USMNT and the development of elite players

When I do a sequel to an article, I usually do it in a few weeks. This time, this is a sequel to an article I wrote in April. In that article I compared the roster of the USMNT preparing for its March friendlies to the roster of the Turkish MNT. Six months has passed and now USMNT are playing World Cup qualifiers in the Octagonal. The roster in question is the one for this second phase of the Octagonal. This article will just concentrate on the USMNT and its recent game against Jamaica.

USMNT played Jamaica very close to my hometown, in Austin. I watched the game. I think it is worth saying a few things about the game, and the officiating before focusing on the roster and the developmental elements of it.

Although USMNT played the last-positioned team in the Octagonal at home, the game it played was very impressive, especially in the second half. It played a very-fast paced game, trying to possess the ball. Ricardo Pepi’s performance was phenomenal. An 18-year-old player playing his first two official A level national team games and scoring three goals will be phenomenal anywhere on the planet. It will be premature to expect the same scoring performance in the coming games, but it is definite that the USMNT might have found a striker with a good finishing touch. Pepi’s style somehow reminds me of Gerd Mueller. He definitely is not the “classical’ striker who can play with his back to the defense, but USMNT can change their playing style without the need for a “classical” striker. I was very much impressed by the way Tim Weah and Sergino Dest played also. Let us not forget they found space in the Jamaican defense to display their talents. Sergino 

One word to the referee from Grenada: Reon Radix. Grenada is an island state with a population of 111,454 (2018). Radix is the sole FIFA referee from this country with very limited international match experience. Locally the games he referees are levels way down from what he refereed in Austin. His only experience comes from Concacaf club and national team matches and those are very limited too. He is a tier-two referee in Concacaf. His only other mentionable achievement is a game he officiated in 2021 Gold Cup qualifying: Guadalupe vs. Bahamas. He is 31 years old and is an ex-long-distance runner. You could see that he is very fit and has a very positive body language. His foul recognition is decent. The game did not create any game control issues, so I cannot comment too much on his game controlling talent; both yellow cards he showed were for stopping  potential attacks rather than a DOGSOs. He was heavily criticized for not issuing red cards for those two fouls in the first half. For the first foul, one might find excuses like too far from the goal and another Jamaican defender might have caught the attacker and support his yellow card. But for the second one, there is no excuse. It was a Match Critical Incident, which should bring him a failing grade. The issue is not with him, but rather with Concacaf. Why did it assign such a “rookie” referee? I understand its dilemma of being limited to a few elite referees, mainly from Mexico and the USA. Still, this was not the correct choice. I believe Radix tried to prove that he will not be influenced by the home team, and that is what he did. If USMNT did not score in the second half, I cannot imagine the dimensions of the criticism that Concacaf refereeing department would have.

So much for the game and the referee. Let us analyze the roster that was picked up by Gregg Berhalter for the second stage of the Octagonal. It is clear that these are some of the best athletes/players that can play for the USMNT. There might be others who were not selected but the analysis stands for this roster which Berhalter’s choice.

The roster of 26 has an average age of 24.12, which is very young for a MNT. Their average age is a bit older than the roster in March (23.07). The average cap of the roster is 20.31. Clearly Berhalter chose a roster for the future. Looking at the second half of the Honduras game and the Jamaica game -- excluding 1-0 loss to Panama -- one can be hopeful, but it is still to early to see what this team can do in the World Cup in 2022. Yes, I am predicting USMNT will qualify for the World Cup even though this article was written before USMNT lost 1-0 to Panama. This loss will not change any of the messages of this article. Such a young team will have ups and downs. Clearly, we need to play more away games in the rest of the region, instead of relying on home games for friendlies and the Gold Cup. 

The other areas to investigate is where these 26 players developed their soccer skills and still developing them. If you look at player development in two phases namely youth – up to 18 – and elite -- above the age of 18 -- development then we get an interesting breakdown. 

For the first phase of development, out of the 26 players 17 of them were developed here at home by local clubs. Three of them were partially developed here and abroad and four were developed in Europe. This shows the importance of local youth development by local clubs.

For the elite phase, nine of them stayed in the USA whereas 14 of them played elite soccer just in Europe. Three had their elite development here and abroad. The majority of the USMNT chose Europe mostly for their elite development; this tells a lot about our professional leagues.

Another analysis on their and their families background revealed another expected outcome. Thirteen players on the roster were either born and/or raised in a foreign country or their parents were. This proves the importance of growing up in a deep soccer culture which unfortunately our country still lacks. 

We should not forget our rivals of our MNT have at least 100 years of soccer culture and other professional games like football, basketball and baseball have been engrained in our sports culture fabric for nearly a century, ours soccer culture is at best limited to three decades. There are now some American parents who has an interest in soccer – who watch soccer or even might have played soccer – but there are no or very few American grandparents who have any interest in soccer. Soccer culture grows slowly overtime. 

