MLS: California is No. 1 in player production

Coaches cite weather as only one of the reasons for the Golden State's bevy of talent

California leads the nation when it comes to producing fruits, vegetables, dairy products, wine, movies and semiconductors.

Add soccer players to the list.

Of the MLS's 189 American players, 49 hail from the Golden State. New York is a distant second with 16 players.

Californians also abound on U.S. national teams. Of the 18 players in Coach Clive Charles' U-23 squad that last April qualified for the Olympics, 11 grew up in California. Nine of them developed their skills in the southern part of the state.

"Thirty three percent of all women's national team players come from Southern California," says Steve Sampson, the former men's national team coach. "Twenty five percent of all the men's sides have come from Southern California."

With 30 million residents, California is the nation's most populous state. Still, that's only 12 percent of the nation's population and Californians represent more than 25 percent of MLS's Americans.

According to prominent California coaches, it's a matter of quantity and quality.

"Californians are pretty much known as technical players," Sampson says, "ones who have a higher level of skill."

Sigi Schmid depended on California products during his 19 years at UCLA, which he guided to 16 straight postseason appearances and three NCAA titles. Schmid, who is in his second year at the L.A. Galaxy's helm, still relies heavily on UCLA products. He says Californian players are generally "fairly athletic and technically sound."

1970s BOOM WAS KEY. San Jose Earthquake coach Lothar Osiander has made Northern California his home since he emigrated from West Germany in 1958 and played at the University of San Francisco.

"In the 1930s, that's when a lot of immigrants came to California," Osiander says, "and they brought soccer with them. From the early 1930s until the war, soccer was actually quite popular in Northern California.

"In the 1950s, with all the immigrants coming, especially from England, soccer got popular again. From the mid '50s to the '70s it was very ethnic. The offspring of these guys were the second generation of soccer players. They all played when they were kids. The snowball got rolling and the American kids jumped on it as well."

Several cities in the Midwest and East Coast also have a rich soccer history spawned by waves of immigrants. But when soccer hit the suburbs, California's weather advantage made an impact on the homegrown players.

"[It] grew so fast because of climate conditions," Osiander says.

Says Schmid, "Kids are able to play all year round."

The absence of a harsh winter is especially important for serious youth clubs.

"In the Midwest, it goes from an outdoor game in the fall, to an indoor game in the winter, back to an outdoor game in the spring," Sampson says. "Going from outdoor to indoor to outdoor, I think has a negative impact on the outdoor game.

"It does wonders for developing skills for players but, over the long term, it impacts those clubs who are playing outdoor on a competitive basis."

But clears skies, Schmid warns, can be too much of a good thing.

"A New Jersey, St., Louis or Seattle player deals with different weather conditions," he says. "They may be mentally tougher when it comes to weather conditions. California kids are used to good conditions all the time. Some kids don't adjust well when the conditions aren't great."

While Sampson doesn't deny that some players have problems adjusting to harsh conditions, he dismisses the idea that California players are soft.

He compares this perception of California players with the stereotype of Midwesterners relying on brawn over skill.

"Characteristics of Midwestern players," Sampson says, "is that they tend to be more powerful with greater emphasis on the physical game and less emphasis on the technical side of the game. That's an overgeneralization, but that is the perception of the two areas."

As for Californians being spoiled by the state's comfortable conditions, Sampson says, "That is something we're making great strides and efforts to overcome."

Indeed, travel to competition around the nation has become common even for very young players. Moreover, Californian products like Paul Caligiuri and Eric Wynalda had little if any problem adjusting to the frigid German climate when they played professionally there.

THE YOUTH FOUNTAIN. The four players who lead the United States in national team appearances were raised in Southern California: Cobi Jones (129), Marcelo Balboa (128), Caligiuri (110) and Wynalda (106).

But the California Youth Soccer Association-South isn't resting on its laurels.

It hired Sampson as its technical director more than a year ago. Sampson, a Northern Californian who has experience with college and youth ball at both ends of the state, is responsible for all the Olympic Developmental Programs for CYSA-South and has implemented a new scouting system.

"Historically, the Olympic Developmental Program has had tryouts at a district level before they are brought onto the state team," he says. "What we've done is gone to a strict scouting program that selects our very best players from the most competitive environment. That's when their club teams compete against each other."

With scouts who are unaffiliated with any club, the talent is reviewed with unbiased eyes, according to Sampson.

Other features of the CYSA-South system include two pools, with 40 to 50 boys and girls in each, from which the best 18 are selected for competitions throughout the year. Players can be released or acquired from the pool at anytime in the year.

CYSA-South, unlike many associations in the nation, forces no boundaries on club participation.

"If you live in Bakersfield and you want to play in San Diego, you can do so, if you are willing to make that commitment," Sampson says.

Under this system, he believes that the best coaches are able to attract the top players.

"Combined with top level competition, this allows for an environment where good players can become even better," he says.

Schmid agrees that competition is another essential factor in the successful production of players.

"Kids are able to get quality competition on a more regular basis," he says. "For example, a good player in Iowa or Utah just doesn't get the same kind of competition."

Schmid's faith in Californian soccer is demonstrated by his Galaxy squad, which boasts 10 California products, and Schmid says, gives Los Angeles a team that is a "reflection of the region."

NORTH VS. SOUTH. Although Sampson and Schmid agree that all of California is doing a good job in producing players, they feel that Southern California has the edge in that area.

Sampson stresses that CYSA-S's innovations have yet to be duplicated in the North.

Schmid says, "In the past 5 to 10 years, Southern California has pulled ahead of Northern California in producing players."

When asked if he sees any slowing in Southern California's production of quality players, Schmid replied, "I don't see anything that will curtail that. What Sampson is doing with the youth teams will help."

But Osiander defends the talent from the North.

"Maybe the numbers are higher in Southern California," he says, then jokingly adds, "Northern California has much better players! They do less surfing."

Regardless of the regional rivalries, California remains ahead of the other states and shows no signs of losing its lead.

by Soccer America assistant editor Bryan Alvarez

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