NEW YORK — NFL stars Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith are about as American as sports heroes get in the United States. They had their day of glory in their sport just this past weekend in Canton, Ohio.
But when the National Soccer Hall of Fame celebrated its annual induction ceremony on Tuesday afternoon at the New Meadowlands Stadium in the hours leading up to the USA-Brazil friendly, a different side of America was on display and maybe one that is more representative of the country.
Inductees and former MLS players Thomas Dooley and Preki talked about coming to the USA without speaking a lick of English. Current LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena pointed to the inspiration offered by an Italian National Team poster in his Italian grandfather’s sandwich shop.
The fourth inductee, Kyle Rote Jr., was a virtual foreigner in his native Texas. He didn’t speak a different language. All he did was play a different sport, a foreign sport.
“The people in Texas didn’t understand why I had become a communist to leave [American] football and play soccer,” Rote Jr. said. “When I was playing soccer in Texas, it was ignored.”
Even longtime soccer reporter Paul Gardner, who was also recognized in the Hall of Fame ceremony, recounted his immigrant experience coming from England back in 1959.
America was—and in many ways still is—built on immigrants and their families. Their story is one with which many in this country can identify. And soccer brings out the immigrant experience more so than most other everyday activities. The growth of both soccer and the immigrant population in this country is seemingly moving hand-in-hand.
Dooley told a story of one US National Team camp when 10 of the players were gathered in a hotel cafe. German was Dooley’s language at the time, David Regis was on his cell phone speaking French, the group also featured three Spanish speakers and then there was Serbian-born Preki speaking to coach Milutin Soskic, a fellow Serb.
When the waitress came over to take the group’s order from Brian McBride, the US forward was compelled to give her an explanation.
“Honest to god, this is the US National Team,” McBride said to her, according to Dooley’s account.
The 2010 US World Cup team was even more diverse, the most of any Word Cup team in history. No other country can boast the same rich diversity of the USA. Many predict this will one day prove to be the ultimate edge over the rest of the world’s soccer powers.
As in other walks of American life, immigrants like Preki, Dooley, Gardner and Arena’s family have built and led American soccer to the point of earning perpetual national recognition.
The National Soccer Hall of Fame may have no physical home right now. Then again, that may be fitting. Soccer in this country, unlike some of the other traditional US sports, truly knows no borders.
Watch Bruce Arena's induction speech: