MIKE WOITALLA: Boys to men

They're not allowed to vote. Except for the two who already play with German clubs, they're about four years away from legally buying a beer.

By law, they are boys, even though they left home in January.

The U.S. U-17 program has been around since 1985. In 1998, the U.S. Soccer Federation began referring to its under-17 team as a "men's" national team. Coincidentally, or not, that's also the year the federation created the residency program and invested $1.5 million in the 1999 world championship effort.

Sound like a lot of money? Yes and no.

It's a lot more than other nations spend on their youth teams, but it's comparable to what international clubs spend on their youth development programs.

For example, Norwich, a second-tier English league team, budgets $722,000 a year on its youth program. That matches the U-17 investment, which was spread over two years.

Liverpool spends $2.4 million on its hopefuls. Ajax Amsterdam's renowned youth program is in that range, and its mission is to graduate two players to the First Division team every two years.

These foreign pro clubs get a return if they produce a star or two, either by selling the player or saving the cash it would take to buy one.

Why does U.S. Soccer do it?

Before MLS, the federation treated its national team like a club, with full-time contracts and endless training camps. Now the team functions like the rest of the world's.

The single-entity structure, NCAA rules and its overall precarious state currently prevent MLS from developing young players.

U.S. Soccer has to carry the burden of providing the tools for young Americans. When they really do become men, they'll help the U.S. become a soccer power. And that will create a handsome return.

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