Toting The Old Ball ‘N’ Chain: Player Development In America

Parker

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.

Integration

Tristan, triumphant upon signing….

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 U” (Akron University)

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).

Investment

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.

Russell Canouse, now the property of Hoffenheim. His MLS transfer fetch? Donuts.

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

Will Leyva make a difference? Member, FC Dallas Homegrown Initiative

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.

Whither US Soccer?

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.

Quick Disclaimer

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.

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66 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by ADG on 2012/06/20 at 10:45 AM

    Yeah yeah… we get it. Be more like Europe.

    MLS Academies have only been around for a few years. Give the process time before declaring it failed.

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/06/20 at 10:49 AM

      ADG, respectfully, I think you’re missing the point of the pice.

      It’s not nearly that MLS Academies have failed. The collegiate program robs precious development years–that’s certainly a fair and main point.

      MLS Academies failing? That would be preposterous considering the league has just begun succeeding.

      Reply

      • Posted by ADG on 2012/06/20 at 10:58 AM

        It’s their choice not to give out the contracts. To me the underlying tone is be more like European clubs… well they have established academies that have been around for decades.

        The author seems to expect the US to be doing it the right way right away when the fundamental difference between the US and all of those other European countries is collegiate athletics. College soccer has been around for forever and has a proven track record of producing great American players… something that is hard to ignore.

        And yeah… Tristan Bowen isn’t blowing it up in the MLS… but the author focuses on one kid. I’m quite certain Barcelona and Manchester United have all produced flops. And yes it is going to be hard for 17 year old American kids to beat out established MLS level players. But the goal is to win right?

        This article would be better written 10 years from now after the academies have been established.

        And I disagree with college robbing precious development years. What is robbing them of their development years is pay-to-play youth travel soccer that puts emphasis on winning rather than skill development.

        Thankfully US Soccer is working to change that with their US Development Academy league which puts a focus on hours of training rather than running kids ragged during weekend tournaments.

        Reply

        • Posted by Mike on 2012/06/20 at 11:39 AM

          I disagree. I don’t think the tone is “be more like European clubs” at all. I think the theme is “here is WHY MLS clubs aren’t like European clubs.” Further, the article just elucidates the cause-and-effect of the current status quo. I don’t think anything in the article suggests we should drop everything and assume the European/Rest of the World model. I believe its a fantastic article explaining why we don’t have that system, what prohibits it’s establishment, the challenges developing US soccer players face, and posits the question: “This is what we have and have to deal with, what then the solution? Or is there one?”

          Oh, and one more thing, how can you not see how college soccer robs players of valuable development time? They aren’t in training nearly as much as a kid playing professionally at 18 years old and onward elsewhere in the world. American college kids have classes, organizations, and activities all before and on top of strict NCAA rules against how much time they can play, train, gather as a team. etc. I guarantee you young English starlets, Alex Oxalade-Chamberlain and Jack Wlshere (18 and 19 respectively–college freshman and sophomore ages) are training and playing competitively MUCH more than a freshman at the Univ. of PickAnySchool. 17 to 22 years old is arguably the MOST important time in a budding professional’s life. And here in the States, they are going to college. Elsewhere, they are trying to break in to their club’s top 23.

          Reply

        • Posted by J.C. Morgan on 2012/06/20 at 12:08 PM

          you nail it right here “What is robbing them of their development years is pay-to-play youth travel soccer that puts emphasis on winning rather than skill development.” Youth soccer should not cost nearly as much as it does. Stop going to huge tournaments and having fancy uniforms and get more kids playing and having decent coaching. I completely acknowledge that my son benefited from playing club soccer but he could have played in the club setting much more if the situation had been more affordable.

          I also think that addressing the situation with the NCAA is crucial — amateurism is a sham in the high profile NCAA sports so there is no reason why youth contracts shouldn’t be allowed (other than the stodgy attitudes of the NCAA powers who are already gathering money off young athletes in a FIFA-like fashion). I see nothing wrong with an MLS club paying a high schooler a small amount – along with providing training, support, etc – and that player then competing in college with the MLS team retaining first rights to them upon graduation/completion of eligibility; as well as the MLS team being in line for transfer fees if that player goes abroad.

          Reply

          • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/20 at 12:31 PM

            I disagree that MLS should get first choice and transfer fees if the player goes abroad. If your scenario happened then the MLS team should forfeit those rights as the player/club would have already decided it wasn’t the right fit. MLS already has too much control over where players end up.

