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Challenges in Developing US Soccer Talent


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Numbers crunch: U.S. soccer needs more

By RONALD BLUM, AP Sports Writer

June 24, 2006

HAMBURG, Germany (AP) -- Alex Rodriguez occasionally arrives at Yankee Stadium wearing an Arsenal jersey. That's as close as soccer gets to the top American athletes.

For most teams at the World Cup, their nation's strongest, fastest and slickest are on the field. For the United States, they're on baseball diamonds and basketball courts, or in weight rooms preparing for NFL camps.


"We have to do a much better job at broadening the base of elite athletes. Especially in the Hispanic community and the African-American community," U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said Saturday, two days after the Americans were eliminated in the first round for the third time in their last five World Cups.

For every Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu that came up through the national team program in the last few years, how many athletes instead play college football or basketball, or minor league baseball?

While today's team is faster, stronger and more skillful than the past, offense is still sparse. Since returning to the World Cup in 1990 after a 40-year absence, the United States has 15 goals in 18 matches -- and three of those were scores that opponents accidentally put into their own net.

"We're still waiting for that great striker to emerge, that guy that Real Madrid say they have to have for $30 million and then he goes and leads La Liga in goals for three, four years in a row," U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. "That's what we're waiting for."

In the rest of the world, clubs have youth programs that expose hundreds of thousands of young boys to soccer. Players are identified as possible stars of the future when they are 12 or so, and their careers are nurtured.

In America, it's a lot more complicated.

From 1985-95, there wasn't even a top level professional league in the United States. Major League Soccer began in 1996, and -- to hasten development of younger players -- a year later the U.S. Soccer Federation devised "Project 40."

It was a progam to identify the best 40 young prospects, mostly in college, and sign them to professional contracts with an MLS club while also putting aside money to complete their education.

"We're developing our game from the top down instead of the bottom up," said U.S. coach Bruce Arena, whose return is not assured following the Americans' early exit from his second World Cup.

"That's a naive approach if you think that we magically select the best 40 players every two years and got it all right and that's it," Arena said. "We have thousands of kids playing that have a future in this game, and it will only be better if there are better soccer environments year-round."

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber agrees.

Franchises including the New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire have created academies and each of the league's 12 squads has a reserve team. Before that, efforts were focused on the stability of the league.

The incentive for teams is a league promise that they will retain rights to players that they develop.

"That model will mirror the development system and academies that exist in the club systems in Europe and in Latin America," Garber said Friday. "The thing that people don't really realize is that system is two years old. It's 100 years old in England. So we've got a lot of growing to do."

Arena has belittled the level of intensity in MLS in the past. While his World Cup rosters in 2002 and 2006 have been just about evenly split between MLS players and those based in Europe, his starting lineups have leaned toward those from European clubs.

"We do need to get more of our younger talented players in Europe. We need them in a year-round soccer environment. We need them playing in more intense games to help develop them mentally, as well as soccerwise," Arena said. "At the end, the cream rises, and you see the top players prevail, and it positions you to be much more successful at the international level."

U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, who is retiring from the national team, has spent his entire professional career in Europe. He said players in Europe benefit both from the intensity of play and scrutiny of the press and supporters.

"I think the foundation the players are getting from a league like the MLS is great," Reyna said. "But I think eventually our best talents need to go over for four, five, six, seven years and really develop in Europe."

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This article supports the case for individually controlly development systems among MLS teams. Development of young players is a largely underestimated source of revenue for smaller clubs around the world. If MLS teams are to be the face of soccer in their city, they need to seen as the way forward for youth their city (if college is not an option). As far as the draft is concerned, maybe a second phase that allows teams to designate local youth as local development discoveries (but they then would have to take up an expanded number of development spots). The key however needs to be full club control.

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