Sunday, July 6, 2014

There's Nothing Wrong with the American System

In the wake of the United States performance in Brazil -- which was fantastic -- it is now time for folks to weigh in on how this country will never produce elite soccer talent because of how the sport is organized.  One example, the Guardian's Liviu Bird contends that the whole system must be blown up here.

One of the more interesting aspects of Bird's piece is that it does not cite the British system as an example of something U.S. soccer should emulate.  Instead, Bird points to Belgium, a country with a population slightly more than half that of the state of New York and roughly one-fifth the population of England.

I've got no particular expertise in this area, but it strikes me that there is much to be learned from the British system in terms of why the incredible developmental academies and scouting networks in that country have not resulted in a talent pipeline equal to its continental and South American rivals.  We have sponsored a number of youth players in football sides throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.  It is not as if talent is automatically harnessed and nurtured in those structures.

Instead, up and out programs underscore intense competition at early stages.  While youth players with top clubs may have additional opportunities with lower tier clubs if they don't catch on with the mother ship, kids on other clubs face a bleak future if they don't stick.

Talent evaluation and identification is tricky.  Tell someone in December of 2008 that Omar Gonzalez would be a key part of the U.S. Men's National Team in Brazil and, if they followed college soccer, you wouldn't get much in the way of argument.  Tell them that another member of that team would prominently feature for the USMNT in 2014 and it would probably take a while before they guessed Zusi.  The team that played in the College Cup in 2008 had Jason Herrick and Casey Townsend up front.  Zac MacMath was in goal and the backline was, along with Omar, A.J. Delagarza, Rich Costanzo, and Rodney Wallace.  Graham Zusi played with Jeremy Hall and Matt Kassel in the midfield.

In the 2009 MLS Superdraft, Omar went third, Wallace went sixth, Hall went eleventh, and Delagarza was selected nineteenth.  Zusi was the twenty-third pick in that draft.

Zusi was still heralded enough to be recruited by the best college programs in the country and drafted by MLS teams.  The U.S. national pool player that I have become most fond of did not make the trip to Brazil but provides one of the better cautionary tales to those who are advocating for a stronger command and control system of youth development.

Joe Corona went to the same high school, Sweetwater High School, as many of my cousins.  He was part of San Diego's Nomads Academy ("for those serious about soccer"), where Eric Avila, Steve Cherundolo, Frankie Hejduk, Eric Wynalda, and Marcello Balboa also played.  But Corona's pedigree translated into a year at San Diego State University before deciding that the way to go was the Xolos youth setup.

How does that happen? 

The four countries left in the World Cup have populations of 201 million (Brazil), 81 million (Germany), 42 million (Argentina), and 17 million (Netherlands).  All together, that's a bit more than the population of this country (340 vs. 318 million).  Population isn't destiny -- India's 1.2 billion people and China's 1.3 billion isn't going to translate into soccer powerhouses any time on the horizon.  But the USA is a soccer nation.  And the thought that US Soccer and MLS academies are going to effectively identify and develop talent throughout the country is ludicrous.

What American soccer needs more than anything else is MORE.  More soccer.  Better collegiate soccer, with stronger programs and a bigger presence on campuses across the nation.  Better lower division soccer teams, meaning serious and sustained efforts to make the NASL work and mitigation of the damage done by corpses of USL franchises racking up debt and pissing away fan interest.  Better developed pipelines into Mexican, Central and South American, and Scandinavian football clubs for U.S. youth players.  More soccer, disaggregated, beautifully disorganized.  MLS constantly under fire. 

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