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America's Loss to Japan in Football Shouldn't Suprise Us

Sooooo, America lost a football game.

I know what you’re thinking: how can America lose a football game?  America invented football.  Nobody else even knows what football is.  The rest of the world is convinced “football” is a game where you kick a stupid ball around with your feet for an hour and a half and fall over without being touched a few times.  The world might beat America routinely in futbol, but the world doesn’t have a prayer against America in real football.  

But the stunning reality is, it’s true.  The Japanese under-20 team demolished the American U-20 team 41 - 20 on Tuesday.  The score doesn’t do the Japanese team justice – after a 70-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Team Japan led 26 - 0.  It was the first time Japan beat the US in something important since…oh wait, Japan beat the US in the World Baseball Classic last summer.

Japan has also reached the Round of 16 in the previous three World Cups, losing close to Belgium in 2018 and taking Croatia into penalties in 2022.  The US national team (men’s, not women’s), meanwhile, can’t even claim three consecutive World Cup appearances, let alone anything as impressive as going to penalties against Croatia.  Japan even hosted the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup!

Right now, if you were a betting man or woman, taking the US over Japan might not be the proverbial “slam dunk.”  If recent history is any indication, the US probably shouldn’t be favored to beat Japan in just about any international competition (okay, that’s a bit of a stretch, but the point still stands.)

Sure, you’d take America over Japan in basketball a hundred times out of a hundred, but what about America vs. Germany?  Before you say anything, did you know Germany won the 2023 FIBA World Cup?  Did you also know that the team they beat to win the gold wasn’t the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave either?  Did you know the US didn’t even finish third in the 2023 FIBA World Cup after losing to Canada in the Third Place Game?

What the hell is this?  We already know America can’t win at soccer, hockey is a foregone conclusion after finishing no better than fourth in the previous three World Championships, and the Jamaicans have us by a mile in sprinting.  But basketball?  Baseball?  Now football?  Those are our sports.  At this rate, all we’ll have left by the 2040 Olympics is swimming.

Is this it?  Is the age of US hegemony over the sports world over?  Is China about to start whooping our ass in golf and Egypt in NASCAR?  What is the world coming to??

Okay, settle down…breathe.  The sky isn’t falling.  The world isn’t flat.  But America’s pulse when it comes to international competition?  Yeah, that’s flat – more like flatlining.

The truth is America can still compete – hell, still win – in any sport.  But the rest of the world has caught up, and we’ve been asleep at the wheel.

If you were waiting for a moment to get concerned, America, I think you found it.  The shock of Tuesday’s loss to Japan in U-20 football wasn’t that America slipped up and lost in a game it shouldn't, but that by the looks of it, if you played that game ten times over, Japan would come out on top in most of them.  On Tuesday, Japan was better than America at football, and that’s not hyperbole.  But it’s also not completely the truth either.  America is still better than most of the world in most sports – we just have to start acting like it.

Like it or not, the flaws in the American sports model are starting to show.  For too long, from the collegiate level on down, winning has been put at the top of the priority list.  Player development, meanwhile, has been shelved.  We can see examples of this everywhere:

In the NBA, Europeans outnumber Americans when it comes to the “best players alive” conversation.  When your group begins with the names like Luka Dončić, Nicola Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s hard to top.  In baseball, Latin America has been outpacing the US for years.  Hockey and soccer, of course, isn’t even a conversation.  And if the US doesn’t start taking international competition more seriously, we’ll keep on losing ground in football too.

It’s time to ditch these antiquated player development models.  The Europeans have been doing it right for a long time in soccer and are just now blossoming in basketball, and the Dominicans have been pumping out a ludicrous amount of baseball talent for an island nation with a population about 3% the size of the US.  It’s not a coincidence – they’ve figured out something we Americans haven’t: winning. isn’t. everything.

Player development has to come first, at least at the lower levels.  It should still be a priority of professional teams (and increasingly, that includes the college ranks as well), but let’s be real – there’s no going back on the “profit at all costs” models of America’s professional sports leagues.  Our best hope to compete in future international competitions is to commit to turning our best athletes into our most skilled athletes as well.  Right now, that just isn’t happening.

So, how do we fix it?  Simple, stop making winning the end all, be all of sports.  Start forming academies where exceptionally athletic and talented individuals can hone their skills.  Give coaches the opportunity to develop players without the fear of losing their jobs because of a loss.  Stop making profit the priority.

Maybe that’s impossible.  Maybe we’re too far gone.  Maybe we’ve lost the fire, the dedication, the intestinal fortitude to compete on the highest levels in international sports.  But if we ever start to take things seriously – or perhaps just admitting that we’re doing something wrong – the rest of the world will start sweating the Americans.  Until then, though, we should get comfortable with losing.  Even in the previously unthinkable – football.

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