Exploring National Identity Through US National Team

Jurgen Klinsmann's national team selection raises questions about American identity and it's relevance to the sport.

On a Tuesday morning Washington native and former United States Youth National Team player Preston Zimmerman (wiki) raised questions of national team identity over twitter (his twitter). It started with a critique of Jurgen Klinsmann's player selection

But it gets broader

It is a discussion that many nations have about identity, nationalism and their relationship to the Olympics and World Cups. One that the US National Team coach has answered (Sporting News), yet one he may not be qualified to do so. Can national identity really be explained by a non-national?

Furthermore does a national team in a global era need to represent its nation? Or is it just there to win as many games as possible playing dual national mercenaries?

The answers are complex, individual and yet relevant to the national fanbase of Team America. It is a team for which we cheer, we hope and yet many will disagree about who belongs on the roster. Zimmerman raises these questions and each author here probably has a different answer.

My nationality was most readily displayed when I joined the US Army. A willingness to fight, kill or even die for a country is a distinct link to said nation. And yet, a good friend of mine in Basic Training was from Senegal. He would wear the uniform while not a US citizen, nor would he become a US citizen. When his time was done he returned to Dakar. It is oddly easier to serve in the US military than it is to qualify for selection to an Olympic or World Cup soccer squad.

But when Zimmerman refers to "real Americans" I understand his use of the phrase. There are men and boys selected to the American team who never visited America, who only speak the 5th most popular language in the US and who have little knowledge of American culture being raised only in foreign lands. In some nations this situation would be an immediate disqualifier of any claim of nationality. Here it is more complex. We are in an age of empire after ages of massive immigration.

These aren't cases of non-national mercenaries as employed by many Middle Eastern states (these caused a tightening of FIFA/Olympic rules). The young Germans on the squad are also American in unique ways. They represent an American empire in similar ways to French players with connections to former colonies do. These same French players led to a World Cup victory for France. They do though share something with the non-nationals. If they were good enough to be on the German national team they would certainly pick it over the USA.

We've left an era when the World Cup featured the greatest soccer played in the world. Club soccer, specifically major European club soccer, is now the leader in quality. It is now only about national pride. In order for that greatest pride to be displayed a nation must be able to compete for the greatest trophy in the sport. A nation like ours (or most of ours) can only do that by expanding its player pool.

Jurgen Klinsmann is doing that, a bit. His ability to appeal to German-American citizens is not a case of Qatar paying Kenyan and Brazilians to become citizens. He has also dipped a bit into Mexican-American dualists. What he has yet to do is find those missed by the current American soccer net who reside within our own nation. The mythical Latino player from the inner city isn't being discovered.

He also clearly considers American collegiate players inadequate. The greatest performance by the US Men at the Olympics was in 2000. It was a team that drew it's way to a 4th place finish on the backs of players with American college experience. Players like Peter Vagenas and Danny Califf who had little professional experience are a part of our American identity as well.

Should Klinsmann respect the college game more in his influence over U-23 and U-20 selection? Certainly. Should an American player be able to converse in English? I'd prefer yes, but can not demand it. Are Reserves players in Germany better than players in America? Maybe not at the number called up by the coach at this point. His biases are quite public.

I don't know what being an American is. I know what it means. We don't have a simple code for our state of being. We are diverse in ways shared by few of the soccer nations rated higher than the USA. Klinsmann's desire is to make that diversity part of why the nation gets better. That may change the identity of the national team, but not in a way that makes it less American. It also shouldn't pull the team away from things that are uniquely American.

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