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Larry Nance Wants More Of America’s Best Young Athletes To Play Soccer

There’s a debate that pops up every now and then among American soccer fans. Someone will, invariably, suggest that if more of the nation’s best young athletes decided to spend their time focusing on soccer and less of their time honing their skills in other sports, then the United States has the potential to go from a country that’s merely OK at men’s soccer to one that is able to compete on the world’s stage. With an estimated 3,000,000 children who play youth soccer at one level or another, there are theoretically so many bites at the apple in a country that has the resources to produce the best talent in numerous other sports that there have to be 11 boys who could, some day, become world class.

This leads to debates about things like the kinds of elite athletes America produces (ex: there aren’t too many people Zion Williamson’s size who play soccer), how athleticism does not necessarily lead to aptitude on the pitch, and how there is a gigantic gap that needs to be bridged so those elite kids choose soccer over sports with better infrastructures for giving talented youngsters a path to being successful athletes in the United States. Thanks to a series of tweets he sent out earlier this month, Larry Nance of the Cleveland Cavaliers learned that this is grounds that is ripe for debate.

As someone who is inclined to agree with Nance, I found this interesting, in large part because he, unlike myself, knows what is required of youngsters who want to become professional athletes someday. It helps that Nance views soccer as “a drug,” and made it a point to watch the sport in any form he could find it as leagues in Asia and Europe began to come back from COVID-19 hiatuses earlier this year.

We caught up with him last week to talk soccer, his love of the game, his “get them playing soccer young” take, being a Chelsea fan, and his thoughts on Blues star Christian Pulisic, who Nance believes can do for men’s soccer in America what Mia Hamm did for women’s soccer in the States or Vince Carter did for basketball in Canada.

Where does your love of soccer come from? Because I see on Twitter, you’re not just talking about it, you seem to really, truly love this sport.

I adore the sport, yeah. So, I actually grew up playing soccer. That was the first sport I played, first sport I loved. Unfortunately, I got too big and they tried to stick me in goal, and that’s kind of where I decided, “No, thanks. I’m good.”

So if you didn’t grow up to be an NBA power forward, do you think you would have stuck with that or do you think you would have got steered to basketball eventually?

I think I would have eventually been steered to basketball just because of who my dad is and what my family does. But yeah, I do often think like, “Man, I think I could have been pretty good at that.”

There’s playing the game then there’s actually falling in love with it and really getting into it and watching it, doing all that. When did you start getting into it as a fan? Was there a single moment when you were like, “Oh, you know what? I’m all in on following this sport?”

For me, it was the 2010 World Cup in South Africa — I think it was in South Africa.

Yeah.

For me, that was the end all, be all, “Okay, this is officially my new favorite sport.” Because obviously I played it, but I had never really gotten into watching it that much. Then, it was really that Samuel Eto’o Cameroon team that just, man, I could have watched them all day, every day.

Yeah, it’s funny. You and I are about the same age, I think that World Cup is the big thing that got a whole bunch of younger people into it. I think one thing that I have noticed in following the NBA, it seems like it’s a sport that’s really growing in popularity among basketball players. Is there anything that you would attribute to that or am I reading that wrong?

Oh no, I think you’re right. To be honest with you, I think it has a little bit to do with the mutual respect between sports. I mean, just from me stating my love for soccer and all that stuff, it’s the amount of love I’ve gotten back from various soccer players that, for me, is very cool because that’s a sport that I can’t play. I don’t say I looked up to them, but I think it’s cool seeing that they look at us the same way we look at them, something that is so forward and so unique that they can’t get enough of the NBA.

So, seeing them over here, and now there’s more foreign guys in the NBA, and of course soccer being the world’s sport, the more foreign guys in the locker room — the more foreign guys in the league, the more exposure there is to different games. Therefore, I think more guys are starting to see and learn that like, “Man, this is actually a pretty cool game, too.”

I’ve always thought, and you can tell me if I’m wrong on this, in terms of just comparing to sports, the way that you’re so quickly going back and forth from one end to the other, and you have to compete on both ends, it seems like there’s that mutual bond in that and some similarities in that, no?

Yeah, there is a little bit. Basketball is obviously way more high scoring and all that stuff. But in terms of the tactics of it, what I’m starting to realize, it’s actually very similar in terms of the play-making, the space creation. Tactically, it’s very similar, and that’s what I’m starting to see and learn more and more.

What was kind of cool was what I see while watching it, I put it all over my Twitter, like, “Hey, here’s what I’m seeing. What do you guys think?” Most everybody kind of agrees with it, but now I’m speaking from a strictly … I’m not that knowledgeable about the tactics of soccer. I’m no [Manchester City manager] Pep [Guardiola] or [Liverpool manager Jurgen] Klopp or anything like that, but just from a basketball player’s perspective, I can understand and relate to what’s going on because we do some of the similar things.

