Interest from foreign clubs in teenage American players is at an all-time high and an increasing number of youngsters are considering leaving their homes to pursue their soccer dreams aboard.
One day Francisco Lletget noticed something slightly odd about the way his son, Sebastian, was eating breakfast, so he approached and took a closer look. While scooping cereal into his mouth, Sebastian was tapping a soccer ball back and forth under the table.
"The thing about Sebi," says Francisco, "he always wants to play soccer. Even now at age 15, he still plays soccer in the house."
Francisco was the same way when he was growing up in Mar del Plata, Argentina, dreaming of becoming a professional soccer player.
"But my parents didn't support me in that dream the way I support Sebi," says Francisco. "They wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor. But whenever I opened a school book, I just started thinking about soccer again."
Francisco and his wife, Sara, immigrated to the United States when he was 20. The family lives in South San Francisco. Francisco works at the Oroweat/Bimbo bakery and Sara for the U.S. Postal Service.
Sebastian plays youth soccer for Santa Clara Sporting, about an hour drive from their home. His story serves as an example of how aggressively scouts from foreign clubs are pursuing young American talent.
Sebastian has played for the U-15 U.S. national team, but it was when he was playing with his local club, more than 5,000 miles away from London, that West Ham United scouts spotted him.
"I couldn't believe it when a scout from an English Premier League team came up to me and said he was interested in my son," says Francisco.
After Sebastian's third visit to West Ham, where he trained with its U-16 and U-18 youth teams, the club invited Sebastian to join its youth academy. At the same time, Sebastian received an invitation from the U.S. Soccer Federation to move to Bradenton, Fla., and enter its U-17 residency camp. But his parents' visit to West Ham had convinced them it would be the right place for him.
They toured the club, the boarding home where Sebastian would live, the school he'd attend, and observed the training he'll experience.
"Everything about it looked like it would be a good place for Sebastian," says Francisco.
Sebastian is in the process of acquiring an Italian passport, for which he is eligible because of his maternal grandfather. It will make him a European Union player, meaning he won't require a UK work permit if he's offered a pro contract down the road. Also, FIFA's ban on international transfers of minors does not apply to EU members.
(Another method of circumventing the ban is having the parents move as well.)
Making the decision for Francisco and Sara to send their son away from home easier was the West Ham Academy's long history of producing top-level players. Alumni who are top current England players include Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick. (Hammers Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters started on England's 1966 World Cup championship team.)
In fact, West Ham is one of the few English clubs that has drawn praise for its player development. Each English Premier League is required to have an academy, but so few players advance to the EPL that Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson recently said the academy system was "falling apart."
A STEP TO THE TOP? There are examples of Americans who went to Europe as teens and enjoyed successful careers.
Jovan Kirovski left California in 1991 at age 15 to join Manchester United. The inability to get a UK work permit prevented him from appearing for Man U's first team, but he played in Germany, Portugal, and after becoming a U.S. international, returned to England. Kirovski currently plays for the Colorado Rapids.
John O'Brien was 16 when he joined Ajax Amsterdam's youth program. He made a smooth transition to its first team, was a star for the USA at the 2002 World Cup, but retired at age 29 because of injuries.
More recently, New Jersey product Giuseppe Rossi went to Italy's Parma at age 13 and is now a leading scorer in the Spanish La Liga at age 20.
Of course, for all the success stories many, many more players who venture abroad won't make it as professionals. With that mind, players and their parents must carefully consider whether leaving home as a teen is a prudent choice.
For one, joining a pro club's youth system or even trying out can jeopardize a player's college eligibility.
If a boy receives expenses from a professional club for a visit longer than 48 hours, he will break NCAA eligibility rules. He can, however, regain eligibility if he repays the money. The NCAA sets no limits on self-financed tryouts.
A player interested in playing for a youth or amateur team of a professional club without forfeiting his eligibility is at the mercy of the NCAA's interpretation of the player's relationship with the professional club. If the professional club pays the player's living and travel expenses, it will likely render him ineligible for college, although reinstatement is possible.
"There are some gray areas when a player becomes part of a professional club's youth system," says Cal Berkeley coach Kevin Grimes.
Grimes says that about seven years ago the number of elite Americans who skipped college to pursue pro careers increased dramatically.
"There's no doubt that most of the top players aren't going to college," says Grimes, "whether it's to play in MLS or to go abroad. But some players still do go to college, make it in MLS and go abroad.
"I think it can be very difficult for a 17-year-old to move to another country. And even if a player only goes to college for a year or two, it may make the transition easier for him when he does go abroad."
Clint Dempsey, currently one of the most successful Americans abroad, spent three years at Furman University and four years in MLS before joining English Premier League club Fulham at age 23.
RESEARCH REQUIRED. Bob Jenkins, U.S. Soccer's director of player development and its U-18 national team coach, says young Americans have long aimed to play abroad, but recently the opportunities have increased dramatically.
"In the last year and a half it seems more and more people are showing up trying to place young players in Europe," Jenkins says. "Part of that is because some Americans are succeeding abroad. And the other reason is that the United States is kind of a frontier, because here foreign clubs can get players and not have to pay anybody."
While in other nations clubs that develop players can earn transfer fees or training compensation, American youth clubs don't. That has spurred some youth coaches to act as agents and work actively to find foreign clubs for their players, increasing the drive to move kids abroad.
One of the lures of leaving home is the notion that foreign clubs will accelerate the player's development.
"That's not always the case," says Jenkins. "I've seen players come back after a year with a European club and not be better than when they left. You cannot make a blanket statement that if you go abroad you'll be better off.
"Sometimes what a club has to offer looks good on paper, but either the training sessions or living conditions aren't optimal."
It's also important for players to know the club's track record of producing players for its top team and how many players from its youth academy play high-level ball with other clubs.
And how many players does the club bring into its youth program each year? An offer from a famous club may flatter, but realizing the club brings in 40 players from around the world each year puts the invitation into perspective. In some cases, a less glamorous club may have a more successful youth program.
Jenkins emphasizes it's crucial for players to understand the FIFA and national federation regulations when pursuing a move abroad. He cites a young player who joined a foreign club only to learn he wasn't eligible to play in competitive games.
There's also homesickness, the adjustment to a new culture, and the reality that the odds of reaching the top level are still minuscule even if one enters a club's feeder program. Most European clubs field youth and reserve teams while rarely promoting players to their first team.
"I always tell Sebastian, it's one step at a time," says Francisco. "He's still a long way from realizing his dream of playing pro soccer, but we believe West Ham is a great opportunity him."
(This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)