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What If ... the U.S.'s best athletes all played soccer?

by Grant Wahl

The U.S. would win the World Cup! Like, every year!! I've heard that sentiment again and again when I've told people I write about fútbol. So let me answer the most tired hypothetical in sports, once and for all: No, LeBron would not help the U.S. win the World Cup. It just doesn't work like that. The guy is 6' 8" and weighs 250 pounds, dimensions that work magnificently on a basketball court but get you nowhere on a soccer field. What if our so-called “best” athletes played soccer? Well, they'd do what Chad Johnson did when he tried out for MLS's Sporting Kansas City a few years ago: All talk, zero game.

Please, just stop with the daydreaming. The less you know about a sport, the easier it is to assume some simple-minded change would transform the whole thing. (One of my favorites: The hockey outsider who believes an 800-pound goalie would rule the pipes.) Yes, athleticism is important in soccer. But, beyond that, it's a game in which skill and coaching matter in a huge way. Usain Bolt can make a PR spectacle by practicing with Dortmund, but Dortmund isn't about to sign Bolt to a real contract—not in a million years.

Is it possible that smaller, shorter athletes like Stephen Curry or Allen Iverson possess the attributes to become pro soccer players, had they only played from the age of five? Perhaps. But it's just as likely that they wouldn't have made it. And the paucity of high-level youth soccer coaches in the U.S. means that Curry and Iverson might not have learned much about soccer even if it had been their passion. Why is nobody asking, What if our best coaches had coached soccer?

It's a moot point in the end. In the U.S., soccer will always have to compete against the other big sports for players. As soccer continues gaining popularity in this country, it's reasonable to think the talent pool will grow in lockstep, so that it's less of a middle/upper-class sport. But don't assume those changes will deliver the World Cup trophy stateside. It's the most coveted hardware on the planet for a reason.