Youth Beat: Selling shirts or star searching?

The annual Dallas Cup attracts top youth clubs from around the world, but it's not always easy to tell from which country the teams hail, based on their name or uniform.

Gordon Jago, the tournament's executive director, once had to calm down an irate transplanted Londoner who was furious that he wasn't watching the "real" Arsenal. The game featured not the Gunners' youth team but the Southern California team that emulates the English powerhouse in name and uniform.

"I told him I'd give him his $10 back," said Jago.

On another occasion, Jago watched as officials from Brazilian club Sao Paulo, which was fielding a U-19 team, hit the roof when a U-12 Mexican team was wearing Sao Paulo jerseys.

"It was Sao Paulo of Monterrey, a team created by Zizinho," says Jago. "His son, Giovani dos Santos, was playing on it just before he moved to Barcelona. But the Sao Paulo guys were really annoyed about seeing a team in their shirts."

Last year, during an interview with FC Barcelona President Joan Laporta, I showed him a copy of Soccer America that included a photo of an American youth team whose players wear the Catalan club's famous blue and dark-red jerseys. Unlike the Sao Paulo officials, Laporta was delighted and wanted to know more about the Southern California club that calls itself Barcelona and is affiliated with the Spanish giant as a fan club.

American youth sports have a long tradition of teams wearing uniforms and using the nicknames of pro teams they have no affiliation with. Major League Baseball recently cracked down by ordering teams to buy the uniforms through an MLB- sanctioned distributor.

What makes the practice unique in soccer is youth teams wear the uniforms of foreign teams. North Carolina may not have much in common with London, but the elite teams fielded by the Capital Area Soccer League (CASL) are set to don Chelsea jerseys, which will be provided by the English Premier League club.

In the case of the CASL, a "full-service club" with 9,000 registered players, the Chelsea link is an official partnership. When announced in July, Chelsea called it "the start of an unprecedented initiative to partner with America's top youth football clubs. Chelsea is beginning to build a network of top youth clubs across America to develop Chelsea Soccer Schools, a new tournament called the Chelsea Sevens, coaching clinics and exchange programs."

Other British clubs that have forayed into American youth soccer include Liverpool, Everton, West Ham and Crystal Palace. More are on the way.

Burnley chairman, Barry Kilby, said the club wants to be part of the American youth soccer boom and that the USA could provide talent for his club.

"If you look at Chelsea, they got to the FA Youth Cup Final and there were only two English players in the team," Kilby told the Burnley Express. "If we just stick to our own backyard, we can get left behind."

As part of the partnership forged with USL last year, West Ham selects Super Y-League players to visit its academy. West Ham Academy director Tony Carr told the East London Advertiser, "There is lots of raw talent in the U.S. and some very good players."

So they come for American players, or is there more to it?
"We underestimate the perception internationally of Burnley Football Club," said Burnley operational director Brendan Flood. "It's a global sport and … people would give their right arm to get a connection with us."

Really? Among pro teams in England, Burnley ranks 40th in attendance with an average of 12,364. It finished 13th in England's second tier last season and has never played in the EPL.

"Hopefully, there will be cross-merchandising opportunities and also maybe a new fan base as well," said Kilby.

It's easy to mock the notion that Burnley's arrival in the USA will excite American soccer fans. A club like Chelsea, however, could expect to generate more enthusiasm and replica jersey sales. The Blues are part of the popular EPL and UEFA Champions League, both broadcast on U.S. television, and field an array of international stars.

Worldwide branding has become a big part of the marketing strategy of the world's mega clubs. Real Madrid had been accused of signing David Beckham in 2003 to generate jersey sales in emerging markets — then proudly announced it had sold 1 million Beckham shirts during his first six months. MLS says the Los Angeles Galaxy has sold 300,000 Beckham jerseys.

Signing players with global appeal is one way to spur merchandise sales but such stars are limited in number. Getting involved at the grassroots level is another strategy. Which is why whenever a foreign club comes here one must question its motives. Is it because they see this market in which millions of kids who play soccer have the money to spend on merchandise, tournaments and camps?

"I understand that point," said Paul Clement, Chelsea's youth team manager. "And I know a lot of clubs have tried to do that before. But we're going to be square. What we're trying to do is assist in the development of young players at all levels in America, whether that be through grassroots programs or whether that be at the elite level."

Clement says the partnership is about working with coaches and young players, sharing ideas in "a collaboration that will work well for both sides."

CASL Chief Executive Charlie Slagle says the club's shared programs with Chelsea — such as a Chelsea-sponsored tournament, various coaching schools, camps and academies — will create revenue to help defray costs for CASL players.

Clement downplayed the notion that the partnership would lead to American players ending up with Chelsea, citing work-permit issues and regulations that prevent minors from outside the EU joining foreign teams.

"I'm not going to say it's not possible," he said. "It's going to be spinoff of the relationship as there will be many other spinoffs. What it will allow, and this is a great thing I think for the young players, is if you're going to be a real high-end talent, a top talent, you will be known by Chelsea."

Clement says CASL players may visit Chelsea to train for short periods, "testing themselves against the best."

So how does the American player benefit from foreign clubs' involvement? One aspect that is usually touted is the clubs will share their coaching expertise. The value of this is highly questionable coming from England, whose national team hasn't won a title since 1966 and whose top clubs rely so heavily on foreign imports that its player development system has come under major criticism.

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson said last year that England's academy system is "falling apart." In an analysis of English youth development, The Guardian announced that, "Academies go from substandard to ridiculous."

Of the 29 players who saw English Premier League action for Chelsea last season, one of them was a product of its youth program: John Terry, who debuted a decade ago.

Clement says, "We've been through a big rebuilding period over the last few years. … When Roman Abramovich invested very, very heavily in the youth program, he appointed [Dane] Frank Arnesen [chief scout and director of youth development] and made a big change in the whole philosophy."

Hassan Nazari is the Director of Coaching of the Dallas Texans, who this year were named Soccer America's No. 1 boys youth club. He says he sees little value in collaborating with a foreign club unless it offered to build facilities or provided significant financial backing.

"As far as the coaching goes," says Nazari, "you really have to consider whether they're offering anything better than we already have in the United States."

(This article originally appeared in the August issue of Soccer America magazine.) 

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