Anyone who worries about the U.S. men’s national teams having a chance at winning the World Cup, or who worries about whether Major League Soccer can be an elite league in world soccer, also worries that America doesn’t do enough to develop youth soccer talent.
The inevitable conclusion of anyone who studies the problem is some version of the same statement: There are not enough resources for youth soccer, and we need to start focusing on developing the best of the best, as they do in Brazil or England or Germany.
Talk to any player who’s come up through that type of system and they’ll describe being battle-hardened at the age of 11 or 12, fighting for their place — and their future — on a weekly basis, despite being barely old enough for middle school.
“You have to have thick skin when you’re young,” said former Minnesota United star Pablo Campos, who played for the youth teams of several large Brazilian clubs before moving to America to play college soccer. “You have to know that the pressure is going to make you better, because the pressure is going to be there all the time. You grow up with having to be your best at like [age] 10 or 12.”
It’s impossible to fault this setup’s ability to turn out dedicated, experienced players. A young player simply cannot make it without being focused, without being fully committed, without having not only the awesome talent to excel but also the mental and emotional strength to simply survive.
But is it actually better, overall, than the one America has now?
The Guardian newspaper recently did a study of the youth academies of every Premier League team. In the 1990s, England introduced new, more stringent requirements for top-level youth academies, in hopes of stimulating player development. Players sign with clubs starting at age 8. By age 16, when players can sign contracts, only the best of the best remain. And still, an astonishing 99 percent of those 16-year-olds did not become pro soccer players.
If you’re only concerned with developing the best of the best, a streamlining of the U.S. youth soccer system is long overdue. There are at least five different, sometimes overlapping, national organizations for youth soccer players, and that’s not counting high school or college teams. Understanding the system seems impossible, never mind navigating it, and the sometimes outlandish costs of participation are too much for some kids.
The advantage, though, is that the sheer sprawling size of this system means that participation numbers are enormous. Apart from those left behind by the pay-to-play model, there’s a spot, somewhere, for just about every kid who wants to play soccer. They aren’t tossed aside in junior high. They don’t have to leave school to continue to play.
It might be worse for the national team, but is it worse overall? At its heart, that’s the dilemma facing youth soccer in the U.S.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
• As MLS expansion presses forward and new downtown stadiums become the norm, it was inevitable that teams with older, non-downtown stadiums would start sniffing around for better deals. It looks like Columbus, one of the original MLS teams, could be the first out the door. According to reports, unless the city of Columbus pays for a new stadium, owner Anthony Precourt will move the Crew to Austin in 2019. Look for other cities to try to jump the MLS expansion line by recruiting teams in older, suburban stadiums.
• I continue to be fascinated with Leicester City, more than a year after its impossible run to the 2016 Premier League title. The Foxes fired manager Claudio Ranieri last spring, less than a year after that title, and handed the job to deputy Craig Shakespeare (above), who guided Leicester away from relegation trouble and into the Champions League quarterfinals. Now, after winning just one of the season’s first eight games, the Foxes have fired Shakespeare as well. I just can’t understand why club management is so determined to keep changing things up.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
U-17 World Cup: U.S. vs. England, 9:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. The U.S. hasn’t gotten past the quarterfinals at the U-17 World Cup since 1999, when Landon Donovan won the tournament’s Golden Ball award. But a 5-0 thrashing of Paraguay in the round of 16 has given American fans hope that this is the year. With the senior team failing, youth U.S. teams take center stage.
Premier League: Arsenal at Everton, 7:30 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. When Ronald Koeman took over at Everton, it was seen as an ambitious move for the club, picking up the successful manager of Southampton to take the club to the next level. Now, if Everton loses this one, Koeman will likely be fired. There is much on the line for the Toffees.
Premier League: Liverpool at Tottenham, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. The early-season stories about Tottenham playing its home games at Wembley Stadium have faded; now the club simply has to keep up its winning run. Liverpool, meanwhile, has won just once in five games and is in danger of falling behind in the race for the top four.
Ligue 1: Paris Saint-Germain at Marseille, 2 p.m. Sunday, beIN. This used to be the biggest match in France, with the two biggest clubs competing for supremacy, but PSG’s outlandish spending has titled the balance in a Parisian direction. Even at home, Marseille’s goal will probably be to play for a draw and maintain a chase for a Champions League spot.