            Reply

          • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/20 at 12:32 PM

            I may have misread your comment. I’d be fine with MLS receiving transfer fees if the player is on a youth contract and goes directly to Europe. Not fine with MLS getting transfer fees if the players goes after college.

            Reply

            • Posted by J.C. Morgan on 2012/06/20 at 3:09 PM

              your 2nd comment is closest to my intent. and I think the player’s rights (and affiliated transfer fee) should be with the club that gave them the youth contract – not MLS corporate – and those rights retain through college because I view college as a development stage, just like a different league.

            • Posted by Gregorio on 2012/06/21 at 6:38 PM

              Question: Does an MLS player get a percentage of the transfer fee? It used to be he didn’t, or MLS coerced players to waive their rights to a fee to get out.

    • Posted by John Parker on 2012/06/20 at 10:53 AM

      ADG –

      I’m trying to argue the opposite, that we can’t be like Europe and we need unique answers.

      The question is what difficulties do the Academies have to overcome, and whether we should overburden them with an expectation to fill our professional ranks the way they may in the Bundesliga.

      I am the last to argue “be more like Europe” because I recognize the issue with differing landscapes, as noted with the arguments centered around adapting to development without youth contracts.

      -JP

      Reply

      • Posted by ADG on 2012/06/20 at 11:13 AM

        There is no way to develop in the way you want without handing out youth contracts. MLS can’t afford to do that yet. Nor would many families take them unless some sort of education package is included to fall back on as a trade off for giving up NCAA eligibility.

        It’s not as simple as the changes you suggest… it’s changing 50+ years of culture regarding athletic scholarships and college.

        Reply

        • Posted by John Parker on 2012/06/20 at 11:16 AM

          ADG-

          I’m a bit confused…that’s the thesis of the entire article, that the inability to hand out youth contracts without threatening student’s educational future is the biggest issue facing MLS academies and their future. I’m arguing that it is this culture you speak of that is much bigger than soccer or MLS and will always be a barrier from progress.

          -JP

          Reply

          • Posted by Braden on 2012/06/20 at 3:50 PM

            MLB guarantees to pay for college for the players it signs to minor league contracts. I don’t understand why MLS can’t do that, even if it’s with stipulations. (in-state public school, etc)

            Reply

            • Posted by Joe on 2012/06/25 at 9:56 AM

              Maybe because MLB is one of the richest leagues in the world and MLS isn’t?

      • Posted by Antonio on 2012/07/27 at 12:55 PM

        The thesis of the article describes the deficiencies encountered by the overall US soccer system.

        It basically implies that top soccer players in the US are bound to the US college system. It also implies that colleges pay significant amounts of money to those players.

        In my opinion, the reality is much different. The attitude (soccer culture) of the youth soccer organizations is the main problem.
        Clubs (academies?) are judged on how many teams they have and how many tournaments they win. There is no pyramid structure so every club aspires to be a so called academy even so most of the clubs do not roster an adult team or even a U19 team.
        The idea that teams have to compete at the age of 11. Most U11 teams have a decent player that is waiting for the rest of the players in the team to develop and ultimately will not go to college on a “full ride” scholarship or make it to the PDL ranks. He/she probably makes it to the football team.
        There is no unity and desire to develop a regional player pool, a state team or any other development that does not include the pay-to-play fan-less event.

        Until the so called youth clubs start thinking adult soccer with a regional fan base, the soccer development will create athletes for other sports and the US will continue to explore the mediocrity of college soccer.

        It is incredible that in a country with fifty healthy states one cannot find one thousand people in each state that would provide $1000 per year towards a state soccer professional team. It would be the largest soccer league in the world and could develop 50 teams with world recognition in very short time without links to colleges or MLS. All it would take is for youth coaches to stop their childish attitudes and unite.

        Reply

    • Posted by Hal on 2012/06/26 at 4:30 PM

      ADG,

      that was just a typical MLS-snob response. The author is not criticizing the academies He is simply pointing out the challenge we have in the states because of college/amateur status.

      since there isn’t a youth contract system we are never going to be able to run efficient youth development.

      the author of this piece is spot on.

      Reply

  2. Posted by dfstell on 2012/06/20 at 10:50 AM

    Interesting article and one that hits close to home if you have a youth player who has talent that you’d like to nurture…..but who you also want to see go to college, become educated, get a job, etc.