So the “choose to play soccer from a young age” tweets, I’m sure people were in your replies, and surely you have seen the discourse around that talking point in the U.S. in recent years.

Yeah, there was a lot of love from it and there was a lot of hate.

Why, as someone who knows what it takes to be a professional athlete in the United States, are you in the camp of, “We need to get our best kids playing soccer and that will eventually pay off?”

Because to me — and I could be very biased, I could be very naïve to this by saying this — but I think the United States has, arguably, the best pure athletes. We’ve got some ridiculous athletes coming out of our country, right? So while I understand that athleticism and size and strength isn’t the only thing needed to be a great soccer player — soccer’s very different in that regard — it’s mainly skill.

But my point is, you mean to tell me that if you take two kids from the time they’re born. One of them is more athletic, their parents were more athletic, whatever, and you give them both the same upbringing in soccer, teach them the same tactics, same skills, same everything. That kid with the higher aptitude for athleticism is more than likely going to end up better, just because he has the natural gift for it. That’s all I was saying, is that if we could teach, could you imagine teaching a young Odell Beckham to kick a soccer ball around instead of playing football? [ed. note: Larry might be onto something considering this is what Odell can do after giving up soccer as a teenager, when he had an invitation to join the USMNT pipeline.]

Yeah.

I mean, it would be scary.

Right, and you’re spending those earlier years developing this stuff in between the ears that, I don’t want to say American players don’t have, but the stuff that you have to learn to go along with the jumping, the strength, the speed, all that stuff.

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Of course, yeah. Of course America’s behind in our teaching of soccer because it’s fairly new to us. But if you send a few of our better athletes as kids, send them over at Portugal or send them to England, send them to France, and let them learn the game over there, they’re going to be shocked as to what kind of athletes come out of this country.

The pushback is always our best athlete are guys like LeBron James, but no matter how funny it would look, you don’t want the 6’8, 250-pound guy winding up as a winger or anything, correct?

Correct. Right. No, Bron is in the sport he should be. We don’t want those guys. Let’s get some of our blistering speed wide receivers and blistering speed cornerbacks. The footwork they have, teach them different footwork and I think you’d see a similar outcome. One of the best athletes for the longest time in soccer has been Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s a tremendous athlete, he’s fast, he’s strong, he could jump off the pitch. He’s ridiculous. But if you brought him to America, he’s not that great of an athlete.

Are there any guys in the NBA who you think, based on what they can do athletically, would have made for really, really good footballers if that’s the direction they went in?

Two come to mind right away. Could you imagine Russell Westbrook as a number nine? As a striker, I mean, he would be the most explosive striker ever. We think [Inter Milan striker] Romelu Lukaku is strong, and he is, but could you imagine Russell Westbrook?

Then, I think John Wall as well. Just the foot speed, coordination, the way he sees the court. Both of those guys, their court vision and stuff like that would seem like it would translate seamlessly.

You also mentioned Mia Hamm and what she did for women’s soccer, and Vince for what he did for basketball in Canada, when you mentioned what a guy like Pulisic could possibly do in America. Beyond being a Chelsea fan, what is it about a guy like Christian where you think he can kind of usher in this huge era of popularity in the States?

The biggest thing is that he’s in attack. It would be really difficult to have kids watch this awesome central defender that we have and say how great it is to watch him play. As a soccer fan, I love it, but to the naked eye, like, “All right, that’s a pretty boring position.” Nobody wants to sit around and watch that. But Christian, flying in and out of the tackle, dodging and nutmegging guys on the attack, checks in, gets an assist in record time yesterday.

He’s the type of player that people get excited about, and the type of player that our country should be excited about. Someone that isn’t just talented in our eyes, that is talented in the world’s eyes. Hopefully, just like I said, the young girls that were watching Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain just dominating the world, you can see now they grew up and are dominating the world.

Vince Carter in Canada — granted, yes, he’s not Canadian, but how it kind of woke the country up to the sport of basketball, and now you see, what, 17, 18 years later, these kids that grew up watching Vince Carter play, you’ve got a huge number of Canadians in the NBA. Nik Stauskas, Tristan Thompson, Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins, the list goes on and on and on of guys that have credited Vince Carter for kind of getting that country into basketball and kind of showing them, “Hey, this is actually a pretty cool sport, guys. You should take a look at this.”

So now, I will ask as a Chelsea fan, what are your thoughts on Christian? Is he what you expected or are you like me and you’re like, “No, there’s no way that we could have seen this coming as soon as it did?”

It makes a little bit of sense to me, not that as a Chelsea fan I expect this from him right away but as an athlete, I understood. Obviously you’ve got, what, a $72 million price tag? That comes with some ridiculous expectations.

