MLS expansion challenges American youth soccer to produce exceptional players at a higher rate.
Major League Soccer, aware that it must raise the caliber of its play as it enters its 13th year with 14 teams, increased the limit of foreign players allowed on each team's roster to eight.
There will always be sound reasons for a healthy presence of foreign players in MLS. The diversity adds spice, attracts global interest and helps raise the level of domestic players. Italy, Spain and France, for example, produce brilliant players at an impressive pace yet their leagues are brimming with foreign players.
But MLS's current need for imports has much to do with the fact the USA isn't developing enough players to meet the demand. The challenge of filling rosters with high-quality players will grow as the league does, to 15 teams in 2009 and 16 in 2010.
For sure, the number of good players coming out of the American youth ranks has increased and they're making an impact. The Houston Dynamo has won the last two MLS titles relying heavily on U.S. products. But whether there has been a significant jump in quality of the American player is up for debate.
And while we celebrate such young stars as Jozy Altidore, or marvel at Landon Donovan's play, truly exceptional American players haven't emerged at a much more impressive rate than since MLS launched in 1996.
"I do think the American player overall is better at this stage than he was about 10 years ago," says Columbus Crew coach Sigi Schmid. "As far as the standout player, I think you're getting the same amount."
In particular, there are too few Americans with the flair and skill to further popularize the league, so MLS must import those kinds of players. Moreover, it shouldn't be too much to expect American soccer to start spawning world-class players considering its vast resources, its giant player pool and its history of elite youth soccer.
John Ellinger coached the U.S. U-17 national team and Real Salt Lake before becoming U.S. Youth Soccer's Technical Director last year.
"The pool of the middle-of-the-road player who can do enough to be successful at that top level for a couple of years has gotten much deeper," says Ellinger. "But it's the players who can come into the league the first year, be starters, have an impact - we have to do a better job of developing those players."
To MLS's credit, it has complemented its welcoming of foreign players with efforts to develop domestic talent. The league has required its clubs to field youth teams. Many of them play in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy league, the USSF's ambitious move into the youth game that was launched last year with 62 clubs and the U.S. U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla.
One of the main concerns of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, besides providing a national stage for U-16 and U-18 teams, is to influence the coaching philosophy at the younger age groups. A boy's experience in his first few years has a profound impact on what kind of player he becomes.
"It comes down to this: There's so much more emphasis put on results than what's right for development," says John Hackworth, the Academy's Director and U.S. national team assistant coach.
Hackworth cites examples of what he would like to see less of at the early stages of youth soccer:
*One team's really good player marking the other team's really good player and chasing him all over the field.
* One team playing with its tallest, fastest kid 20 yards behind its backline.
* Coaches screaming out what to do with every second of the play.
"When the only way they judge the play is if you score, if you make a save, or the end result, that's not right," says Hackworth, who was head coach of the U.S. U-17 national team in 2004-07.
It's hardly controversial to argue that a results-oriented approach at the early ages propagates overcoaching that stifles individual creativity. But if scorelines aren't what we should use to judge progress at the younger ages, what do we look for?
"There should be recognition of a kid trying to control a ball, or trying to pass the ball, or trying to make some move, even if it doesn't work," says Hackworth.
Schmid, an NCAA title-winning coach at UCLA before entering the MLS ranks and winning an MLS crown with the Los Angeles Galaxy, also coached youth ball. He says that at the very young ages, coaches and parents must appreciate the development stages the players go through.
Instead of valuing the final score, watching individual progress is how to judge development. When a 6- or 7-year-old, for example, begins to look up from the ball, it's a sign that he's advancing as a player.
Schmid explains, "The first thing is, 'It's me and the ball.' The second is, 'It's me and the ball and where's the opponent?' Then it's, 'It's me and the ball, and where's the opponent, where's my teammate?
"He's taking on more information. That's how he develops."
Neither Hackworth nor Schmid object to competitiveness in youth soccer. The peril lies in prioritizing results over player development.
"I don't think we should be looking at playing state championships when they're 8, 9 or 10 years old, but when they get 11, 12, yeah they become competitive," says Schmid. "And bigger, faster, stronger wins sometimes at those age groups, so you have to take that into account, but what you're really trying to do is see how the individual players are adapting and interpreting the information that the game gives them and how they are becoming better at that, and that's what I always told parents."
For youth coaches, convincing parents that tournament titles shouldn't be overemphasized is part of the job. When he coached youth soccer, Schmid said he would meet with parents in the preseason and explain:
"I'm not going to promise you any championships, but we're going to win games, we're gonna have some fun, we're going to play good soccer, and try and play soccer the way I want to play soccer and they way it should be played. If you want to win titles, then this ain't the team for you."
For teams at the older age groups, judging performance beyond trophies is a matter of seeing progress in the different facets of the game.
"You're looking to see if they're creating scoring chances," Schmid says. "At every age level, you might create chances, but you don't score the goals you might need to win the game.
"Are you possessing the ball? Are you playing as a unit? Are the players having fun? Are they becoming more skillful? Are they able to understand each other's movements in relation to each other? Do they have individual skill and flair? Those are the things that basically you're looking for."
(This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)