    I wonder if some of this won’t change as our attitudes toward college change. Right now, all bright high school graduates go to college because that’s the “done thing”. That’s what you do if you want to be successful. But, this system is also generating lots of 22 year olds with massive debt and liberal arts degrees with no value in the marketplace. I just cannot imagine this system will last forever. Eventually parents and students will say, “No. I will not pay $150K to get a BA in English.”

    What may happen at a macro level is that students might work for a bit before going to college. Go see what kinds of jobs you can get washing dishes and raking leaves….get sick of that….and then plot out an educational path that takes them to a desired occupation. So, maybe we see more kids waiting until 20-21 to start college.

    If that happens, maybe that allows time for kids to play low level pro soccer. They can play from 18-20, see that they won’t be good enough. Then they can go to college and who cares if they aren’t amateurs who can play collegiate soccer; they already toyed with that dream and walked away to get an education to become an accountant or something…..and they can still play club ball on the weekends. OR….they play from 18-20 and are awesome and don’t need to go to college.

    But, the point is….maybe in the future there won’t be this pressure to attend college at the age of 18 which is right when soccer players would be figuring it all out.

    Of course, the other question is what pro teams would all these kids play for? Right now…there aren’t that many options. That’s why I kinda get annoyed at all the talk of MLS expansion. I’d rather seem more effort put into growing NASL and USL Pro and eventually develop a proper promotion relegation system (maybe with regional wrinkles to reduce travel for the lower level teams). Then we’ve got USL Pro teams for MLS to loan their academy players to.

    Anyhow….good article.

    Reply

  3. Posted by MBC on 2012/06/20 at 11:12 AM

    What collegiate program? There are only a handful of men’s soccer team in the entire NCAA. Truly, there are very few places for 18-22 year old players to hone their skills. I really think an answer to player development would be overarching sponsorship/licensing of semi-pro or amateur leagues in, at a minimum, the 16 US MLS cities. This would collect the talent, give them a forum to practice and play, and give the team scouts a place to actually look at the homegrown talent.

    Reply

  4. Posted by brewercrain on 2012/06/20 at 11:14 AM

    What collegiate program? There are only a handful of men\’s soccer team in the entire NCAA. Truly, there are very few places for 18-22 year old players to hone their skills. I really think an answer to player development would be overarching sponsorship/licensing of semi-pro or amateur leagues in, at a minimum, the 16 US MLS cities. This would collect the talent, give them a forum to practice and play, and give the team scouts a place to actually look at the homegrown talent.

    Reply

  5. As someone who works in college athletics (Division I sports information director in at Western Michigan University) you are going to be hard pressed to get kids to give up the path for college.

    All European academies have rules governing where they can pluck the kids from… EPL is I think within 90 minutes travel time of the training ground.

    To me there are a few major problems in the way of MLS Academies progressing.

    1) Coverage. I live in Michigan… there are no MLS teams in my state so who gets the rights to those youth players?

    2) Contracts. To keep these kids either to sell them to European clubs or to develop them… they need to pay them. And to get paid means to give up your future NCAA eligibility.

    3) The current travel soccer climate. It’s pay to play.. that’s the first problem. Parents shell out thousands of dollars to get their kids looked at by NCAA scouts and the occasional pro scouts.

    4) The ultimate goal in the United States is still a Division I College Scholarship. Which to me is absurd because soccer is not a fully funded sport at any university… i.e. only the best of the best get full scholarships while many get a percentage of their school covered.

    5) Age. MLS Academies right now don’t get to the kids before the toxic youth programs do. Barcelona is getting to kids when they are 5-6-7 years old. MLS academies don’t get to them until they are teenagers, when a lot of developmental time is lost and the damage is done by the travel teams.

    It’s a fundamental change in culture… which is going to take a long time. But as the MLS grows and the footprint of their academies grow you will definitely see more home grown players in lineups.

    College will always be there for kids who are late bloomers or who just want to play soccer and get an education.

    Reply

    • Posted by Hal on 2012/06/26 at 8:07 PM

      #2 is pretty much the thesis of the article. Not being able to sign players to youth contracts because they will lose NCAA eligibility is what the author calls our “natural handicap”

      thus we can’t follow the blue print of successful soccer nations. There is very little incentive for MLS clubs to get into the business of comprehensive youth development.

      Reply

  6. Posted by ABodnar27 on 2012/06/20 at 11:32 AM

    As someone who works in college athletics (Division I sports information director in at Western Michigan University) you are going to be hard pressed to get kids to give up the path for college.