So he came to Chelsea and kind of got lost in the shuffle for a little bit, didn’t know where he fit in what position, where are we going to play him at. But, we had all these different guys that played ahead of him until he got acclimated. I think Frank Lampard actually did a really good job of letting him get acclimated on the training ground as compared to shoving him in the limelight and everybody watching him go through that learning curve and learning process, which would have just cast a ridiculous doubt and shadow over his head.

Since the restart, you could argue that he’s been a top three, top four player in the entire Premier League. Just for him to be able to have that development and not be forced into a role he wasn’t ready for right away is invaluable.

Yeah. Then just outside of him, I’m a City fan, I don’t normally like watching Chelsea just because in the years past, Chelsea’s been this steely defensive side, but I can’t stop watching this Chelsea team. What have been your thoughts on the side, aside from him?

I love it. This year, you come into it and you don’t know what to expect. [Real Madrid forward Eden] Hazard left, so that’s great. LeBron left Cleveland, great. So, you don’t know what to expect. I’m thinking like, “All right, if we can finish top eight, top seven, I would be thrilled,” starting what seemed like 11 guys from the academy. But, Frank has done an unbelievable job of getting these guys’ chemistry together and bringing Mason [Mount] along, Tammy [Abraham] along, using [Mateo] Kovacic and making him a world-class midfielder. I mean, I’ve been really loving watching this young team develop, and I’ve actually been really enjoying watching him go through the growing pains a little bit.

Yeah. It’s gotten to the point where there legitimately seems to be a belief that they can, if not win the league, be right there with City and Liverpool next year. Are you expecting them to win it next year or are you just like, “Let’s get through this huge weekend, let’s win the FA Cup, and then when Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, maybe Kai Havertz come in, that’s when we’ll start focusing on that stuff?”

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Yeah. I mean, you can’t expect them to win it right now. Your starting 11, you’re going to have five or six guys that are under 22, 23 years old. That’s going to be pretty hard to do, but hopefully we do the right thing on Sunday and either beat Wolves or get our point we need [ed. note: they did]. I expect us to be back in the Champions League next year, but I think with this team right now, you’re not just worried about this year or next year, what they’re putting together is not just a one or two-year plan. It’s a three, four, five, six-year, really good stretch.

The overarching question with Chelsea is why them? Why didn’t you get into United or Liverpool or Arsenal or City or someone like that?

So, it all kind of goes back to that Cameroon team, really. Samuel Eto’o was my favorite player from that Cameroon team, and then I didn’t even really know a whole lot about the club game, to be honest with you. I didn’t pay much attention to it when I went to school — there was a whole lot other things that I was doing in college.

Then towards, I want to say 2013, ’14, it was when I really took note of the club game. The first name I looked and wanted to go watch was Samuel Eto’o. He happened to be with the Blues at that time. So, I went there for Samuel Eto’o and stayed for a number of different reasons. But then, then coming into the NBA really kind of sealed it when, I had tweeted that, “I’m a Chelsea fan,” [current Real Madrid and former Chelsea goalkeeper] Thibaut Courtois was right back at me, like, “Hey, I’m a Lakers fan.”

So right away, I found that I had a friend in Chelsea’s starting 11, not to mention a really good soccer player. Eden Hazard as well, basketball fan. So, I got to meet him and kind of shoot the sh*t with him a little bit. It’s just been on and on, and now it’s with the whole new group. Mason Mount, big basketball fan, so I’ve grown acquainted with him. Even some of the guys coming in, it’s a very cool to see the level of respect between two different sports and willingness to make friends and be social outside of your sport. So, I’ve made friends with Chelsea, and there’s no other choice now.

That’s awesome. A few final questions — one is that amid everything going on, football has been the one sport back right now. Have you used this as a chance to spread your wings and follow closely Spain and Germany and all that or are you pretty strictly to your Premier League guy?

No, I’ve been tuned in to just about everything. I mean, I remember the first league back was the Korean Soccer League. So, you know what? I opened my laptop and streamed some Korean soccer. I needed a fix, it’s like a drug. Then I started watching some of the Bundesliga when that came back early — I claimed Schalke, “All right, that’s the team I was going to go with.”

Got to go with [American midfielder] Weston [McKennie].

Yeah, got to go with Weston. I’ve become acquainted with Weston through that. So, it’s been good. I’ve gotten to learn more about it. Obviously Spanish soccer, I know quite a bit about already, Bundesliga I learned more about, but my major love is the Premier League. What I need to do more of is our soccer here. I need to follow MLS a little bit better.

This is the last one: Best and worst FIFA players in the league?

Gosh, the best is, I’m claiming the best, for sure.

There you go.

For sure. Now that the Luol Deng has retired, I’m definitely the best. Then the worst I’ve played, Ivica Zubac for the Clippers.

Okay.

He’s really, really bad. I mean, not just a little bit bad, really, really bad.

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