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Thursday, June 22, 2006
USA Soccer

I was disappointed that they didn't make it through to the elimination round, but really our soccer is nowhere near the level of other countries, and people who think otherwise are fooling themselves.

For example, consider the case of Freddie Adu. Adu is obviously a rare talent, playing in major league soccer at the tender age of 14 years. But his relative youth also indicates that American soccer is nowhere near as advanced professionally as, say, American baseball.

Adu is now 17 years old (barely). Who's 17 years old and playing in major league baseball? Answer: Nobody. In fact, it's been quite a while since a 17-year-old played in a major league game; Larry Dierker just missed in 1964, playing in his first contest on his 18th birthday. I believe that Ed Kranepool and Ed Kirkpatrick, both of whom played late in 1962 are the last two 17-year-olds in the major leagues.

I did a quick look at how many at-bats players 19 years old and younger have had in the majors by decade:
Beg. ABs
1870 3593
1880 5468
1890 2679
1900 1378
1910 1865
1920 1169
1930 1399
1940 1834
1950 1281
1960 2429
1970 933
1980 455
1990 355

As you can see, the general trend has been for fewer and fewer at bats by gentlemen 19 years old or younger in baseball. There was a brief upsurge in the 1960s, although the vast majority of that comes from a few players (Rusty Staub, Ed Kranepool and Tony Conigliaro), and is probably attributable at least partially to expansion.

Why has this happened? Well, mainly because the major leagues have gotten extremely efficient at funneling the best players to the majors, so that it's harder for a teenager to crack the team. The few teens that do make it to the major leagues are either a) extraordinarily talented (Ott, Yount, Griffey) or b) play for desperate teams--the Houston Colt 45s of 1963-64 started an incredible eight different teenagers.

So that's the problem with major league soccer in this country; it's just not competitive enough to have forced Freddie Adu to continue playing high school soccer, which is why the USA's not playing in the next round.

Ditto with Michelle Wie and the LPGA. If she's competitive at that age, it's a pretty good sign that women's golf hasn't yet gotten good enough, although I'm a little hesitant since it seems possible that the peak of athletic performance comes quite a bit younger in women than it does in men.
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