    All European academies have rules governing where they can pluck the kids from… EPL is I think within 90 minutes travel time of the training ground.

    To me there are a few major problems in the way of MLS Academies progressing.

    1) Coverage. I live in Michigan… there are no MLS teams in my state so who gets the rights to those youth players?

    2) Contracts. To keep these kids either to sell them to European clubs or to develop them… they need to pay them. And to get paid means to give up your future NCAA eligibility.

    3) The current travel soccer climate. It’s pay to play.. that’s the first problem. Parents shell out thousands of dollars to get their kids looked at by NCAA scouts and the occasional pro scouts.

    4) The ultimate goal in the United States is still a Division I College Scholarship. Which to me is absurd because soccer is not a fully funded sport at any university… i.e. only the best of the best get full scholarships while many get a percentage of their school covered.

    5) Age. MLS Academies right now don’t get to the kids before the toxic youth programs do. Barcelona is getting to kids when they are 5-6-7 years old. MLS academies don’t get to them until they are teenagers, when a lot of developmental time is lost and the damage is done by the travel teams.

    It’s a fundamental change in culture… which is going to take a long time. But as the MLS grows and the footprint of their academies grow you will definitely see more home grown players in lineups.

    College will always be there for kids who are late bloomers or who just want to play soccer and get an education, similar to baseball and hockey.

    http://www.twitter.com/abodnar27

    Reply

  7. I think the MLS has started to make the necessary progress, but the reality is, they are about year 2 in to a 10 to 15 year plan. With the reinstatement of the reserve league and MLS teams fielding PDL teams, they are starting to build the structure that will allow teams to create a pipeline of players.

    The American prospects who choose to stay in the US and go to college are missing out on development as professionals. I think it was George John who made a comment to that effect when he came back from West Ham. He felt he was behind developmentally on the professionalism side from his time at University of Washington.

    I think in the end there will be a dual path to professional soccer in the US. There will be those players who are identified early and skip college for pro soccer (e.g. Freddy Adu), and those players who go the college route (e.g. Tim Ream). For better or for worse, the United States culture values the amateurism and education of college. However, the college system also allows for some players who are late bloomers to be given a chance without betting their future on professional soccer.

    Reply

    • Posted by John Parker on 2012/06/20 at 12:06 PM

      Alex J –

      Hence the issue we are facing. Neither Adu’s or Ream’s path are ideal. The youth to professional leap is too drastic, and the College to Pro path is too long. The youths who take professional contracts don’t receive them because they’ve earned first team minutes but rather because clubs must commit to their top assets. Often they must wait too long for opportunity at the professional level. Ideally we would have the top youth players in U-20 squads waiting for injuries or form drops in the first team for the opportunity. Instead we have a “sign ‘em and stash ‘em” model which needs a bit of blind luck, and frankly I don’t know if we have a model that can bridge that gap completely without the ability to hand out youth contracts (which we likely will never have without some creativity/litagation).

      Reply

      • Posted by CJ on 2012/06/20 at 12:40 PM

        JP –

        I’m a bit confused. You refer to Youths taking professional contracts in the start of the paragraph and how it hinders the clubs and then you talk about how you wish the US would be able to sign youth contracts… what is the difference between a professional contract and a youth contract?

        CJ

        Reply

        • Posted by John Parker on 2012/06/20 at 12:52 PM

          CJ-

          A youth contract is what most international clubs give players at a young age (say, 14-18). These contracts do not pay much, but they tie those players to the team and make them eligible to play in official competitions.

          The professional contracts would see no difference between a 16 year old and a 28 year old.

          Every player in the U.S. who has a contract has a pro contract. Nobody in the U.S. is going to take the risk by taking youth contracts, which are often handed out to the entirety of the academy, because once you accept any payment you are no longer eligible to play in college and therefore won’t receive a scholarship.

          Reply

          • Posted by J.C. Morgan on 2012/06/20 at 3:14 PM

            “once you accept any payment you are no longer eligible to play in college and therefore won’t receive a scholarship.” — this is the aspect of the college athletic system that needs revision. There is nothing amateur about the NCAA.

            Reply

            • Posted by CJ on 2012/06/20 at 6:14 PM

              I agree entirely J.C. Morgan, what the NCAA is doing is cornering a market so that they might reap all of the benefit. The athletes earn so much more for their respective schools than the schools have to give back. The schools give athletes “potential” and let’s say 120k worth of knowledge. Blow out your knee? Your left like the rest of Americans except with a few more contacts and a little less debt. What did the school get? 100s of thousands of tickets sold for the sport you participate in which is cash money on the spot. The USA needs to reevaluate its faith that the College system is so great.

