Editor’s note: Our next piece is by Eric Beard of a A Football Report…one of my favorite cerebral soccer reads. I choose not to run it late last week because I thought it would get lost in the draft “horserace” media coverage.
Eric, a member of the Emory University team is currently on location in Barcelona…studying the game as well as slithering his way into a club situation. Good luck Eric. Read more about Eric below the piece.
“You build the player like a house. The basis is the technique that happens before 12. If the player can play, the next floor is the physique at 14-15. Then it the tactical ability – how to use your technique and physique in the game. The last part, the roof, is the mental side. If you have no roof, it rains in your house. How competitive are you? How motivated to do well every day? That is the final step. I believe that hunger is something you get at 18 and remains relatively stable during your life. That is decided between 18 and 20. And that decides careers.”- Arsene Wenger
Careers in Major League Soccer tend to begin at around 21 or 22 years old thanks to the brilliantly American-sounding “SuperDraft”, which took place last Thursday in Baltimore.
Instead of the European and South American philosophy that spends years grooming talents under a certain skill set from a young age to create a cohesive unit that thinks as one, in MLS the best talents available to the clubs are picked off one at a time and after one day a team is reborn.
So who’s right: Mr. Wenger or MLS Commissioner Don Garber?
Alexi Lalas and Cobi Jones were both born in 1970 and their playing days began far before Major League Soccer came to fruition. Both players went through the college set-up before their respective careers kicked off after the 1994 World Cup, but one similarity remains: they both began their professional club careers abroad.
In 1992, when Lalas finished his time at Rutgers and had just competed in the summer Olympics, the defender with flowing ginger locks was able to get a trial with Arsenal and eventually played for the Reserve team. In 1994, Cobi Jones also went to the Premier League to ply his trade with Coventry City, featuring mostly as a substitute. Lalas never made the first team with Arsenal, but his experience gained with the Gooners helped make him a better player and perform to his potential in the World Cup. This showing led to a move to then-Serie A side Padova. Let’s not forget that in the early 90’s Serie A was the best league in the world with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Juan Sorin, Didier Deschamps, Dennis Bergkamp, Jean-Pierre Papin, and the list goes on. Lalas is the first to admit that the focus the Italians placed on the defined details in the game during training was something he had never been exposed to before.
Of course, in 1996 Major League Soccer began and a plethora of American talent abroad, including Alexi and Cobi, returned home for its inaugural season.
The teams in the league had no history aside from the experience of their players in other competitions.
In 1996, with no real structure compared with the vast reserve leagues and youth academies clubs with century-long histories in other continents, a draft made sense in MLS. There were no academies in place, so what was more logical than equally distributing the best young talent as it comes?
But now, 15 years later, nearly every single MLS team has an academy, though they are of little use thanks to the ease of picking up the best established talent at the university level. Does this method make sense for individual clubs? Certainly.
It’s so easy! Steve Nicol, Liverpool legend and manager of the New England Revolution, has been notorious for picking players from the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference), especially Wake Forest. And he’s done well in the league creating solid MLS-caliber players year-in, year-out.
The precise problem, which Nicol’s mindset exemplifies, is that clubs like the Revolution are doing enough to get by rather in comparison to the other teams rather than developing a true style of play and consistent club philosophy.
When Nicol chose a player like (now MLS Cup-winning) Jeff Larentowicz in the 4th Round of the draft, he did so to fill a specific role rather than to set the league on fire. Andy Dorman and Clint Dempsey had been speculating moves abroad for quite some time, so Steve needed a reliable player to fill in when they left.