By Paul Kennedy
So what should we make of the U.S. U-17s' 4-1 win over Brazil Friday at the Nike International Friendlies? You could say they beat Alexandre Gallo's young Brazilians so badly that they gave up. After a second red card with five minutes to play, the Brazilians stood at the midfield line and refused to challenge the ball handler. Sort of like the end of a basketball game, only we're talking minutes, not seconds.
The U.S. U-17s beat Brazil two years ago rather convincingly but where did that triumph get them? They became the first U.S. team not to qualify for the Under-17 World Cup in 15 tournaments. Success one year does not necessarily translate into success the next. And the players who stand out at 14 or 15 -- the ages of the players on display in Lakewood Ranch -- won't necessarily be stars at 24 or 25.
Any look at the state of under-17 program and its player pool requires caution. So with that proviso a couple of things stand out ...
The talent pools in the '98 and '99 age group are deep. The U-17s of two years ago had one exceptional young player, Junior Flores, who is now at Borussia Dortmund. The U-17s who beat Brazil on Friday had a handful of very exciting prospects.
Reasons for the emergence of so many good 14- and 15-year-old prospects begin with the easy one. Talent pools are cyclical. Once every generation, a core of stars will emerge around one or two age groups.
U.S. Soccer is clearly doing a better job of identifying talent. In the old days, there was ODP, and that was it. Now, U.S. Soccer is bringing players into its regional training centers. There are programs like U.S. Club Soccer's id2 program. Alianza de Futbol is doing a great job of bringing young Hispanic talent to the fore. And, of course, Development Academy clubs are out searching for players for teams that now go as young as under-13/14s.
A name that keeps popping up in this identification process: former national team star Hugo Perez, the U-15 national team coach. The heavy presence of California talent in the '98 and '99 age groups is no coincidence as Perez, based in Northern California, has been unearthing young talent up and down the state.
But what stands out about the U-17s who beat Brazil is how many of them have foregone the residency program and have been playing or training abroad.
Joe Gallardo, who scored a hat trick against England and had a goal and two assists against Brazil, left the Nomads in San Diego for Monterrey in Mexico after being spotted at the 2011 Dallas Cup. Stylish midfielder Luca de la Torre, also from San Diego, has been training at Fulham in England. Joshua Perez, Perez's nephew, spent the fall at Italian club Fiorentina. Giant defender Danny Barbirjust returned after several months at Manchester City.
Up until now, the under-17 national team was comprised almost exclusively of players in residency in Bradenton. In addition to the four starters just mentioned, starting left back Edwin Lara, who just turned 14, was not in residency this fall. He's played in Mexico at Pachuca -- another Alianza discovery -- and spent the fall playing with the U-15s and U-17s as well as with his brother -- when he's had time -- in the San Jose Earthquakes academy program.
The U-17s are being pursued and seeking out opportunities abroad at ridiculously young ages. By the time he was 12, Christian Pulisic, the MVP of the Nike International Friendlies, had trained at Barcelona, Chelsea and Porto. Last summer, he played for PSV in an international tournament and might later return to the Dutch club for more training. Before entering residency, Pulisic played for PA Classics, where his parents, both former George Mason stars, are coaches.
The aggressive pursuit of young American talent is picking up steam, not just by Mexican clubs scouting at the Alianza events, but by European clubs scouting the id2 winter tours and international tournaments at which the U-14s and U-15s are competing.
This pursuit of American players so young is troubling on several levels. There is, of course, the danger that everything will quickly go to the heads of these young players, barely teenagers, and their parents. And there's the danger of burnout. Many of these kids, high school freshman and sophomores, end up spending as much time hanging around airport gates waiting for flights as they do hanging out outside classrooms between classes with friends.
The track record of American players going directly abroad at a young age is terrible. For all the players who have tried it, only a couple made it:John O'Brien (before injuries cut short his career at Ajax) and Jovan Kirovski (part of the famous of Class of '92 at Manchester United, where he was unable to secure a work permit). Of the American-bred players on Jurgen Klinsmann's national team -- ie. excluding the German-Americans -- only two players who have a legitimate shot at the World Cup team didn't make it via college or MLS or both: Edgar Castillo and Jose Torres.
The process of U-17s being picked off by foreign clubs began in earnest three years ago with the 2009 U-17 team, Wilmer Cabrera's first team. Joe Gyau, Sebastian Lletget and Charles Renken all left residency for clubs in Europe, and Cabrera dropped them for the Under-17 World Cup finals in Nigeria. Four years later, Gyau and Lletget are playing reasonably well -- but stuck on reserve teams at Hoffenheim and West Ham. His career ruined by knee injuries, Renken was last seen playing for a third division club in Sweden.
In a perfect world, there would no Bradenton program, and all players would be living at home, all would be playing for MLS academies, and they'd all be moving up the MLS pro ranks, beginning at a young age.
(The French federation with which MLS has partnered is famous for its pioneering residency programs, first in Vichy in the late 1970s, and later at Clairefontaine. Yes, the FFF's centres de pre-formation all have a residency component -- largely educational -- but players return home each weekend to their family and friends and play with their hometown teams -- for a reason.)
It all leads to the question, where is MLS in all this? If its goal is to be one of the great leagues of the world by 2022, it will have to being signing the great young American players -- and pronto. Assuming one, two or three of the young U-17s who played against Brazil on Friday become those great young American players -- yes, a big assumption -- they'll be 23 and 24 in 2022. (Of the U-17s on display Friday against Brazil, the one MLS academy product in residency who stood out was the Galaxy's Haji Wright, who won the Golden Boot with five goals.)
So far, there is nothing, though, that indicates MLS clubs are willing to enter into bidding wars with foreign clubs for these U-17s. MLS's homegrown rules with very specific eligibility requirements restrict players in the fold to one club. And the $20 million that MLS says its clubs collectively spend on youth development is a drop in the bucket. MLS is now signing in the range of 30-40 players to homegrown contracts in a year, and 5-10 are turning out to be solid pros, a respectable success rate so far of about 20 percent.
Established youth internationals lured abroad -- players like Gyau, Lletget, Renken and Flores -- are typically going to be among a dozen young players signed by their clubs each year. Still younger players headed to Mexico will to be competing against dozens and dozens of other players -- and if they make it through the Fuerzas Básicas, they will still have to go up against seasoned pros, many of them foreign imports. Out of all the kids who journeyed south in the pursuit of the Mexican soccer dream, only Castillo and Torres have so far survived the climb and made it big. (Joe Corona started out in college, Herculez Gomezmade it in MLS before he made it in Mexico, and Paul Arriola went directly to Tijuana's first team.)
It comes down to a numbers game, where the odds are long, but clubs in Europe and Mexico have the resources to play them.