            • Posted by dfstell on 2012/06/20 at 6:24 PM

              Well….yes….the schools make a lot of $$$ off men’s basketball and (sometimes) men’s football (American style). But every other scholarship sport works together to blow all the money made from men’s basketball/football. The trend at the really big schools is to drop more and more “non-revenue” sports and pour all the resources into having the best facilities for the men’s football/basketball teams and then having just enough other sports to satisfy their conference’s and Title IX requirements.

          • Posted by CJ on 2012/06/20 at 6:15 PM

            Thank you for the clarification.

            Reply

            • Posted by Gregorio on 2012/06/21 at 6:55 PM

              If what was stated above about no colleges really giving full rides, then what is the point really aspiring for a scholarship? It might make sense to risk NCAA eligibilty. I might be ignorant here(feel free to enlighen me) but can a person play in college after being a professional? I thought this was possible. Considering the costs of colleges, what is really at risk. I work with adolescents, I just had a student get a partial scholarship to St John’s but he will still have to incur a nice debt to get a degree, 60K in debt to be a communications major? (he can work the intercom at a McDonalds drive thru) Sorry if I offended any Comm majors.
              My thoughts are to go abroad; Europe, Central & South America.etc and play, and find an online college program to further your education at the same time, provided that La Paz or guatemale city gets good internet service.

  8. John Parker, you raise a good point about financial incentives for MLS clubs. Development transfer fees, like those spelled out by UEFA, are a big part of that equation.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Jared on 2012/06/20 at 12:18 PM

    What needs to happen is that the NCAA needs to relax its rules regarding amateurism when dealing with youth contracts. Perhaps some type of age limit or deferred compensation on the youth contracts that would still allow for the player to have college eligibility.

    Or we could just call the sport football allowing the players on contract who don’t make it to then play soccer in college similar to how Weinke was able to be a pro baseball player and then a college football player (this last part about calling it football was a joke before anyone jumps on me for being a Eurosnob).

    Reply

  10. Posted by Ufficio on 2012/06/20 at 12:35 PM

    The amateurism rules established for collegiate athletics, rules we can’t and shouldn’t dispute, prevents the possibility of youth contracts for aspiring athletes.

    Couldn’t disagree more that we shouldn’t dispute those rules. Great article, otherwise.

    Reply

    • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/20 at 12:43 PM

      Good point. The only people that benefit off of those rules are the ones in control of college athletics. It screws the athletes.

      Reply

  11. Posted by John Parker on 2012/06/20 at 12:46 PM

    Ufficio,

    I agree that it’d be nice for the rules to change. I just find it a bit narcissistic for the U.S. Soccer community to take this on, much like I find shock jocks who attack college presidents performance exclusively on the base of their sports decisions obnoxious.

    I don’t believe it is U.S. Soccer’s place at the moment as I don’t see how it would benefit the NCAA or universities. That being said, I’d love to hear the arguments of how we could make that mutually beneficial.

    Reply

  12. Posted by Bob on 2012/06/20 at 1:58 PM

    Major League Baseball has a model that may work for MLS. Every player that signs a minor league contract is also guaranteed a “college scholarship plan.” The plan guarantees a player a specific amount of money for a specific amount of semesters at a college of the players’ choice. Thus, MLB funnels a lot of players into their minor league system right out of high school who may have otherwised signed to play college ball first.

    Reply

    • Posted by Dinho on 2012/06/22 at 1:31 PM

      Bob, I agree, but what is the “minor” league program equivalent for MLS? The NASL? PDL? Not really… there is none. That I think is one of the problems.

      Reply

      • Posted by CJ on 2012/06/22 at 2:33 PM

        Well what was mentioned in a few publications ago, the Reserve league is still a work in progress. I would imagine that to start that if the reserve league filled out enough in the coming years the “minor leagues” would be able to draw from there or be morphed from that.

        I was pondering why a youth contract couldn’t guarantee at least a partially paid for education if playing soccer doesn’t work out for the player. These players who don’t make it as a pro in the league will be able to become educated and benefit the league down the road as coaches, trainers, and businessman having been a part of the system at a young age. If nothing else they’d be paying fans throughout their life and advocates for the growth of soccer. Maybe the upfront cost to the league would be a little bit much but, the 5-10 year turn around must pay off a bunch. If even a handful of those players turn to coaching/business/management and generate a few million back into the league via winning or helping to find advertising contracts or TV rights by creating a better product, everyone would win and that income alone would cover the cost for future players, right?

