Kyle Martino is a top broadcast analyst for Fox Soccer, a former MLS Rookie of the Year and has been capped multiple times for the US of A.
Coming off the Chile-USA friendly, with national teams trialing fresh-faced youngsters for upcoming tournaments, it seems that now is a good time to talk about the crucial metamorphosis of a young talent becoming a professional success.
There isn’t a current professional soccer player who, if asked, couldn’t immediately produce at least a handful of examples of players who were “The Man” when they were younger but currently reside in the “Where Are They Now” category.
I’m not talking about the youth ranks, when that freak kid who was bigger and faster dominated the game because he was born at the beginning of the year and had sick athletes for parents. I’m talking about those teenagers on the cusp of breaking starting lineups in the pros, or landing themselves on National Team rosters.
These are the players who made their pond grow in to an ocean as they climbed the ladder from High School, to College to Pros, but still were able to maintain their “Big Fish” status.
When I was growing up, young talented soccer players in America had a metric called the Olympic Development Program to help them improve as players and measure their progress along the way. Although considered very political–mostly by players that never made the teams–this was a very good way for coaches to identify talent, as well as light the path to the ultimate goal: Putting on a U.S. jersey and representing their country.
The first stage of the program was at the State level, continuing through to a Regional level (dividing the country in to 4 regions), and culminating at the National level, with a Youth U.S. team.
Since we don’t have storied youth academies as they do overseas, like Ajax and Barcelona who pump out world-class players year after year, “ODP” was America’s answer to how we would identify and develop our next stars.
To compare, Ajax gave Holland players like Wesley Sneijder, Bergkamp, and Van Basten, and Region IV gave the U.S. Landon Donovan, Eddie Lewis and Carlos Bocanegra.
This multi-tiered system was the filtration process that would take millions of youth players in at the State level, and eventually end up with 20 or so standing at the end. I could write a War And Peace-sized novel on how desperately fanatical I was about playing for my country; the hours of practice and obsession with the game that actually lead me to force my parents to send me to Bollitieri (now IMG) in high school so I could continue to get better.
But the point of this article is to talk about what separates these players once they have made it, once they have become Pros–that is the moment when you can watch boys become men.
The funny thing about kids when they turn Pro, is that they had always been “the best”.
For the majority of their playing careers so far, things came easily to them and they were always head of their classes. But for the first time, these kids have found themselves in a class filled with guys that were also considered the best. It was Project 40 in my time, now it’s called Generation Adidas, and it is the first real wake-up call for them all. We all had skill. We were all athletic, but each year you would only see a handful of these players make this transition quickly.
The biggest hurdle for any talented player getting their first professional experience is ridding themselves of the bad habits reinforced by years of being “the best”.
These players could get away with any number of poor decisions or behaviors when their superior skill level or athletic abilities bailed them out. I know this to be true better than anyone. When I stepped on to the preseason camp field in Bradenton, Florida with The Columbus Crew, after being selected by them in the 2000 MLS draft, I was not the quickest, most skillful, or most creative for the first time in my soccer career.
I immediately fell victim to the two biggest reasons a young soccer player fails to make it at the next level: too many touches and not knowing the next play before you get the ball.
My highlight reel of tearing up ACC teams with elaborate dribbling exhibitions was going to be the very reason I was going to fail at the next level. I counted on my moves and speed to save me from not playing the game the “right” way. I had to quickly adapt or else I would be passed by and forgotten.
Through the help of veterans like Brian McBride and John Harkes, who worked tirelessly with me after training, I began to understand how I was going to use my skill and speed to be an asset. The moral of their teachings was “know the right time”, a lesson I worked my entire career to master and never truly did.
Most young players, as I did, think every time is the right time to show off their wealth of skill, and subsequently fail to make an impact at the next level. I’m not saying that young players can’t or shouldn’t try to be entertaining game changers; I believe in embracing skill and talent and encouraging it to flourish on the field. My point is that they have to know when. The reason that the majority of athletes, in any sport, hit their peak as they get older is because they stop depending on their athletic ability or skill to bail them out. As their bodies slow down their minds speed up.
This is one of the hardest things to teach a young professional; how to control the urge to surge. To not always hit top speed or pull out the bag of tricks until the game or situation calls for it. The reason we see so few young phenoms, such as Messi and Lebron James, in sport is because the hardest lesson to teach any talented young athlete is that, most of the time, less is more.
We just watched a camp full of young US National Team prospects play against Chile, attempting to get in the good graces of Bob Bradley as he begins making his selections for games leading up to the World Cup in Brazil.
The reality is that only a two or three players in the entire group showed that they have learned these valuable lessons. Most, as happens to the majority of young players in these high pressure situations, fell in to that deadly spiral: failing to assimilate to the International pace in their first few touches and then trying to do more and more to recoup their loss. Like bad gamblers they lost a few hands but continued to increase their bets, causing them to inevitably bust.
Some of the best players in the world have struggled with this lesson. Take former Fifa Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo.
He is gifted with incredible pace and uncanny ball control, yet his struggles at Manchester United and with the Portugal National team were well documented. When he first hit the scene after a dominant U-17 World Cup performance for Portugal, he was constantly criticized for lacking the “final product.” After all the flash and flare, the final result was not helping him or his team. Any astute soccer viewer could see his transformation over the years leading up to his historic Man United season that won him World Player of the Year honors. He had finally learned how to use his gifts to change the game.
As we all watch the new crop of players coming in to the fray with the U.S. National Team, and the Generation Adidas kids getting their first MLS action, the reality is that only a handful will truly make it at that next level. After surviving all the soccer checkpoints that left millions of players behind, these young players are only one step away from the great honor of putting on their country’s jersey. The ones that learn and adapt quickly to the mental and physical demands of the game, a game that has suddenly increased in speed, quality and competition, will find themselves standing on that sacred ground only a select few are lucky enough to reach. As someone who has briefly stood on that ground, I can tell you that there was no better feeling of accomplishment in my career than putting on my United States uniform.
As someone who has been there, and loves this beautiful game, I truly look forward to seeing who separate themselves from the pack, walking the path to one day stand proud on that next level.
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