An expanding MLS and increased interest in American players from foreign clubs have created more paths to pro stardom than ever for the nation’s elite youth players, for whom college ball can also serve as a springboard.
The percentage of American youth players who end up earning a living in the sport is, of course, very small, but there are more opportunities than ever.
Major League Soccer fielded 10 clubs in 2004. It will kick off its 2010 season with 16 teams. The steady expansion is combined with an exodus of experienced American players from MLS to foreign leagues, creating an increasing demand for young homegrown talent.
American players’ improving track record in European leagues, and that American youth players can be acquired without transfer fees, has clubs from the other side of the Atlantic scouring the USA for talent.
Meanwhile, Mexican clubs have been building a pipeline, tapping into the USA’s huge soccer-playing Mexican-American community.
The young American pro prospect is thus faced with making a choice on which avenue to take. For many, the first decision is whether to attend college.
CAMPUS FIRST? The American college sports system is unique to the rest of the world, to say the least. That academic performance can be a requisite to pursuing a professional sports career is hardly comprehensible abroad. Imagine Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo worrying that their report cards could have an impact on their soccer careers. But in the USA, a young man with the potential to be the world’s best running back would never be heard of again if he didn’t get into college.
On the soccer front, skipping college and going straight to the pros has become a viable option. Notable U.S. stars who spent no time on campus include Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.
Yet college soccer remains a popular choice for players with pro aspirations. MLS’s 2009 Rookie of the Year Omar Gonzalez played three years at the University of Maryland before signing a $142,000 contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Of the 14 players who saw action for the U.S. national team when it upset Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup, nine played college soccer, although only two -- Jonathan Bornstein and Jay DeMerit – played out their four seasons of eligibility.
Leaving college early has become common for aspiring pros. Players who stay four years find themselves competing with and against younger players and peers instead of being challenged by older, experienced players.
From a non-soccer point of view, would one ever advise a young man to give up a college education – especially one that’s paid for by scholarship? But for the pro hopeful, staying four years can be risky. A 22-year-old who hasn’t been in a pro environment doesn’t look so attractive to a foreign club. And if the player is courted by MLS, leaving early can land a “Generation adidas” deal, which comes with an educational stipend and guarantees he’ll be a high draft pick.
Generation adidas players, of which there are about 10 annually, can land a salary of $60,000 more than others who also get picked high in the draft.
Making GA players particularly attractive is that their pay doesn’t count against a team’s salary cap, which means teams are likely to invest more time in their development. For the player offered a GA deal, “It’s more money and less pressure,” says agent Patrick McCabe.
STRAIGHT TO THE PROS. For some players, college ball isn’t an option if they don’t meet the academic requirements. Or they may reasonably assume they will develop better in a pro environment. So then the choice becomes one of aiming for MLS or going abroad.
In fact, one purpose of Generation adidas is to keep talented young players in MLS, whether they’re teenagers or are leaving college early.
Playing in Europe has become the Holy Grail for many young players. An offer from Europe tends to get players, their coaches and their parents excited regardless of what history the club has of bringing players they sign young into the first team.
“Lots of players want to start in Europe because of the glamour associated with it,” says agent Lyle Yorks, who has represents players who have taken all the different paths to the pros. “But watching Fox Sports World in the comfort of your living room doesn’t reveal the challenges.”
Players going abroad must cope with a different culture, perhaps weather they’re not used to, and in some cases learn a different language. A European offer may be flattering, but the clubs bring in large groups of new players constantly and expect very few to see first-team action.
In fact, Americans products who head to Europe before playing some college soccer or getting MLS experience rarely realize true success there. The exceptions include West Ham’s Jonathan Spector, who signed with Manchester United at age 17 and at age 23 has played in more than 90 English Premier League games. Also, there’s Italian-American Giuseppe Rossi, who left New Jersey at 13 and now plays for Italy. (FIFA prohibits the transfer of players under age 18, but both were able to sign with European clubs because they had European Union passports, Spector having acquired his thanks to German heritage.)
Otherwise, since the inception of MLS in 1996, the American products who have done well in Europe, or at least have seen their national team careers progress after the move, played either college ball, MLS, or both. For example, Steve Cherundolo, Charlie Davies and Oguchi Onyewu played some college ball. Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra and Maurice Edu played MLS and some college. Tim Howard, Beasley and Michael Bradley skipped college but played MLS before going abroad.
Both Yorks and McCabe say their advice to a player on what avenue to embark on depends on the individual, but both agree that it’s very often the case that spending some time in college or MLS helps young players gain the maturity that will smooth the transition to life on their own abroad.
GOING SOUTH. Mexican clubs have begun scouting heavily in the USA, attracted to the Mexican-American players who aren’t courted by NCAA Division I coaches and who are eligible for Mexican citizenship.
The success in the Mexican league by Edgar Castillo, Jose Francisco Torres and Michael Orozco -- who saw no future for themselves in their native USA but earned U.S. national team call-ups thanks to making it in Mexico -- has helped drive the Mexican clubs’ extensive scouting efforts.
“The Mexican coaches are tripping over themselves for these kids,” says Brad Rothenberg, the president of Alianza de Futbol, whose nationwide competitions for Hispanic teams have taken the form of tryouts for Mexican clubs. “We’d love to have MLS teams pay more attention to these players.”
Mexican clubs have reserve teams in the second division, so they can bring in large numbers of players and ensure them competitive playing time.
MLS, on the other hand, has a roster limit of 24 players and those who can’t yet crack the first team lack for game time.
MLS has, however, since 2007, mandated that its teams have youth programs. So far, a handful of players have graduated to the first-team rosters, but it’s too early to judge whether the MLS youth programs become the feeder system they’re designed to be.
If they do, they’ll create yet another path for young players to the pro ranks.
(This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Soccer America magazine.)