        Reply

  13. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/06/20 at 3:40 PM

    A very interesting and informative read, Sir. Thank you.

    One question: this article is about Player Development but no mention regarding the qualifications of the youth coaches / type of youth coaching. I am referring specifically to the 6-14 age group. I think the “fix” needs to be implemented at an earlier age. And that has to start with coaching skills rather than winning a games.

    Reply

    • Posted by Nick on 2012/06/20 at 7:08 PM

      I would agree George that the big “fix” is the coaching, training, and mentality of our youth programs. TSG has explored many different aspects of the youth game including mentions of coaching, though I think this point is often mentioned and glossed over because it’s THE known issue of our country. (http://bit.ly/9Ynd8c)

      I think the solution proposed above is the next step (or the first step because MLS Academies already exist) from that which allows players to progress in a quasi-professional environment without forfeiting the ability to earn a scholarship and play for the varsity team if they weren’t quite ready for the step up to the MLS First Team.

      Reply

    • Agreed with this point. I go back and forth as to whether the “ideal” time for development — that 8-14 range or the 18-22. The former is important in terms of technique and ability on the ball, while the latter is where tactical nous and making the physical adjustment comes into play. Both need to be continually addressed.

      Reply

      • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/06/21 at 6:28 AM

        Travis — thanks for commenting. Your comments up soon in a separate post.

        Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/06/22 at 7:47 AM

        One could argue that it is the former that Mr. Klinsmann is talking about when referencing ‘playing at a much higher tempo without losing technique’. Without question, something needs to be fixed because the US are not producing elite level players at the moment. Which is what they need to do to make the jump to being a Top Ten side.

        Reply

  14. Posted by Ian Scott on 2012/06/20 at 4:21 PM

    While it may be better to not go to college and go to straight to the pros, that’s not practical, as there are few teams over a large vastness of country. The European countries are smaller, which makes it easier to find promising kids, but most kids’ almost only way to get noticed is to go to college first.

    Reply

  15. Posted by UCLA History Tradition Glory on 2012/06/20 at 4:45 PM

    If NYRB really wanted Russell Canouse they could have made him a competitive offer. Getting our ncaa talent poached by europe b/c they’re not on pro contracts isn’t a big problem.

    Bigger steps to improve quality would be relaxing rules limiting practice time/games at the ncaa level and lengthening the MLS reserve league season (like doubling it or tripling the number of reserve games).

    Reply

    • Posted by Hal on 2012/06/26 at 8:27 PM

      UCLA,

      not possible since NYRB would have to keep him on the roster wouldn’t they? He didn’t get a pro-contract from Hoffenhiem. He got a youth contract. There is no equivalent here.

      What really sucks for us is that ideally we should be signing these players to youth contracts, then developing them, then singing them to pro-contracts if they are good enough. Then after a few MLS seasons selling them to Europe for millions in transfer fees which the MLS club would then put back into development and repeat the process.

      But like the author of the article has pointed out, we have a natural handicap when it comes to this. We have the NCAA where if the player signs any kind of contract he becomes ineligible to play in college.

      So we will continue to lose young players to Europe with no transfer fee and it will continue to hurt us.

      Reply

  16. Posted by UCLA History Tradition Glory on 2012/06/20 at 4:49 PM

    PS: Our college sports system has led us to poach foreign talent like Andy Rose (former captain of Bristol City u-16 and u-18) b/c getting a college degree is a big draw to those types.

    Reply

    • Posted by Nick on 2012/06/20 at 7:10 PM

      So what made it ok for Andy Rose to play at the varsity level (assuming for a scholarship) after being the U-16/18 Captain of Bristol City?

      Reply

    • Posted by Jared on 2012/06/21 at 3:43 AM

      I’d be willing to bet Andy Rose wasn’t offered a professional contract that was worth very much by Bristol City if he left for college. It’s a step backwards if he was offered a pro contract for a team in the Championship.

