About The Author: John Parker is the American Outlaws Atlanta President and Marketing Manager for adidas International Training Program (adidas ITP), the Atlanta based soccer logistics and education company. Parker’s views do not necessarily reflect those of adidas ITP or American Outlaws. John can be reached via twitter @John_adidasITP. This is John’s first piece for The Shin Guardian.
Much has been made recently of a new generation of American soccer fans who’ve never known the U.S. without a first division soccer league. This demographic, the fifteen year olds who’ve grown accustomed to watching soccer from around the world, now carry the hopes of many who foresee a future where soccer has become mainstream.
With these, this generation there has been an assumption gathering momentum.
Onlookers and critics both domestic and abroad have begun to speak of the inevitability of the United States becoming a soccer superpower. Simon Kuper’s “Soccernomics” has given this further weight by emphasizing the not only the cultural shift in the U.S., but also the economic and social outlook that will finance America’s own sporting renaissance.
Everyone is Wrong
To assume that there are not unforeseen changes or solutions would be naive.
However, there is one aspect of our culture that is not institutionalized in any other country, and it will prevent the exponential growth we might envision:
The quality, necessity and expense of our university system will mitigate the effects of any and all changes to our developmental practices. The amateurism rules established for collegiate athletics, rules we can’t and shouldn’t dispute, prevents the possibility of youth contracts for aspiring athletes.
This fact, one inherent to our sporting society, devalues all investment from American teams in their academies. It prevents the institution of youth contracts and prevents the gradual integration of youth players into professional teams. We can adapt our system accordingly, but every change we make will be muted by the necessity of retaining amateurism for youth players.
Five years ago the L.A. Galaxy signed the first Homegrown player, Tristan Bowen. This signing, even more than that of David Beckham, promised an eventual institutional upheaval that would allow MLS teams to rival any in the Americas.
Five years later there is not a single American Homegrown field player starting for their original team. This is not due to a massive failure at the academy level. Rather, the leap from youth player to first team regular in MLS is simply too difficult.
MLS is trying to find ways to incorporate their Homegrown players into the first team (Paul Tenorio wrote on this question for the Washington Post this week). Considerations right now include more roster spots, affiliations with lower division teams, and an expanded reserve schedule. All of these changes should happen (along with salary cap exemptions for all Homegrown players, and possibly even mandates on a minimum of Homegrown players and/or a minimum of minutes from youth players). These changes are necessary as the academies are beginning to produce better players who are either not being signed or are signed and playing.
The problem that underlies this question of integration is the inability of American teams to hand out youth contracts (this problem is the reason lower divisions are unable to produce talent in the U.S., but that is for another discussion). The delineation between amateur and pro is the question that rules our developmental system. It is a question that barely exists in other countries. As a result the changes mentioned above resemble a bridge being built from two sides that will always require a leap over the middle.
The chasm is evident in multiple arenas:
» Players who are signed as Homegrowns are not seeing playing time as they have the opportunity to prove and improve themselves in competitive match outside a spattering of reserve games.
» Players who should be signed as Homegrowns are going to college as they recognize they won’t get these competitive games in as a pro, and teams are willing to let them play in college and further prove they are worthy of a roster spot and can contribute immediately.
» The oft-ignored issue is that Homegrowns aren’t signed because they are needed to fill a role, rather they are signed as valuable assets that project as quality players. This means that many Homegrowns find themselves stuck behind multiple in-form quality players while their team struggles to fill other positions where a quality youngster may have received an opportunity. With any opportunity created by injury or struggles, youth players should get the opportunity to win playing time and make the much smaller jump to full time professional while and supplementing the needs of their organization’s first team.
Colleges and Integration
The surprising outcome to this problem has been MLS academies letting their players mature at the college level rather than the professional one.
Akron alone will likely field eight or nine academy players next year (seven standouts in the last two recruiting classes including US youth team regulars Will Trapp, Dillon Serna and Andrew Souders).
Over the next few years we will likely see as many college stars sign as Homegrowns as end up entering the draft. Players like Will Trapp at Akron (Crew) or Boyd Okwuono at UNC (FC Dallas) will join their respective teams at twenty or twenty one and have a chance to earn playing time almost immediately.
