As with everything, there are ways to look at the positive and ways to look at the negative. For some U.S. soccer fans, there was definitely more negative than positive when it came the U.S. youth teams. The Olympic team didn’t even advance from their group in qualifying on home soil, and the U-20 team that was loaded with talent failed to qualify for the World Cup. Only the U-17 team was able to see any success. Contrast this with the equivalent Mexican teams and the picture gets even bleaker. The Mexicans are the reigning Olympic and U-17 champions while they also finished third in the U-20 World Cup.
But what about those that look at the positive? If you think about it, the U.S. can really only go forward from this point after hitting their low. Youth soccer in this country is still relatively unorganized and yet it still produces great players. MLS is a very young league and yet it still produces great players. If all of these things were to come together, think about how much better the U.S. can become. Even though we failed to qualify for the Olympics or the U-20 World Cup, those teams still had a lot of talent (there are lots of reasons for their not qualifying, but skill isn’t one). More and younger Americans are finding their way onto good clubs in Europe and are getting more playing time. Things are trending in the right direction.
Claudio Reyna has done a good job since taking over as youth director at U.S. Soccer. The Development Academy continues to produce excellent players. There are holes to fix (pay to play, scheduling, etc.), but the league is headed in the right direction. Players now have to solely dedicate themselves to the team, and the schedule has changed to emphasize more quality of matches not quantity. Youth players are getting technically better, and their overall awareness of the game has improved. All of this shows through on the U-17 team, which is the only country in the world to qualify for every edition of the tournament.
The major opportunity for the U.S. to improve lies between the time players graduate from high school to the time they potentially turn pro. For those four years many youth players are stuck shuttling between college soccer and semi-pro soccer in the summer. The problem with this is that these players lack consistent instruction. Their college coach may want them to play a certain way while their semi-pro coach wants them to play another way. Players can’t develop properly that way. Another problem is the length of season. The average college player may play 30 games a year, but that is really only spread out over 4-5 months. Both college and semi-pro will play two matches in a weekend. That is a determent to players’ health and their ability to learn nuanced skills. Plus, the object in college is not to develop players, but to win matches. Coaches can’t leave a struggling player in the match to learn from the experience because the coach is under pressure to win. His job depends on results, not the quality of players he produces. That sometimes also leads to negative tactics.
When a player doesn’t graduate from college and makes his way to the pros, only a few are able to contribute right away. They rest of the players either never make it or take a year or two to get settled into the squad. That means that the average player is not seeing his first team soccer until he is 23 or 24. That is too old to get started. These players need to be getting a taste of regular first team soccer at an earlier age. They also need the consistency of year-round coaching and a year-round fitness regime. Too many college players break down halfway through the season because their bodies can’t handle it.
For graduated academy players that sign with the first team, the situation is similar. While they are around the same coaches for the entire year, they don’t see enough time on the field. MLS squads are not big enough to field truly competitive teams. It is an excellent thing that teams are running out reserve squads full of young homegrown players and other developmental players, but ten games is not enough. These players need more consistency and to get into a better rhythm of playing week in and week out.
But there is hope. With an infusion of cash and some creativity, the U.S. and MLS can overcome this gap. Money is the main issue. It may be easy for a reserve league to thrive on the East Coast where there are a handful of teams all within driving distance of each other, but it becomes more difficult out west. One of the ways to solve this distance problem is to expand the number of teams in the MLS Reserve league or to merge the league with an existing league. Fans on the internet have long talked about a merger between the USL and MLS. From a development perspective, this makes sense. Not only would MLS have access to the PDL that could serve as regionally based feeder leagues to MLS teams (for example, teams in the Pacific Northwest would have exclusive control over the players allocated to PDL teams in the Pacific Northwest, including college players), but the existing teams in USL Pro would be perfect compliments to the MLS reserve teams. With more teams play could be regionalized, allowing teams to travel less but to play more games (USL Pro would have to expand more out west). Non-MLS teams would be hungry to prove that they can play in MLS and would give the MLS reserve teams meaningful competition. Purchasing the USL would be expensive, but certainly would not be close to the $300 million MLS is prepared to spend on a new stadium in New York. Additionally, by developing more players, the quality of MLS would greatly improve, making for an extremely attractive viewing product.
The overall point here is not to get discouraged about all the things lacking in American youth soccer at the moment, but rather to think about how much potential is out there. MLS continues to grow and that growth will eventually spill over into more youth resources. Hopefully that day is sooner than later, but when it comes, it will be a great day for soccer in America.
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