      Reply

  17. Posted by JohnC on 2012/06/21 at 6:47 AM

    I wish we would focus more on how to improve college soccer rather than throw it under the bus for all our problems (I don’t think this article does that but most of the comments do). College soccer is a huge resource at our disposal, it has an infrastructure with millions already invested in it and it costs MLS $0.00, I think some European clubs would kill to be able to keep player’s rights without having to pay them a cent for 1-4 years. Yet, what we all can agree on is that what college does cost MLS and us as fans of MLS and USMNT is the maximizing of potential at a young age (what if George John and Tim Ream skip college, are they premier league players by 21 instead of 24, what if Dempsey never goes, does he make a big transfer move at 26 rather than 29). So how do we improve college soccer while retaining the amateurism of the players (amateurism is a huge battle that the soccer world is a mere foot solider in, NBA and NFL will be the ones to lead that charge)? NCAA already allows HS kids to retain eligibility while playing on reserve teams, this would be a nice change for 18-22 yr olds as well. A splilt college season would increase practice time and games. Move involvement of MLS in PDL would aid in scouting and developing players. Also, we need to find a way to keep kids who don’t go to college but are still talented to keep playing from 18-22 (it just doesn’t make sense that being able to succeed at academics should play any role in being able to succeed at soccer). If MLS could field regional teams of non-college players in the PDL league who make a very minimum salary then they might be able to keep more kids in the pipeline.

    Reply

    • Posted by John Parker on 2012/06/21 at 7:20 AM

      JohnC-

      I agree that collegiate soccer whithin itself is not much of an issue; rather, I believe the trickle down effects that change the way 12-13 year olds and 17-18 year olds are trained and treated by their academies is the issue.

      Ideally the hypothetical I outlined above would happen; when players turned 19-20 or so and realize first team time is not available, they’d attend a local school if they were still close and play U-20/Reserves in offseason, or attend any school if they felt it was time to turn to scholarly pursuits.

      In this case the collegiate system becomes a very qualified reclamation ground. However, the collegiate system has more influence on the outlook of an 11 year old player than the professional system does, and that is the crux of the issue.

      Reply

    • Posted by Hal on 2012/06/26 at 8:35 PM

      well the reality is (and the author emphatically proves it) that the NCAA amateur rules are what prevent us from following the known player development blue print. Since we cannot follow the most efficient way to develop players we are going to suffer. This is just a reality.

      But its a reality we have to work with. The NCAA isn’t going to change any time soon. I think MLS clubs with U-23 teams in the PDL is a start. Right now only 4 MLS teams have U-23 teams in the PDL.

      I think a bigger problem is the reality that because we don’t have a youth contract mechanism, it makes it less likely for MLS clubs to get involved in comprehensive youth development. Why would a MLS club get involved in U-12 development when the likelihood if them ever being able to keep any of those players is very low. In Germany , a German club would offer their whole academy youth contracts and the better players would move up through ranks going from U-12 to U-15 etc all the while getting a better youth contract along the way.

      Reply

  18. [...] son take his talents to college or the pros? John Parker looked into that yesterday with, “Toting The Old Ball ‘N’Chain: Player Development in America.” Here’s some more reaction to keep the discussion going below. From Travis [...]

    Reply

  19. I understand why some want to mimic the European system, but collegiate sports is too big in the US. How many college players make it to the MLS every year? around 40 to 50? A very tiny percentage. How many academy players make it to the MLS? A very tiny percentage.

    The NASL and USL-Pro do not pay enough, a college degree is so important for U20 American soccer players.

    If the youth system is going to improve, it’s going to require college and PDL/NSPL to get better. A talented U20 player has college for Fall and Spring, and the PDL/NPSL for summer. If they want to play year round, they could always play indoor soccer during the winter.

    2nd league in UK – Championship players earn an average salary of £195,750 ($303,412),
    3rd league in UK – League One players £67,850 ($105,167)
    4th league in UK – League Two £49,600 ($76,880).

    2nd league in US – NASL $16,000 to $25,000
    3rd league in US – USL Pro $10,000 to $20,000

    Reply

  20. Posted by Nelson on 2012/06/22 at 8:06 PM

    Do any of y’all feel our elite athletes are migrating to the NFL and NBA? My friend talks about wanting Lebron James sized guys playing soccer. It makes me laugh a bit…But how are the athletes speed for speed ect in comparison between professional leagues, ? Is anyone as fast as Sproles?

    Reply

  21. [...] The Fan In You « Toting The Old Ball ‘N’ Chain: Player Development In America [...]

    Reply

  22. Late reading this, but I love the insight and that a smart community (like TSG’s) is discussing player development, which is, to me, perhaps the most interesting/important topic in U.S. soccer.

