There’s lots to like yet much to fear about the hiring of former U.S. international Claudio Reyna as youth technical director by U.S. Soccer.
He’s a product, one of the best ever, of a much-maligned system he is tasked with revamping and strengthening. Layers of bureaucracy and petty political squabbling cast across a vast country of more than 300 million people are staggering obstacles for anyone, regardless of how many caps he’s earned or major matches he’s played in.
For all the power and influence he may wield at the behest of president Sunil Gulati, and his place within the U.S. national teams program, how well he interacts with the professional ranks and his former teammates may determine his success. His former teammates with clubs and country are now coaches, general managers, broadcasters and executives well ingrained into the American soccer community, and their expertise is essential.
The timing would seem to be is excellent. MLS, in its cumbersome way, is lurching towards a bonafide player development structure, with academy teams, roster spots for “protected” players, and perhaps revival of the Reserve Division it terminated after the 2008 season. The federation itself has taken over operation of a second professional tier that will feature 12 teams and there have already been discussions about how the top two levels of pro soccer, supported by the USL-2 and PDL divisions, can best produce and develop players.
U.S. Soccer can’t emulate the programs of other countries for reasons too numerous to mention, though aspects of them must be examined and adapted if possible. In some manner, soccer must copy that other popular American pastime, baseball, by forming a vast network of scouts who can feed player information into the proper channels. There are former pros scattered all over the United States who know a good player when they see one, and those players need to be seen by the right people.
Every pro baseball team runs its own scouting department, with full-time and part-time employees watching games and writing up reports. And each one of them knows or speaks regularly with dozens, if not hundreds, of people they know who are steeped in the game and have a good eye for talent, whether it be seen at a high school game or American Legion playoff. The “bird dogs” are perhaps not so important in this age of instant cyber-links and You Tube clips, but an honest first-hand evaluation from a trusted source can override the most laudatory e-mail.
The structure itself isn’t as important as its objectives; to find more good players and accelerate their development. And the “structure” may be no more than phone calls and text messages and the occasional tweet fed into the system, if that system is set up to process the information.
More than 20 years ago, Reyna and a team of U.S. under-16s went to the 1989 FIFA world championships in Scotland and stunned Brazil, 1-0, sparking hopes they could go deep in the competition and perhaps even win it. Of course, they didn’t, and despite that superb result couldn’t advance out of the group stage.
In the past two decades, numerous U.S. teams in numerous competitions have posted a memorable result yet fizzled or failed to impress otherwise. Earlier that same year, a precocious bunch of U-20s (led by Kasey Keller in goal, Curt Onalfo on defense and Steve Snow up front) finished fourth at the world championships, and the occasional good showings – fourth at the 1992 Olympics and 1999 U-17 World Cup, quarterfinalist at the 2002 World Cup – mixed with disappointing results taint the American system as one borne more of luck than design.
Bluntly put, Reyna can only be as influential and productive as the system that employs him, and how quickly and extensively he can form his own ad hoc network of scouts, spies, observers, and trusted advisers. The titles and job descriptions and jurisdictions for, say, former internationals Jurgen Sommer, Marcelo Balboa and Thomas Dooley aren’t as important as who they talk to and what information they can ferret out, and what Reyna and U.S. Soccer do thereof.
The greater emphasis and aggressiveness by MLS teams to find and produce good players is vital to the process that Reyna must harness.