Those of you who follow my adventure in soccer most probably know that I was involved with soccer in the USA between the years 1978-1987 and 2016 until now. I also was involved with soccer at different levels in Turkey between 1987 and 2010. So, I can say that I understand the dynamics of both countries’ soccer landscape well.
Both the U.S. (USMNT) and Turkish (TMNT) men's national teams played games during the March international window. The rosters of those games can tell us a lot in terms of men’s player development. I will compare their rosters because I see the similarities in player development in both countries.
USMNT (ranked 20th) played two friendlies in Europe with Jamaica (ranked 44th) and Northern Ireland (ranked 48th). Turkey MNT (ranked 29th) played three World Cup qualifiers against Netherlands (ranked 16th), Norway (42nd) and Latvia (138th). USMNT both won both of their games; Turkey beat the Netherlands and Norway but tied Latvia at home. The scores are irrelevant to the topic of our current article. USMNT had 21 players and TMNT had 19 players who earned time.
National teams are selected among the best soccer players who are entitled to play for that country. The composition of national team rosters might give us a good indication of player development for that country. Let us not forget that player development is an ongoing process that spans from the age 4 or 5 until a player retires from playing.
If we look at player development as two phases without contemplating on specific ages, then there are two basic phases of development: youth and elite. Both teams’ roster has a mixture of various countries, including USA and Turkey, as the environment in which players were developed both at the youth and elite levels.
Since TMNT played in World Cup qualifiers the roster utilized the best players available at that time. On the other hand, the USMNT roster consisted mostly of players playing in Europe -- MLS has yet to start -- but those players are and will be the key players in Gregg Berhalter’s attempt at the World Cup qualifiers.
The average age of the USMNT was 22.3 with an average number of caps of 14.2. So, it is a young group with limited experience in the national team. The TMNT had an average age of 25.9 with an average number of caps of 24.9. Both national teams are young and with limited national team experience.
USMNT had seven of 21 players (33%) developed by European youth development teams -- three more took advantage of European passports and moved to Europe when they were 16 -- and 18 (88%) are playing in Europe in their elite development phase. Six players (32%) of the TMNT were developed outside of Turkey by European youth development system and 12 (64%) of them were playing elite soccer in other European leagues, 11 in the top 5 leagues of Europe.
Neither MLS nor Super Lig is an ideal platform – in terms of competitiveness – for elite development. Players choose the top professional teams in the world for their elite development phase. This statement is truer for the TMNT than the USMNT since there are still some players from MLS that Berhalter can add on his roster. The same cannot be said for the TMNT.
All five players from TMNT that were developed by other European youth development systems are sons of Turkish immigrants. The seven USMNT players from the roster of the two friendlies who were developed by European youth systems have dual and, in some cases, triple citizenships. They chose the USMNT because they felt that they will have better chance of playing time.
It is obvious that both countries have their own functional youth development systems. To go the next tier in youth development, they will have to follow the steps of Germany, France, Belgium and many others in the top rankings of FIFA. Those steps include a mandated and explicitly defined standards and requirements. There is usually a “carrot and stick” system by the federations. Most of them use Double Pass metrics to understand where they stand on the correct youth development path. The key word is mandated.
Well, here is the basic similarity between the USA and Turkish youth development systems. Neither can mandate anything to the youth development clubs for different reasons.
In a country where a simple thing like wearing a mask being mandated during a deadly pandemic is impossible, one should not even consider that U.S. Soccer can mandate anything. However well intended and explained there will be resentment and objection by state associations and clubs to mandates. U.S. Soccer tried to run the DA league with lax standards and requirements; still it faced objections. Eventually, they had to forego the DA league because of the financial dire straits caused by the pandemic. The only possible way for U.S. Soccer to convince the associations and clubs to follow strict mandates is through financial incentives. At this time, U.S. Soccer does not have the financial capability to do that.
There are very few professional soccer clubs in the USA – compared to its size and GDP – that might have their own standards and requirements for youth development. The majority of youth soccer clubs are not affiliated with pro clubs and are dependent on the pay-to-play model. For them, players are consumers and parents are customers. They must make sure they have proper organizational; business and player development know how to be successful in this youth soccer business. If need be, they should get professional help. Even though neither training compensation nor payment is in effect in the country, developing one player that plays in one of the elite leagues in Europe and the USMNT or USWNT will be an incredible marketing opportunity for their clubs. Hence, they should also care about the quality of their players. A good stream of talented American players flowing towards the elite clubs in Europe each year is very much dependent on successful youth soccer organizations which are willing to be transformative and proactive.
In Turkey, the problem is in the governance structure of the federation and clubs. Clubs are mostly non-profit associations whose board has no financial liability. Since there is no such thing as pay-to-play in Turkey, most pro clubs are deeply in the red. The national council of the federation consists of mostly delegates of professional clubs – 82%. The representation of amateur clubs is a token representation. As a result, the federation cannot mandate anything for youth development since it will cost pro clubs lots of money. There are clubs in Turkey that realize the importance of youth development and those 13 players – mentioned above – are from those few pro clubs. The clubs in Turkey will have to set their own standards and requirements to be successful like their counterparts in the USA.
Youth clubs everywhere on the planet are the “factories” of elite players. Club development should be the priority of every federation whether through a mandate and/or through helping them via various resources.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX