Continuing my never-ending attempt to clean up my TBR pile, I pulled this one out that while it hasn't sat in the pile too long, it was one that was compelling enough for me to read even though it has been a couple months since the World Cup ended. Here is my review of "Switching Fields."
Title/Author: “Switching Fields: Inside the Fight to Remake Men’s Soccer in the United States” by George Dohrman
Rating: 5 of 5 stars (excellent)
Review: While the United States men’s soccer team (USMNT) has made the World Cup in every year since 1990, with the exception of 2018, it has been a constant source of puzzlement why the country with such a large and diverse population is not a bigger powerhouse in the sport. This book by George Dohrman explores why that has been the case and also takes a look at some creative ways that some are trying to address this problem.
The book starts off with that 2018 team – specifically the game in which the USNMT lost to Trinidad and Tobago that ended their chances to qualify for the World Cup. Dohrman explains that the subsequent review of why the team did so poorly sets the tone for the book and the explanation of the inherent problems for growing the sport in the United States. Instead of looking at the entire system, there was criticism of smaller details such as the lineup used in that game. As Dohrman noted, this missed the bigger picture that the system was the problem – making the United States “a country that should be a shark into a minnow.”
Dohrman then goes on to explain how the country’s youth soccer organization AYSO “was conceived in about ninety minutes” and how the country’s soccer development became entrenched in the Pay-to-Play model that many other youth sports follow. The issue with this model for soccer is that due to many factors, it leaves out a significant portion of the population and leaves the future of the sport in the hands of mostly white, suburban and upper middle class (or higher) players. This didn’t allow the sport to grow in other areas populated mostly by Black families or other people of color. It also did not help that most coaches of these players were either unfamiliar with the game or if they were, they followed only the European model of play, which is very different from that in other areas where the game is extremely popular such as South America.
What sets this book apart is that Dohrman not only describes and analyzes these shortcomings, but he also highlights people and systems that buck the traditional models of American soccer in the past and are trying to bring more players of all types and backgrounds into the game. One example, and the best story of the book, is a coach who went against the traditional pay-for-play model in Iowa, Matt Carver. Carver’s youth allowed him to experience the game in places like Harlem and Germany and when he became a coach with his own children, he saw the flaws in the system and wanted to create a league that would not require high fees and extensive travel. After several fights with the bureaucracy of the soccer league in suburban Des Moines, he eventually won and now has players coming to his league.
Dohrman also talks about why the women’s teams for the United States are so successful – again, mainly due to some thinking outside the box – and how the men can use ideas such as those from Carver to have more success for the USMNT. This is a book that should be required reading for anyone who has an interest in seeing how the United States can become a nation that will use its population and diversity to its advantage in the sport of international soccer.
I wish to thank Ballantine Books for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.