U.S. National Men’s Soccer Team, With Four Black Starters, Becoming More Diverse

By Off the BASN Sports Wire By Jere Longman
Updated: March 30, 2005


When Eddie Johnson was in grade school in Bunnell, Fla., he did a book report on soccer and made a startling and inspiring discovery.

The player widely considered the greatest ever, Pele of Brazil, was black, just as he was.

“This was awesome,” Johnson recalled.

Soccer was, and is, largely perceived in the United States as a sport for middle-class and upper-middle-class whites and for immigrants. And yet, the national team, under Manager Bruce Arena, has grown to look more like the United States itself. Four black players, including Johnson, were in the starting lineup last month when the United States opened the final round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup with a victory against Trinidad and Tobago.

At age 20, Johnson has become the primary U.S. scoring threat. He has played only six times for the national team but has delivered seven goals, a remarkable achievement.

In a broader sense, the recent successes of Johnson, midfielder DaMarcus Beasley and Freddy Adu, a teenaged phenom who signed a professional contract with D.C. United of Major League soccer at age 14, have brought new attention for blacks in a sport in which they have been historically under-represented.

Adu was born in the West African nation of Ghana and is a naturalized citizen.

Johnson said in a telephone interview, “I want kids in the inner city who grow up around basketball and football to know that’s not the only way out in the sports world.”

Although the increased visibility of black players on the men’s national team and on youth national teams is encouraging, their presence is more a testament to their own skill and persistence than to a well-organized system for developing minority talent, black coaches and players say.

“You see more African-American players on good teams, and you can see the participation improving at the elite level,” said Hylton Dayes, the men’s soccer coach at the University of Cincinnati and chairman of the Black Coaches Committee of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. “I do think, though, the sport hasn’t hit the masses in terms of the grass-roots level.”

It is difficult to gauge with any reliability the level of participation by blacks. The U.S. Soccer Federation and U.S. Youth Soccer say they do not keep detailed racial statistics.

“We’re making some progress, but there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Michael Curry, a former chairman of the Black Coaches Committee who is a board member of the soccer coaches association.

The impediments to wider soccer participation, especially by urban blacks, are threefold, coaches and players say. One is cost, which can rise above $5,000 a year to play on elite club teams. Two is the lack of green space for soccer fields in urban areas. Three is the cultural belief, still held by many, that soccer is not a sport for blacks.

Eddie Pope, a longtime defender on the national team who is black, said that three weeks ago, a teacher in Raleigh mentioned him to her class. The response among black students to the idea of a black professional soccer player was disbelief, Pope said. So he sent an autographed poster to the teacher, who is the wife of his brother-in-law.

“The kids were stunned,” Pope said.

He plans to follow up by forwarding videotape of the national team and of the World Cup, in which prominent African teams like Nigeria and Cameroon consist entirely of black players.

“Kids, especially African-American kids, have to learn their heritage,” Pope said. “The country we come from, the major sport is soccer.”

The soccer federation must also improve its diversity efforts and better learn how to market the game to various ethnic groups, Curry said. One measure of the success of minority participation in soccer will come when the leadership of the federation and the coaching staffs of the national teams feature blacks in prominent positions, he said.

“It is paramount, and it hasn’t happened,” Curry said.

Dayes just returned from a prominent youth tournament in Dallas, where he saw a smattering of black players on top teams. Perhaps 10 percent of college players are black, he said.

“Things are changing, not as quickly as we’d like, but more strides have been made,” Dayes said. “The more success the national team has, the next Eddie Johnson will be watching and saying, ‘I can do that, too.’”

A program called Soccer in the Streets, based in Atlanta and with affiliates in 22 other cities, reaches an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 inner-city players a year, said Jill Robbins, its executive director.

Kiki Willis of Youngstown, Ohio, began in the Soccer in the Streets program, became the state’s career-leading high school scorer and will play next season at Elon.

In the last six or seven years, with a group that included Beasley and Donovan, and later Johnson, the U.S. national teams have begun to attract athletes with speed, agility and jumping ability comparable to elite athletes in other sports, said John Ellinger, a former coach of the under-17 national team and now coach of Real Salt Lake of MLS.

“Those are the kinds of athletes we haven’t seen before,” Ellinger said.

Still, Pope said, mainstream participation by blacks appears “a long way off.” The numbers will increase, he said, as soccer gains popularity.

“Coaches are going to want to have a choice of a broad section of society,” Pope said. “If you only have choices from the majority, everyone realizes they are missing out. You need to choose from the melting pot, whether it is Hispanic, black, white or Asian. If this country is going to compete in the future for World Cups consistently, we have to continue to have a big group to choose from.”