Our basic dilemma for the MNTs is that we want to compress 100 years into maybe 40 years, which is not doable. We might expedite the process and there are three ways of doing it, looking into our current landscape.

  1. Enhance our professional leagues and the system of professional leagues so that we have more players choosing local clubs for their elite development.
  2. Nurture local youth clubs so that they can develop more talented elite players despite the backdrop of a pay-to-play system and the lack of training compensation and solidarity payment.
  3. Integrate talented but underprivileged players coming from a strong soccer culture into the system so that we have more players coming from families with a deep soccer culture who are eligible for the USMNT.

For the last item there is hope now. After years of negligence, U.S. Soccer is now working on a project to identify who the system is leaving out and how to remove the barriers. (Please listen minutes 48-50) For the other two, I will have to write two sequel articles in the weeks to come.

Ahmet Guvener ( 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. 

9 comments about "USMNT and the development of elite players".
  1. R2 Dad, October 12, 2021 at 5:35 p.m.

    HI AG, thanks for addressing the issues you bring up. Typical for CONCACAF to try to bring up the level of 2ndary performers at the expense of the top tier--this is what they do pusing minnow countries to compete vv the "bigger countries" (of which tiny Panama must be included). To your list, I think I would add the more popular option currently pusued by young players, 4. Escape to Europe at the first opportunity so as not to get trapped in the MLS system. Bruce Schoenfeld has a good article over on that other site about the journey young players take.

  2. Bob Ashpole, October 13, 2021 at 8:53 a.m.

    Excellent article. 

    One point I will make about US culture. It is diverse. Some regions have no significant soccer culture, while other regions have had a strong soccer culture for generations. This fact is additional support for the conclusion that culture is important to development of elite athletes. As is family support for long term athlete development.

  3. frank schoon, October 13, 2021 at 11:03 a.m.

    Interesting article AG. I do think the term 'Elite' is too often applied to American soccer players. What some see as Elite soccer players ,I see as products lacking in player development. As Paul Kennedy stated  in his latest article where, due to Reyna and Pulisic being injured, we lack players that can drive a ball consistently in to the penalty area from corners....

    The term 'Elite' or, for example other terms used by soccer camps exhorting to bring your kid to the "Next Level', is all about  money.   The term Elite is never used or applied in European soccer to upcoming're either good or not good enough, it is never advertised or even mentioned in that light.

    I wish you would explain why Turkey, as big a country it is and has a big soccer base,  a soccer history and a big soccer fan base, is not known for good quality soccer. They don't produce big names in soccer nor great teams, nor great coaches with new ideas or great soccer minds....

  4. Ahmet Guvener replied, October 13, 2021 at 11:45 a.m.

    I can write several articles on that topic but that will not be of interest to the American soccer public. Basic reasons are politicians are too much involved with soccer and the wrong governance structure. 

  5. frank schoon replied, October 13, 2021 at 1:15 p.m.

    Ahmed, I think it would be interesting to explain it for it would give the American reader a better view at how politics can RUIN soccer development(USSF).  American parents have experience politics on local youth soccer level and are pretty well versedl

    It would give Americans a richer picture about soccer and the behind the scenes  and the culture. I know you say, politics is a big problem but that is everywhere, remember Rumania and the secret service supporting there teams,etc. Politics will always be a factor, but I do think the turkish soccer problem has also other factors that play a part. 
     Granted I don't know much about Turkish soccer goings on but it would be an eye opener. Like, with your connections in Turkey, why don't you interview someone from Turkish Coaching Academy and let him explain some of the going on....
    Why has the Turkish National Team ever played the USNT or come here to play..??

  6. humble 1, October 14, 2021 at 4:32 p.m.

    Ahmet, thank you for the thoughful article.  I did watch the video you kindly referenced.  I happen to know fairly well the context to which you refer, and after watching, I can say, they gave me zero confidence they will do anything. What I did recognize is an attempt to be able to 'say' we are doing something.  Oh great, another 'study'.  We Americans are very familiar with this concept.  It comes from our represtatives in Washington, D.C.  It does not inspire confidence that something will be done, it does the oposite.  Over all comenting on the overall dialogue, the have zero grasp of what their 'mission' is.  It says in their name 'U.S.' Soccer Federation.  But they mostly talk about changing the 'world'.  Do they not understand there is enough work to be done serving the soccer needs of American's, and that their mission is to change soccer in the USA, and the rest of the world can take care of themselves.  Just a couple of days ago we got played off the park by Panama.  Sheesh.  Good people, big challenges, complete lack of focus. 

  7. humble 1, October 14, 2021 at 4:51 p.m.