    My question is this – even if it’s not yet leading to meaningful contracts and is stymied by institutional constraints, there are still hundreds (maybe more?) of youth players taking part in academies, getting (probably) better training and instruction than their American peers would have in previous years, so there’s a lot of value in that, no?

    Maybe we aren’t producing American stars yet, but I think there’s value in, overall, raising the level and intelligence of play in the country, and I think academies are doing that. There’s certainly millions of miles to go here, but the potential for youth soccer in this country is so astronomical and has been so inefficient over the years that any step in the right direction should make pretty helpful improvements, IMO.

    I agree with 100% of what you said, but would also argue that just having a system at all should help quite a bit, which is more just commentary on how bad things were than anything else. It’s defeatist logic to say being “better” is enough, and that’s certainly not what I’m saying, but it’s nice to take a step back and say, “Hey, at least it’s not as bad as it used to be, and at least we’re headed in the right direction.” I think.

    Reply

    • Posted by Hal on 2012/06/26 at 8:47 PM

      jared,

      yes its better than nothing. But the worry should be that in 5 years MLS looks at the money they are putting into academies with not much to show for it and will pull back. Already, you have the Seattle Sounders GM say he thinks college is more efficient. This sounds crazy but what he’s basically saying is that college is more efficient for MLS, not for USMNT.

      here is the major different between European academies and USA.

      Europe – players of any age can be offered youth contracts. Those youth contracts get better as player goes from u-10 to u-14, u-18, u-23, until the player is offered a pro contract. So for Dutch clubs they have the incentive to develop players because they can own their contract rights all the way through development. Then if the player is really good they sell him to a better club in Europe.

      USA- players are not given youth contracts because doing so would remove their NCAA eligibility. A player that starts at FC Dallas U-13 academy and stays with FC Dallas all the way til U-20 can be poached by a European club for no transfer fee. The reason is, that player was never under contract.

      Reply

  23. Posted by crazyMike366 on 2012/06/26 at 5:13 PM

    The lowest mean salary among Starting XI players in MLS is Chivas USA at $104,089 (1). The average college graduate makes $46,000 per year. MLS reservists are guaranteed a salary of $32,000. I can’t find good stats for the average NASL yearly salary, but I’m going to guess it comes in lower at around $20,000. Compare that to the average NBA salary of $5.2 million and NFL salary at $770.000.

    Unless a youth player knows with a high degree of certainty that he can break into the Starting XI of an MLS team, he’s better off going to college, financially speaking. And until that changes, MLS will lose top talents to college.

    For every Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan that can be mentioned in the same breath as “world class,” how many American kids with “world class potential” who liked soccer, basketball, and football chose to play the other game? I’m guessing its going to be a much higher percentage than intuition suggests. Could LeBron or OchoCinco have been “America’s Messi”? We’ll never know.

    I’ll happily agree that the pro-amateur rules of the NCAA could be a thorn in the side of MLS that hampers development a bit, but first we need to address the 300-lb-gorilla-in-the-room that is soccer’s inability to compete for the aspirations of the nation’s best young athletes. And only time and truckloads of money can fix that.

    1.) http://onfooty.com/2011/01/on-the-mls-salary-cap-and-success.html

    Reply

    • Posted by dth on 2012/06/26 at 8:27 PM

      Not sure I agree a hundred percent with your police work, there, Lou. What you have to consider is:
      a) going pro doesn’t preclude finishing college; in fact, Generation adidas specifically provides funds for college education. (I believe the same is true for homegrown players).
      b) if you go pro early you are, because of the discount rate/time value of money, replacing years in which you earn nothing with years in which you earn something.

      So, no, it’s probably not the case that going/graduating from college is a better idea financially than going pro early. It’s not mega millions, but it doesn’t have to be.

      Reply

  24. Could MLS clubs offer youth contracts that set aside all funds for college tuition? If so, those contracts certainly wouldn’t be a problem for NCAA amateurism rules. The key issue is whether those contracts could also fit FIFA guidelines to prevent foreign clubs from poaching young talent.
    If such a youth contract template could be engineered to keep MLS, NCAA, and FIFA happy, it would be huge.

    Reply

    • Posted by dth on 2012/07/09 at 2:08 PM

      I believe MLB teams offer such contracts to minor league players all the time (failed minor leaguers often become stars in other sports–e.g. former Generation adidas guy Devin Barclay for the Buckeyes, or former MLB player Brandon Weeden for OK State.

      Reply

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