Sports

What Abby Wambach should have said

Is Abby Wambach a xenophobe? I doubt it. But her remarks on foreign-born players were clumsy at best.

On Wednesday night Abby Wambach, the greatest striker in women’s soccer history, played her final match, an uninspired 1-0 loss to China that was in no way the sort of send-off she deserved.

While the game lacked fireworks, her appearance earlier in the day on the Bill Simmons podcast ignited a bit of a firestorm.

In the interview, Wambach launched a broadside at men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, saying that he should be fired for failing to develop the US youth program.

She didn’t stop there, though, and instead veered into an aggressive indictment of Klinsmann’s reliance on foreign-born players (like Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Mix Diskerud, Timothy Chandler, Jermaine Jones, and several others).

“The way that he has brought in a bunch of these foreign guys is not something I believe in wholeheartedly, she said. “I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe in it in my heart.

“And I love Jermaine Jones, I love watching him play, and I love Fabian Johnson, and he plays in Germany and is actually killing it right now. … But I just think that this experiment that U.S. Soccer has given Jurgen isn’t one that personally I’m into.’’

While a lot of people share Wambach’s desire to see Klinsmann sacked, many took her comments as xenophobic, including TV analyst and former USMNT star Eric Wynalda.

“When Abby Wambach went there with the foreign route, that struck a nerve with a lot of people,’’ Wynalda said. “That’s going against the very fabric of what our nation is. The United States is a collection of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, and you have got to embrace it. That should be a massive advantage to us, not a hindrance.”

Current US player Mix Diskerud – whose father is Norwegian and who grew up primarily in Norway – offered a more pointed response:

Wow Abby,

I guess there are pros and cons in limiting the base for selection.

You have just singled out a few of us. But why? Why are we your single oddballs?

Think about who you try to disenfranchise. Because if you see us as the group to disenfranchise, then at least let it be known who we are.

Stats and history will show – “our group” has more than others produced volunteer and defending soldiers for what, by us, is willingly chosen and gathered to be worth protecting: Your nation.

Wish you would accept it as ours too.

I know we’re not quite equal. From “your group of people” the country’s Commander in Chief need to be selected. However, other than that – you and I share something not unique, but constitutionally earned, a birthright to defend this nation as an American. Wherever we go. Led by whoever has earned, by democratic process, his/her right to lead, on or off the field, in peace, in war, in practice, or in any other kind of pursuit of your happiness.

Enjoy your retirement. But stay active. We all need you. Oddballs or not.

Diskerud is right, about both the US and the USMNT specifically. As a culture we’re almost all immigrants, and the history of the men’s program is rife with players who were born and raised abroad. What Klinsmann has done isn’t new, even if he has taken it to a new level. And the strategy is hardly cynical or sinister – most of these players are the children of US military personnel living in Germany.

Did Abby mean to go all Donald Trump on the USMNT?

I don’t know Wambach and I can’t read minds (especially just by hearing a podcast), but I suspect she didn’t quite say what she meant to. Just a guess, but we’ve never had any reason to suspect her of xenophobia before. I imagine the point she was trying, however inelegantly, to make is one most diehard American soccer fans would largely agree with.

If I had a time machine, I’d go back a few days and hand her a different set of talking points, and it would go something like this.

Bill, if I could change one thing about the US soccer program I’d redouble our efforts on developing the youth system here in the states.

Right now we benefit from the inclusion in the team of Americans who were born and raised abroad – players like Fabian Johnson, who’s fantastic, and Jermaine Jones, who was as responsible as anyone on the team for the fact that we advanced to the knockout stages in the last World Cup. This is how the US team has always been and it’s perfectly consistent with who we are as a melting pot culture. It’s a strength that the US has that very few other nations around the world enjoy.

That said, we’re never going to become an elite footballing nation until we develop a youth system that consistently produces elite, world-class players here at home. We can’t only rely on Americans who grew up in Germany or Norway or Italy or elsewhere in Europe because we can’t control that pipeline and we can’t insure that these kids are getting the best training available. Instead, we need to reach the point where a kid growing up in Colorado or Massachusetts or Kansas can be the greatest striker in the world. We have to be producing attacking midfielders who can terrorize La Liga. We have a population of over 300 million, and it’s not unreasonable to ask that our youth systems generate Ballon d’Or candidates year in and year out. I think that has to be our goal – to maximize both American talent growing up abroad and our domestic development system.

Jurgen has done a wonderful job recruiting these guys from Germany, where he has a strong personal network, but he simply has not done a good enough job domestically. When we think about his future as the team’s coach and technical director, this is the single issue we have to look at the hardest.

This addresses the issue I think she’s concerned with and it does so in a way that keeps the spotlight focused on the importance of talent development in the US while avoiding anything that smells even a little bit like it’s anti-foreigner.

Or I could be wrong. As I say, I don’t know Wambach and maybe she did intend her remarks to be exactly what Wynalda, Diskerud and a host of others are criticizing her for. If so, what I have above is what she ought to be thinking and saying, and most importantly, it’s an extremely fair critique of Klinsman, who has not to date done as well as we might have hoped.

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