    Ahmet, again thank you for your thoughts, I always enjoy your peices as your perspective is extraordinary. Let me share a few thoughts.  For me, very few players are developed by systems, here. I will say we are closer, but still when you peel back the layers it is almost always a 'bespoke' process.  So when you say '17 of them (players) were developed here at home by local clubs', I am not convinced.  As it stands right now, from my experience, a club gives a license to play in a league.  Nothing more.  I have seen many clubs and not one actually has a system than can develop a player.  I played basketball growing up.  I never played for a club.  I never had a private lesson.  I did play in a YMCA league and I did play for my schools, but they don't claim to have taught me.  It is the same for baseball and football and hockey.  Why do soccer clubs claim to develop players?  Because they get people to fork over big money.  But it's all a big lie. I figured it out for myself very quickly, because I could smell a rat.  Then I redirected my efforts to raise a soccer player, counting on the club only for a very expensive league, and guess what, my son recovered and he can actually play futbol.  So for me, clubs do not develop players.  No club developed Luis Suarez, he played for and loves Club National de Futbol, and they are in Montevideo, and they and other clubs in Uruguay collect monies now and then when Luis transfers, but they all know he was developed in the streets, they 'refined' and groomed him to play as professional, and for that they are compensated, but they did not teach him how to play soccer, any more than the YMCA taught me how to play basketball.  When America wakes up to this reality, and realizes the importance of faciliating free play for soccer, this is when we will awake as a soccer nation.  It is still far easier to play pickup basketball than soccer.  I get kicked off tennis courts by tennis players and basketball courts by basketball courts, we need more soccer pitches, and then we need to encourage kids to get out and play, without coaches, and yeah, without parents too.     

  8. humble 1, October 14, 2021 at 5:15 p.m.

    Ahmed, at the risk of being edited out of existense, or just completely ignored, I do feel compelled to share one more point.  You write .. 'our soccer culture is at best limited to three decades'.  Yet, the U.S. Open Cup turned 100 years old in 2014.  The first men's soccer college cup tournament was held in 1959, before that the winner was determined by poll. So there is a soccer history here, it's just one many overlook or just outright ignore.  The irony is that for me, to understand and grasp soccer in the USA, you cannot do it without ackknowleging college soccer.  Where to do most MLS Next boys finish their soccer careers?  You guessed it, college soccer.  Where did most of the players for the US in the 1990 world cup hone their soccer skills, you guessed it, college soccer.  I know for soccer purists college soccer is not a pathway that interests them.  This is understandable.  What are the largest amatuer soccer leagues in the world for men and women?  You guessed it, college soccer in the USA.  This single most important thing USSF can do to facilitate soccer growth in the USA is to facilitate coach and referee licensing.  Make it easier, make it cheaper, make the holders better professionals or volunteers.  This will lift the game, at clubs in professional leagues, but also in colleges and high schools, which are really the key free leagues.  If the actions of USSF help only clubs, and do not help high school and college soccer, our most important free play platforms, and does not facility free-play, and I mean free from cost and free from, coaches, and referees, they will not succeed.  The great thing about free-play and well trained and qualified high school and college soccer coaching is that it's open to everyone, men, women, people of all persuasions.  Go make yourself into a soccer player, don't wait around for some someone to do it for you!   

  9. Kent James, October 15, 2021 at 2:22 a.m.

    Ahmed, I agree with your assessment of the national team, as well as the ref for the Jamaica game (talk about being tested; potential red card in the first 30 seconds of your first qualifier??).  Very few refs would have the guts to make that call (and understandably so, given Ariolla went down very easily and he certainly looked like he might have been offside, though given the conscious effort of the Jamaican player to grab Ariolla to slow him down, a red was certainly justifiable).  On the 2nd one, justice was probably served; clear red card if the foul was called, but given the defender got the ball first (and I didn't think in a reckless manner), probably should not have been a foul (though watching it live, I thought it was).  But you are right, referees without much experience at that level should not be put in such tough positions.

    Good data on the player development side, and it makes sense.  Some areas of the country do have a much longer (and stronger) soccer history, and we're making progess, but lack of culture limits our pool of talented players.  I think that culture has to come from a strong MLS (and it's been improving and growing, so it's coming).  We need to have kids that live for soccer, and want to emulate the pros on the team (hopefully close by) that they cheer for, and are inspired to go out and play soccer in the streets with their friends.  Clubs (and college) can do their parts, but what needs to be strengthened the most is the culture, the planting of desire.

    And of course, the MLS (and elite youth) have a dilemma.  The MLS needs to keep costs under control (to avoid the fate of the NASL) so they can't pay as well as Europe, and the best young players want to test themselves against the best players, who are all in Europe. And I'm not even sure money can bring those players here (if the MLS clubs had it to spend).  The best players like to play with and against the best players, and broadening the pool of good teams (to include the MLS) weakens the pool (a problem the MLS can run into if it has too many teams as well).  The MLS would be better off keeping the elite American youth players here, but right now, those players would probably not be.  But if the MLS gains financial strength, and maybe has more games with Mexican league teams, eventually those young players can develop here. 

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