By Ridge Mahoney
When does the “youth” go out of youth soccer?
This topic resurfaces in the wake of the U.S. U-17s failure to qualify for the FIFA world championships to be held later this year. Knocked out in the quarterfinals, the Americans have been supplanted by their conquerors, Honduras, along with Panama, Mexico and Canada as Concacaf representatives.
The game has come a long way in America since a bunch of precocious teenagers named Landon Donovan, Bobby Convey, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu, Kyle Beckerman, et al, made their mark by reaching the semifinals at the 1999 U-17 world championships in New Zealand. Their subsequent ascents to the full national team and established pro careers are well-known. Yet the process of player development, then as now, is one of hit-and-miss.
Many other players from that squad – Jordan Cila, Nelson Akwari, Alex Yi, Seth Trembly, Kenny Cutler, D.J. Countess, etc. – weren’t nearly so successful. Those players didn’t fail, and neither did the development system. A look at past U-17 squads from different countries shows a wide variance in how many were able to eventually solidify a place on the full national team or even get a foothold in the professional club ranks.
Those bent on a positive spin will say that getting the U.S. into the FIFA U-20 World Cup is of greater relevance, since those players are much closer to getting first-team playing time for the clubs, as have Seattle right back DeAndre Yedlin and Galaxy forward Jose Villarreal. On the other hand, another member of the U.S. U-20 camp currently training in Southern California is Omar Salgado, whose struggles with poor form and injuries have limited his playing time with Vancouver.
Though the rapid of expansion of league teams from 12 to 19 since 2007 has theoretically opened up more spots for young American players, they also face stiffer competition for playing time under the league’s liberal allotment of foreign slots (eight per team, plus those acquired in trades) and favorable treatment of Homegrown Players who may play for another country, a la Honduran Andy Najar.
When coaches such as Bruce Arena term the Olympic soccer tournament, which is mostly comprised of players 23 and younger, as a “youth competition,” they’re simply speaking the truth: the performances of younger players, no matter now talented and impressive, matched against their peers can skew opinions and evaluations in the wrong direction. Much of the soccer world still can’t understand how Freddy Adu’s dominance at the youth levels hasn’t translated to a solid pro career or consistent USA callups.
At the first-team club level, they are tested by players who are every bit as fast and strong, plus wiser and smarter. It’s the professional version of “playing up,” the youth soccer process of fielding players in higher age groups. If you want to trigger a loud, emotional, passionate argument amongst youth officials and administrators, just throw out the subject of playing up.
The impressive showing by Mexico at U-17, U-20, and Olympic competitions has called for MLS and U.S. Soccer to employ similar programs. Liga MX youth teams play a regular schedule of games – some of which are televised to American audiences -- and for a few seasons clubs were obligated to allot minimums of playing time to young players. Every pro team around the world pays lip service to honing skills and technical ability but in Mexico, those with crude touches and heavy feet are ruthlessly weeded out unless they have some rare trait that the coaches believe can be cultivated.
Economics and other factors have spurred Mexican clubs to aggressively to scout talent in the U.S. as well as domestically. MLS has lagged behind its Mexican counterparts in this regard, yet through its youth academies, loans with lower-division teams, and alliances with the Premier Development League and other such programs it is moving, or lurching, in the right direction.
While the U-17 failure is a black eye for U.S. Soccer it can’t be termed a major setback for player development. Players in that age group need constant exposure to good coaching, physical training, and demanding competition beyond that which can be supplied by U.S. Soccer’s programs. The numbers game of player development requires a net to be cast over a wider swath of players beyond those picked to wear the U.S. colors at the youth levels.
A luxury of success plus a heavy burden of games permits Arena to give his young players like forwards Jack McBean (who is not in the U-20 camp) and Villarreal significant first-team playing time. But requiring minutes for those players, as in a youth mandate, would force too many of them into conditions beyond their capabilities, which doesn’t serve anybody’s purposes. Nothing is gained if a player is overrun by the pace, the duels and the pressure.
In a year and a half, a clearer picture of MLS player development will emerge, when the loan deals and affiliations with USL PRO teams and academy programs will have had some time to percolate. It will be a good point for U.S. Soccer to take stock as well, with the U-20 championships and the 2014 World Cup in the rear-view mirror.
A strong showing at the FIFA U-20 World Cup would certainly increase contract leverage and overseas possibilities for a few players, and perhaps give U.S. Soccer a nice public-relations boost. Yet for the long-term growth of the game, the performances of Salgado and McBean and Villarreal and Yedlin carry greater importance.