With the Gold Cup finished, many eyes and questions have been pointed towards the US soccer system and the way in which it develops, or doesn’t develop, its players. The US is a powerhouse in almost every other sport and is always in the top two nations for the Olympics, so why isn’t it competitive on the international stage? I dug deeper in the pursuit of that answer.
I’ve been looking into this topic for a while now, even prior to the US’ Gold Cup loss to Mexico, and feel that there are a number of issues with the US’ youth development system.
In the European and South American systems from a very young age, players are taught the technical skills required to become successful in the sport on the international level. They work specifically on touch and control as demonstrated by their respective national teams, along with passing the ball around and retaining possession until an opportunity comes up and then going towards goal. Whereas, in the US system, starting from a young age, the most physically well built and fit players will succeed, and the style of play is launching it up the field for the fastest and biggest striker to chase down the ball and score.
If you watch the US national team play, you’ll see that their touch isn’t anywhere near that of superpowers, and consequently, their overall play suffers as well because of it. They then have less time to look up and pick out a pass, if the ball is played into a dangerous area and they can’t control it, a goal scoring opportunity is lost, and at the end of the day, the team who has the worst first touch will never be as good as the team who can control the ball. Just look at Barcelona; arguably the greatest side ever assembled, and while they don’t have the most physically well built players (i.e. Messi and Iniesta, both of whom were told they wouldn’t succeed due to their small statures), they do have the best first touch and they pass the ball around until the opportune moment.
Then you compare that to the tactic that is employed by the US which consists of launching the ball down the field, but unlike in the youth system, our strikers then come up against world class center backs, and you only have to look as far as our goal scoring record (or lack thereof) to see that this style of play doesn’t work. Not only do we lose possession of the ball and gift the other team with it, we also then make ourselves run more. In the semi-final vs Panama, there was a small stretch in the game where the USMNT passed the ball around and made Panama do the chasing, but unfortunately, our own fans started booing. I feel that this shows the impatience embedded into our culture. We want to see goals, and expect to see them be as frequent as a hoop in basketball or a touchdown in football, when in reality, there aren’t all that many in a soccer game.
We need to teach our players from a young age the importance of holding onto the ball and how you don’t need to charge up the field every time you have the ball in an effort to score as quick as possible. While I know it will take time to employ this type of coaching into our system, I feel that if we do adopt a more European and South American style of play, including much more emphasis on technique, the US will one day become a world superpower in terms of the Beautiful Game.
I feel a recommendation a friend gave me is one in which we can bring this change about, which is making our young players focus entirely on football. You see all the top professionals of the game starting from a young age attend football academies where they first play football, then study. While we wait for our talents to emerge after college, and then after a few years of play thrust them into the USMNT fold in their mid to late twenties, top footballing nations give their young players experiences on the international stage, something that can’t be taught. Take for example Jack Wilshere, who after great performances for Arsenal was handed an invaluable first team cap for the Three Lions. He was learning how to play on the biggest stages as a teenager, including the UCL, EPL, and at the international level.
While building the MLS will take a while, I feel that something that can be done now is give our younger players appearances in our international friendlies. In terms of building our domestic league, the MLS, even though the league has taken strides in the past few years, there is still a very long way to go before we can compete with the European leagues. This difference in quality is demonstrated by the majority of the USMNT plying their trade abroad, many of them only making it to the smaller European leagues.
The US needs to emphasize and work on building the domestic league so it can become a pool of talent which can compete at the World Cup, or at the very least the Gold Cup. Some ideas that have come up in regards to this include building football academies modeled after those in Europe. The IMG Academy is the first of its kind in the United States, and more of them need to be created are we to develop our young players. A way in which we could carry this out is create a youth league which would consist of all the MLS clubs and their young academy players, and they would then compete with each other. This would also be beneficial to the first teams because they would then be able to pick out talents in their youth sides and call them up at a young age. Going back to our players lacking real experience, this would be another way to combat that as these players would be competing with professionals as opposed to other high school players. While this would require the American soccer organization to abandon their current structure which essentially keeps players from playing professionally until after they finish high school, and for many college, it would be hugely advantageous to the US system as a whole because it would help breed our players young and groom them into becoming champions.
Just look at the players we send to college; they come out as 23 year olds who haven’t played on the professional stage, while in contrast, Lionel Messi has already won a FIFA World Player of the Year at that same age along with a few Champions League and La Liga medals. He’s a product of the legendary La Masia, the farmhouse, which is the place where some of the world’s greatest players developed. Half of the Spain starting squad that won the World Cup attended La Masia at one point and then got moved to big clubs or were called up to Barca’s first team, including Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas, and Gerar Pique and many more. Spain look like they’re only going to get stronger due to the high level of their development of young players, as demonstrated by their U21s winning the European Championships. The US needs these type of development programs and locations to become successful.
Another thing we have to watch out for in regards to the development of our players is ‘over-hyping’ them when they are young. It seems like with every new teenager that shows promise, we give them the label of being the savior of the US soccer. The perfect example is Freddy Adu. While he is nowhere near finished contributing to the USMNT as he showed in the Gold Cup, he’s been a scapegoat for the past 5 years due to his not becoming a global superstar. He’s had the huge burden of having to ‘single-handedly’ make the US a competitor on the global stage, and look at what it’s done to him. We need to realize that this (producing teenagers with talent) should become the norm, and we don’t have to dub every single one of them the LeBron James of football.
While the US still has a long way to go, in just a few decades it’s gone from being an infantile footballing nation to a quarter finalist (2002) and round of 16 (2010) World Cup side, so I have hopes that one day, the US can become a true player on the footballing stage and go on to win the World Cup.