BRENT LATHAM - Tuesday, August 5, 2008
The US Olympic has played its first warm up matches, and Coach Peter Nowak will be sweating over his lack of options on the back line.
Nowak has only four true defenders on the roster, and has played Maurice Edu in the center of defense to make up for the shortfall. One player who might have changed the team's outlook will not represent the US in China. It's not Jonathan Spector.
Central defender Neven Subotic, recently transferred to German Bundesliga power Borussia Dortmund, had said he would make a decision this summer to play for either his adopted country, the United States, his native country Bosnia, or the home of ethnic roots, Serbia.
Subotic's pending decision is just the latest story of an American soccer player struggling to choose between his American roots and his foreign heritage in deciding which colors to represent at the international level. With so many immigrant children growing up playing soccer in the US, it's a trend that is not going to go away.
The Olympics seemed to provide a perfect opportunity for Subotic to affirm his international future. But the transfer to Dortmund likely ruled out the summer trip to China, meaning US fans will have to continue to wait on the large defender.
Subotic was at the Bradenton Academy before beginning his professional career with Germany's Mainz in 2006, then in the Bundesliga. He suited up for the United States at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru in 2005, and was a candidate for last year’s U-20 team before being cut by coach Thomas Rongen.
Since then, Subotic became a regular starter for Mainz, now in the Second Bundesliga. When his coach bolted for Dortmund this summer, he arranged for Subotic to join him for a $5 million transfer fee.
Clinical and quick-minded on the field, Subotic can't seem to make up his mind on his international affiliation. Some have hinted that his indecision is unpatriotic. But Subotic, like so many other Americans, has legitimate and important ties to another country in addition to the US. To question his patriotism is to put him in a no-win situation.
To understand what Subotic is going through, it helps to try to step into similar shoes. Consider the case of Bakare Soumare of the Chicago Fire, another defender mentioned for the US Olympic team. He grew up in France, and only came to the US a few years ago.
Soumare is not yet an American citizen, so he’s not eligible for Beijing. He has said he would like to play for the US, but he also wants to respect his deceased mother’s wishes that he one day play for his native Mali. These situations are much more complicated than patriotism.
Others blame the US Soccer Federation for not bringing players into the fold early enough. Reviewing the rosters of recent U-18 and U-20 teams, though, shows how the federation has been doing a better job of including young American talent from diverse backgrounds outside the traditional soccer club circle.
Jorge “El Sueno” Flores of Chivas USA, and the equally electric Felix Garcia, for example, have both played extensively for the US U-20s. Admittedly, and somewhat perplexingly, Flores was found through a reality TV program. But Garcia, who is the main character of the movie "Goal" come to life, has been introduced into the US youth program despite coming from a non-traditional background for a US player.
Things may be improving there, but the federation can’t do all the work. The player has to want to play for the US as well. There's little the US can do about late developing stars like Shalrie Joseph, who choose to play elsewhere before they are called in, or the occasional Giuseppi Rossi, who simply doesn't want to play for the US.
For the rest, the choice of country comes down to motivation. Playing in five straight World Cups is a great incentive. Dual citizens who are good enough to play for the United States but have ties to smaller countries, like Josmer Altidore, who could have played for Haiti, have a relatively easy decision, if playing in a World Cup motivates them.
In the future, the US will fight the majority of dual nationality cases with its eternal rival, Mexico, over players like Flores and Garcia. In fact, the battle has already begun. Edgar Castillo, a native of New Mexico, would be high in the pecking order for the US left back spot if he had not chosen to play for Mexico.
The Castillo case is just the tip of the iceberg. Like all Americans of Mexican heritage, he had a solid international option in Mexico. Like the US, El Tri consistently makes the World Cup. But unlike American national team players, who are in the spotlight once every four years for a few weeks, Mexican national team soccer players become famous idols of the Mexican population.
In Mexico, where Castillo plays his club soccer for Santos, he is a star with promotion deals and fame. In the US most people wouldn’t know him from the teenager operating the register at Burger King.
And there lies the difference. It's the same around the world.
If you don't believe me, take a minute and type Neven Subotic's name into YouTube. The first video you will see is the young American in front of a raucous Mainz crowd hanging on his every move.
When was the last time you saw a stadium in the US filled with American fans that fired up for a soccer match? No wonder young Neven is taking his time to think it over.
The day players with Subotic's decision to make consistently decide to play for the US will be the day soccer is followed in America with the passion that Americans follow other sports.
As long as playing for the US national team means virtual anonymity and eternally playing in front of opposing crowds, while playing for Serbia, Mexico, and the like, means fame, fortune, and the adoration of a nation, the US will lose too many of its best young dual nationals.
Perhaps some Americans would choose the US solely on the basis of love of country. But the choice is a different one for some of America's brightest young soccer stars.