Here’s an experiment for you. Swap out every shirt of every nation playing in this World Cup — from Argentina’s trademark baby blue and white vertical striping to Nigeria’s questionable array of dizzying neon Vs from top to bottom — and replace then all with pristine whites. Remove the numbers, the insignias, the calling cards of the apparel companies like Adidas and Puma and let the two teams play without any way to identify them beyond the way they approach the game on the pitch.

In minutes, maybe even seconds, it would be apparent to the trained and untrained eye alike which two countries are booting the ball around a howling stadium.

It could be the German’s machine-like craft, building from front to back at a methodical, almost exhausting, pace. Or it could be Iceland with its 10 men behind the ball, defend-at-all-times modus operandi all over the park. Brazil with its signature creativity, alternating between moments of sheer brilliance and utterly baffling inefficiency. Japan’s tenacity from start to finish, pressing in every corner at every blade of grass, for the full 90 minutes.

Mexico flying in for every available tackle. Russia setting up for the lightning counterattack. Spain with its omniscient passing ability. And on and on and on.

What you have not seen in Russia over the last three weeks, of course, is the United States. Nor did you see at any point over the four years of qualifying for this 32-nation tournament a style that the Americans could call their own.

Soccer in the United States has no identity.

What U.S. soccer has tried to do is be something it’s not and never should be, copycatting the rest of the world and trying to be better at something other nations have been perfecting for generations.

It’s an incredibly arrogant way of thinking, and it’s precisely how the United States ended up being coached by a former German international in Jurgen Klinsmann, and how we were bamboozled into believing that we simply had to take American soccer players and get them to master a European style.

Nobody should be surprised that it’s where we’ve ended up. Think of the game here stateside and the images are conjured up almost immediately — a ‘wimpy’ game with endless justification of how everybody should be treated the same, “try” every position on the field even as players reach their teenage years, and enjoy the same playing time as everybody else, regardless of skill level or even basic commitments like practice attendance.

The pay-to-play models at the youth level are set up so the players who want to be the best and play against the best are asked to pony up the most money for the opportunity to do so. The end result is a soccer culture we’ve spent decades creating — one that is elitist and populated by a majority that expects results to be handed out like orange slices and high fives.

Years ago, while covering an NCAA Division I hockey program in southern New England, an assistant coach suggested that showcase tournaments and other such events were great recruitment tools, not because the best players played against the best players — but because he could watch the way players played when games were out of hand or if their team had long been eliminated while playing out its round-robin schedule. The players who kept going, whose effort was reflected on the scoreboard, were players a program could build with.

Those are the types of players soccer in the United States needs. The players who don’t quit, who don’t pack it in, who approach a third-place game — after a gut-wrenching semifinal loss in a tournament — as if they’re still playing for the gold.

U.S. soccer needs desperation. It needs players willing to sacrifice in the 18-yard box, in a wall against an opposing free kick, when things aren’t going well, when the field conditions aren’t as cushy as they’re used to in their private school upbringings. It needs the mentality you find on football fields, in hockey rinks, atop wrestling mats.

The U.S. needs more of what we saw from the South Koreans, the Panamanians, the Tunisians, all countries which entered their final group stage games at the World Cup last week with a desire to win even though they’d already been eliminated from the knockout rounds.

Here at home, if you say “Maranacook” or “Lewiston” or “Winslow” to soccer people, certain styles immediately come to mind. The Black Bears are going to intimidate through physical, pressing soccer. The Blue Devils are organized and lethal. The Black Raiders try to whip you with speed up top and a gritty back line.

If only the words “U.S. soccer” brought anything immediately to mind other than “what an embarrassment.”

Until the Yanks forge their own identity, it’s only going to get worse before it ever has a hope of getting better.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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