U.S. men’s World Cup roster reflects ‘the diversity of America’

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DOHA, Qatar — Desmond Armstrong, the quarterback on the 1990 U.S. World Cup team, was looking over a potential U.S. roster for this year’s tournament a few weeks ago when it occurred to him that black players would make up about half the team and many would likely start in Monday’s opener against Wales.

He started rattling off names: Weston McKenney, Tyler Adams, Yunus Musa, Anthony Robinson… The list went on and on.

It’s a far cry from Armstrong’s national team days, when he and defensive end Jimmy Banks were the only black players not only on the roster, but in an elite talent pool.

“I would say the biggest contrast from then to now is that it was lonely,” Armstrong said. “It’s not just a guy like me out there, quote-unquote, carrying the banner for every African-American prospect.”

This year’s 26-man squad includes a record 12 black players, up three from 2014 — the last time the U.S. qualified — and the same number as the 1994, ’98 and 2002 teams combined. (Rosters had 22 players from 1990-1998 and 23 from 2002-2018.)

“It’s no secret that African-Americans lean toward basketball, lean toward American football, lean toward baseball, lean toward other sports,” McKenney said. “In my neighborhood.” [in Little Elm, Tex.], you rarely saw an African-American kid playing football. So now to be able to do what we want and at the same time have an impact on the African-American game, it’s amazing because now they can look at it and say, “You know, that could be me… and there’s another sport we can fall in love with.”

Nine additional black players were in contention for coach Greg Berhalter’s squad before the Nov. 9 roster announcement. Four of the players who will make the cut are Hispanic, providing the largest delegation of players of color in US World Cup history.

“The diversity of this team is the diversity of America,” Berhalter said.

Maurice Edu, a midfielder at the 2010 World Cup and now a Fox Sports commentator, said he often talks to friends about the possibility of an all-black starting line-up soon, which is “amazing to see how far the game has come in relation to reach. “

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Edu, who is black, emphasized the importance of black role models playing in the World Cup for the United States. For him, it was Eddie Pope, Ernie Stewart and DaMarcus Beasley, among others. The 2010 and ’14 teams had 17 black players combined, including Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu and Jozy Altidore.

“There’s still more room for growth, but if this team has success, it just continues that pipeline,” Edu said. “Seeing players like them, there will be more young black kids focused on the game.”

Armstrong, 58, was born in Washington, but moved to Montgomery County, MD as a child. When he visited his grandmother in Northeast DC, the boys in the neighborhood called out to him, “Hey, football player, how’s that hockey?”

Armstrong said with a laugh, “I was always known as ‘Football Boy’ over there. The connotation was that it was a sport for white boys.”

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The 1990 team was almost exclusively White players in their early to mid-20s who went through traditional development rounds and starred for NCAA programs. The composition of this year’s team is far from that. When fully healthy, the three-man starting midfield is all black: McKenney, Adams and Moussa.

The path for McKenney and Adams passed through the MLS academies in Dallas and New York, respectively. Both skipped college to turn pro.

Moussa was born in New York to Ghanaian parents, learned the game in Italy and England and plays for Valencia in Spain’s La Liga. He had the right to represent four countries.

Florida-born defender Shaq Moore traces his family roots to Trinidad and Tobago. Midfielder Kellyn Acosta, from greater Dallas, is black, Japanese and Puerto Rican. Winger Tim Weah, a native New Yorker, is the son of a Liberian father (former superstar George Weah) and a Jamaican mother.

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DeAndre Yedlin, the only current US player with World Cup experience, is Black with Latvian-Jewish and Native American blood. Ferreira moved to the United States in 2009 when his father David joined FC Dallas and became a US citizen in 2019.

Forward Haji Wright, born in Los Angeles, has Liberian and Ghanaian roots. Robinson and Cameron Carter-Vickers, both defensive backs, are from England, the sons of black American fathers who played football at Duke and basketball at LSU, respectively. (Howard Carter was a first-round pick in the 1983 draft.)

Current and former black players are credited with increasing the game’s reach and access, although soccer’s influence in the United States remains greater in the suburbs than in the cities, where, elsewhere in the world, the game pulsates.

At the Aspen Institute’s Project Games Summit in Washington, D.C., in May, US Soccer president Cindy Cohn said, “A lot of it comes down to how our sport is viewed and how we shift that mindset from being about for rich, white kids.” sport to sport that is literally played [everywhere]. As the most diverse country in the world, how do we shift that focus to ensure that every child feels welcome in our game?”

While the number of black players on the national team has grown, Hispanic representation has stagnated, despite Latinos making up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. Soccer is the most popular sport in those communities.

The largest Latino contingent on the US World Cup team was five in 1994. This year they are striker Jesus Ferreira, forward Joe Reyna and midfielders Luca de la Torre and Cristian Roldan. However, only Roldan, whose parents emigrated from El Salvador and Guatemala, has Central American roots. (Roldan’s brother, Alex, represents El Salvador.)

In a mild surprise, forward Ricardo Pepi was not selected for the World Cup squad. A dual citizen from El Paso, Pepi could become a hero in the Mexican American community, ESPN commentator Hercules Gomez said — “someone Mexican Americans could identify with.”

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Gomez, who has Mexican roots and played for the United States in the 2010 World Cup, said “not having that is a bitter pill.” He also noted that none of the Mexican American players who committed to Mexico made El Tri’s World Cup squad.

Socio-economic barriers, US officials agree, have played a major role in the failure to attract youth from some minority families. Berhalter noted progress in building the pipeline to the national team, but also asked, “How do we expand [access]go into underserved communities and provide greater opportunity?”

Armstrong, a Hall of Famer, made that effort in the form of a youth program in East Nashville, where kids from countless backgrounds embraced the game.

“We’re in the beginning stages” of getting more underrepresented kids into the game and on their way to youth national teams, he said. “We won’t see the results of that for 20 years.” When that happens, then it will be like, “Okay, now soccer has reached every corner, every inch of America.”

The World Cup in Qatar

Your questions, answered: The World Cup starts on November 20 in Qatar, about five months later than usual. Here’s everything you need to know about the quadrennial event.

Group Guide: The United States men’s national soccer team, led by coach Greg Berhalter and star forward Christian Pulisic, has qualified for the 2022 World Cup, an improvement from its disastrous 2018 campaign. Here’s a closer look at how all the teams in each group line up.

Today’s WorldView: Although the World Cup is days away from the start, talk of a boycott is only getting louder. The soccer fan protesters expressed their disdain for Qatar’s autocratic monarchy, including its alleged human rights abuses, suppression of dissent, persecution of LGBTQ people and mistreatment of migrant workers.

The best of the best: More than 800 players, representing 32 countries and six continents, will gather in Qatar for four weeks of World Cup competition. These players likely hold the promise of a breakthrough tournament or hold the key to their team exceeding expectations.

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