made the decision as a youth international to use his dual citizenship to join the USMNT.
Jermaine Jones - Frankfurt, Germany
Jones, a central midfielder known for his aggressive play, grew up in a dangerous neighborhood in Frankfurt, Germany. He debuted for the USMNT in 2010 under Bob Bradley.
Mikkel Diskerud - Oslo, Norway
Nicknamed “Mix” by his mother when he was just a young boy, Mikkel Diskerud has been a part of the USMNT since 2010. He was born in Oslo, Norway, in 1990.
Aron Johannsson - Mobile, Alabama – moved to Reykjavik, Iceland at age of 3
Aron Johannson, born in Mobile, Ala., moved to Reykjavik, Iceland, when he was 3. He has been a member of the USMNT since 2013, and has scored two goals in nine appearances.
Fabian Johnson - Munich, Germany
Fabian Johnson, who hails from Munich, Germany, made his debut for the USMNT against France in November 2011. He is a defender/midfielder on the USMNT.
Timothy Chandler - Frankfurt. Germany
Timmy Chandler, the son of a German mother and an American father, was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1990. He is a defender who has won 13 caps for the USMNT.
Julian Green - Tampa, Florida (born) – lived in Germany since he was 2
Julian Green, born in Tampa, Fla., to an American father and a German mother, moved to Germany at the age of 2 and has lived there ever since. At 18, Green decided to represent the United States and scored a goal in the 2014 World Cup.
Jeff Agoos - Geneva, Switzerland
Jeff Agoos, who was born in Geneva, Switzerland, won over 130 caps for the USMNT in his long career. He played in the 1998 World Cup in France, and the 2002 World Cup in South Korea.
David Regis - La Trinite, Martinique
Known for his speed as a defender, Regis was a starter for the USMNT in the 1998 World Cup. He was born in La Trinite, Martinique, and became a U.S. citizen just a few weeks before the 1998 World Cup began.
Earnie Stewart - Veghel, Netherlands
Earnie Stewart, born in Veghel, Netherlands, in 1969, was a member of the USMNT from 1990 to 2005. He is perhaps most remembered for his goal against Columbia in the 1994 World Cup, which helped the United States advance to the second round.
Fernando Clavijo - Maldonado, Uruguay
Fernando Clavijo moved from his hometown in Uruguay to the United States in 1979. He played in the 1994 World Cup and won 61 caps over his career.
Preki Radosavljevic - Belgrade, Serbia
Appearing in 28 games for the USMNT, Preki competed in the 1998 World Cup in France. He was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in 1963, and became a U.S. citizen in October 1996.
Roy Wegerle - Pretoria, South Africa
Roy Wegerle, who hails from Pretoria, South Africa, debuted for the USMNT against Iceland. He competed in both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups.
Tab Ramos - Montevideo, Uruguay
Plagued by injuries throughout his career, Ramos did not get the chance to compete for the USMNT as much as he would have liked. He is currently an assistant under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann for the USMNT at the 2014 World Cup.
Thomas Dooley - – Bechhofen, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany
Thomas Dooley, a defender from the USMNT from 1992 to 1999, was born in Bechhofen, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. He recorded 81 caps and seven goals in his impressive eight-year United States career.
Now, if this proves to be an issue of widespread xenophobia and jingoism on the national team, then that will be an absolute shame and disgrace. This is America, a welcoming melting pot full of differing stories and connections to the nation; and for some foreign-born players, their families have sacrificed an immeasurable amount to represent and protect this nation far from a soccer field. If you go back decades, U.S. players born both here and abroad have been important contributors to the national team and equally passionate about playing for the U.S. One of the indelible images of the 1994 World Cup is German-born Thomas Dooley celebrating the USA's win over Colombia running around the field while carrying the U.S. flag.
“The thought that the sons of American citizens who are overseas because they are serving their country in the armed forces have less of a right to play for the United States than someone else is just absurd,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati told SI's Grant Wahl in 2014. “That sort of thinking is everything America shouldn’t stand for. [These players] were American citizens the day they were born.”
If there are players, foreign-born or not, who see playing for the U.S. as a paycheck or a way to boost their own value and nothing more, then that's a problem. But it's not an excuse to generalize and accuse. There's no place for that, and it's on the manager—now Bruce Arena, who has had his own previous bout with word choice and opinion on dual-nationals—to navigate the issue with class and complete thought, choosing players he think can make the national team the most successful. It's O.K. and healthy for him and others to question players' commitment to the national team. It's not O.K. to do that solely because of anyone's origin.
No matter if you're the U.S. coach, a player or a fan, it would be wise to heed Diskerud's pointed warning from 13 months ago.