Unfortunately these top prospects will be spending much less time training and will be forced to lean on PDL action to balance out their yearly schedule. While teams like Akron may begin to resemble a UK in basketball and litter MLS with alumni, there simply will never be enough money or time in college soccer to ensure that players receive the training that their international counterparts are at the same age.
If the NCAA amateurism rules were not in place we would finally see U-20 squads in MLS. It is possible that players would remain with their MLS teams for a year or two after high school graduation on youth contracts trying to win a chance with the first team by playing at the U-20 level and move on to college at a later age if unsuccessful.
This would likely diminish the college game some as more prospects would never make it to college; however, there would also be the possibility that some professional players would split time between U-20 squads and college teams with many squads seeing heavy overlap (imagine the New York and D.C. United U-20 teams battling throughout the spring, and continuing the conflagration in a Maryland and St. John’s rivalry).
The current concern is not only how academy products have been integrated on the field, but also how valuable assets have been unable to accumulate further value.
Even with increased funding, MLS organizations must continue to look at the return on investment from their academies closely. What we see instead are MLS academies filled with free agents. Every player, unless they are signed by their team, is only beholden to their academy if they sign to MLS. No matter the investment an organization puts into their team, they have no more right to their youth players than any other international squad.
As such, teams like Hoffenheim are free to sign top players from the MLS academies without owing compensation. Recently they signed Russell Canouse from NYRB, now one of their most promising prospects. Similarly they attempted to sign Zach Pfeffer before the Union was forced to make the commitment of signing him to a full contract.
So what is the return of investment for MLS teams committing to their academies from a young age? Players who are good enough to attract foreign interest will often take the opportunity to play abroad. Similarly, to keep some of these players will require committing roster spots and funds that overvalue players who truthfully fall somewhere between the youth/pro divide. These players spend years developing into first teamers worthy of their contracts, while other top prospects remain unsigned.
From this pool of unsigned players more will be lost to cost. It is difficult to create a landscape where all under privileged players can all receive an opportunity to train at the highest level. While a few are given chances, it is still difficult for many families to afford the cost that accompany the life of the aspiring professional. Youth contracts could bridge this cost (as they do elsewhere).
The Case of FC Dallas
Despite being one of the more low profile clubs in the U.S., FC Dallas’ Academy is the envy of MLS. With six Homegrown players very early in the process, the organization has signaled that they will make every effort to keep it that way.
The truth is, however, that FC Dallas’ first team has suffered from these signings. Six players, none of whom have really contributed to the first team, have taken roster spots and funds away from other possible signings who may benefit the squad now.
Just as importantly, this commitment makes it near impossible for FC Dallas to give other prospects opportunities. Top players are going to college and could possibly be lost and or diminish outside of the organization.
The delineation between youth and pro makes the commitment to any one prospect a harrowing risk. If they aren’t ready they will linger on the back end of the roster while other prospects might reveal themselves as more professionally prepared.
It won’t always be a question of if a player is good enough for a Homegrown contract. It will often be a question of if a player is good enough and worthy of bypassing on others.
What It Means For U.S. Soccer
The truth is the question of how best to develop a soccer player at a macro level has been solved. While some have more effective methods and teachings, only the U.S. is actually incapable of aspiring to this blue print.
The States may have a very populous and (comparatively) rich nation, but there is too much happenstance surrounding the leap for our players from youth to fully integrated professional. Further, our national team cannot and will not become feared if our national league isn’t consistently producing top international caliber players.
Improvements will be made and the progressive minds among us will find ways to overcome some of these issues. Yet while we brainstorm on how to overcome our natural handicap, other nations will streamline and become more efficient.
It is our eternal ball and chain, the one that will forever beleaguer our progress.
No blame to anyone associated with America’s educational system.
In fact, it is a point of pride that athletes in the U.S. are able to parlay their skills into a quality education and career they may not have been able to afford or procure otherwise.
Other nations face a much more difficult problem than ours; thousands of players fail to make the professional ranks and have little education or opportunity to found a livelihood upon. There is no villain in this situation, and that may be what is most frustrating.