One thing we hear a lot from the foreign clubs coming to the USA is how they're aiming to help Americans produce better soccer players.
Six years ago, when a wave of British clubs arrived to partner with American clubs, we heard from Burnley that it would “aid youth development and share training methods.” Chelsea promised to “assist in the development of young players at all levels in America.”
Whether foreign clubs really have expertise that can help American soccer is one thing. I would think the U.S. game has evolved beyond needing or wanting advice from the likes of a Burnley. Even Chelsea, when it forged a partnership with North Carolina’s Capital Area Soccer League (CASL) in 2008, could boast of only one product from its youth program who saw English Premier League action for the Blues the previous season: John Terry, who debuted a decade earlier. Four years later, Terry, who joined Chelsea at age 14, was still the only “homegrown” player who contributed to its Champions League title win.
Regardless of whether they have something valuable to offer American players or coaches, I’m hard-pressed to believe that foreign clubs coming here are motivated by a desire to help America children. I just cannot imagine their executives fretting about U.S. player development and saying to their coaches, “We’ve got to help the Americans!”
More likely, the motivation comes from the knowledge that the U.S. market is the low-hanging fruit of the global soccer industry. They've gotten wind of the fact that Americans will pay $150 to watch preseason scrimmages between big European teams without their stars. They heard we'll spend $5,000, even $10,000 a year on our child's soccer.
So from all over the world they come looking for a piece of the American pie. And an especially enticing point of entry into the U.S. market is youth soccer.
Chelsea’s partnership with the 9,000-player CASL ended in 2012, but it sold lots of replica jerseys to Americans. This year, we’ve had two European clubs venture into the U.S. market that actually do have an impressive record of graduating players from its youth academy to its first team: Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Barcelona has launched an academy in Florida. La Masia, Barcelona’s famed academy in Spain, doesn’t charge kids. This U.S. version is, surprise, a pay-to-play venture.
Credit to Bayern Munich for being honest about why it has forged a partnership with Global Premier Soccer (GPS).
“Our main objective is that we brand build and get in touch with our fan base,” Rudolf Vidal, CEO of Bayern Munich in the USA.
Despite its long history as a superclub, Bayern has lagged in U.S. popularity behind English Premier League clubs, which have gotten far more television exposure in the USA than Bundesliga teams, and behind the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Bayern, a Bundesliga record 23-time champion, has been on a particularly good roll recently, reaching three of the last five Champions League finals. And Germany’s 2014 World Cup title-winning team included seven Bayern players and five players from Bayern’s youth academy.
The quest by Bayern, which opened a New York City office and a U.S. online store earlier this year, to build its American fan base is perfectly understandable as its global rivals have been doing the same. Kids, of course, are a prime target.
“Part of the brand-building process is definitely the grass-roots approach where we can bring our know-how to the States,” says Vidal. “We want to build the brand, get in touch with the people who are interested in Bayern Munich and go into the youth soccer structure and try to help wherever we can. It’s not like we can reform the whole system. We want to help, add something.”
He says he’s very confident this will be “a win-win situation for everybody. That means for the kids, for Bayern Munich, and for GPS.”
GPS specializes in importing coaches from the UK and Ireland to serve clubs and leagues in 11 states. Vidal says GPS’s network suits Bayern quest well.
“It is an organization with more than 75 clubs,” says Vidal. “So they have Tier 1 clubs and Tier 2 clubs, and that means Tier 1 are clubs run by GPS and Tier 2 clubs get marketing support, they get coaching support. They get everything what a club needs. Bayern Munich is working with all of them.”
Vidal assures us that the very coaches who make Bayern’s academy at the Sabener Strasse so successful will be the ones spending “five, six weeks a year” in the USA.
“We’ll send the best coaches coming from Germany,” Vidal says. “We’ll bring GPS coaches to Germany. We’ll give them our curriculum and principles to tell them how we work, what is the secret behind that.”
Much of Bayern’s success in youth development is not so secret. It fields one team at each youth age group comprised of the best players it can find from mainly southern Germany, but also from throughout the country and abroad. And each year players are cut and new talent comes in.
Bayern coaches have the luxury of coaching the very best players at a particular age group. They coach players whom their scouts assessed as having the potential to become pros. The American coaches whom Bayern coaches will be advising coach in a very different environment. Will Bayern guidance help them become better coaches to young Americans? Perhaps. Will Bayern be selling lots more jerseys? For sure.