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Youth academies could kindle burn if Designated Player signings not stoking MLS fire

Mexico's advanced developmental programs- all tied to professional clubs-- are a primary reason for their incredible summer, which included the U 17 World Championship.

By Andrew Villegas










If Mexico’s U-17 World Cup win this week has shown us anything, it’s that the gap between U.S. Soccer and FMF development has widened into a gulf.

In that tournament, the U.S. lost to Uzbekistan in the group stage after beating the Czech Republic, tying New Zealand and ended taking 4 points in the group stage, after which they were run over by Germany 4-0 in the Round of 16. Mexico, on the other hand, though playing with a hefty advantage as hosts, took all 9 points from their group and sliced and diced through Panama, France, Germany and Uruguay for the championship.

But it’s not just one tournament that should have Americans worried at the prospect of a new age of Mexican dominance in CONCACAF, it’s that the youth system in Mexico has them reloading while the USSF scrambles to find a youth system that will consistently find and develop top quality players.

In America, youth academies are smoldering, it’s true, but it’s not clear if that smoldering is a fire going out or a fire starting up. Many MLS teams have development academies, but there is considerable cost involved. As with the Colorado Rapids’ player development academy team, travel costs are paid for by the player, and these costs include15-20 away games per season, many of which are out of state. In America, there are about 80 serious development academy clubs, and 14 MLS clubs have academies. Most are require players “pay-to-play.” This means soccer remains definitively middle, if not upper middle class at the developmental stages in the United States, and eliminates a wide swath of the US player pool.

If you don't have money- you don't have access in the States. So you still have to be lucky. And Clint Dempsey is the exception that proves the rule.

Indeed, the main feeder system in the U.S. is left largely to one academy with 40 players, Bradenton’s IMG Soccer Academy in Florida.  And IMG- while producing some fine talents– misses on those who can’t pay. Ironic, or simply fortunate, for the US then, that arguably its best player, Clint Dempsey- made his own way when he didn’t have the resources to go the main way. Deuce is the exception– raising the real question: How many times has the US missed on a Dempsey, however?

The bottom line as it stands right now: if you want to play in America, you’re gonna pay. You want to send your kid to train full-time at the IMG Soccer Academy in Florida, like the U-17 pool players do? That’ll be up to $50,000 for a school year, not including about $5,000 in other expenses.

Brent Latham at ESPN tells it like it is: In Mexico, clubs are responsible for most of the youth development, the national system supports clubs logistically and economically, and the teams all have U-17 and U-20 teams. The result is that dozens of teams have several youth teams each that feed into club teams and the national team.

And that difference leads to a stark difference in the domestic leagues. Mexico exports its best talent to top European clubs (Read: Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Carlos Salcido, Efarín Juárez) and holds on to a significant portion of them in its top domestic league. The United States’ best players go to top clubs (Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Steve Cherundolo notwithstanding) to languish on benches or play in lower European leagues. Gio Dos Santos’ failure at top clubs doesn’t eliminate the rule: rather it proves it– just as Stu Holden’s success comes at Bolton– hardly a club level with the places Gio has gotten a shot– and no one would argue that Gio Dos is a better player with a straight face. What’s that mean for American players?The experience is good, yes, but others only benefit from it if they bring their experience back where they started and only if they end up playing and not helping field a reserve team.

When you grow your talent at the pro league level-- your players earn better shots at better clubs. That's why Efrain Juarez gets a good transfer- and no matter how good- Stu Holden gets a Bolton.

Simply put, Mexico grows its talent in its domestic leagues and manages to keep it. MLS buys it – in its most extreme case – using the designated player rule. It’s a strange dynamic considering that Mexican football is generally seen as having more money available to spend on players than their American counterparts. It’s why someone like Jonathan Bornstein moves to a Mexican club instead of staying in MLS: Mexican teams, because their greater following (selling out 100,000 capacity Estadio Azteca for a U-17 game is an exceptionally significant example) means they have more money and more expectation to develop youth players into domestic league stars and national team heroes.

As noted above, soccer in America remains largely a middle-class, weekend-only endeavor, which plays right into the hands of supporting a system that values a single star (the designated player rule) instead of developing an entire team – what actually wins in soccer.

Moreover, the designated player rule creates a virtual bucket list of top players for the casual soccer fan in America to see before the player either burns out or moves on. For a league searching for its identity, this is not ideal, even if it does give a way for more casual observers of the game to sit and watch a game and maybe come back. That’s fine at the gate– but it doesn’t create a situation where development is valued. Why value a system that develops talent domestically to compete on a global scale when we have speculating owners with only one eye on soccer who can buy a David Beckham or a Thierry Henry that will put butts in seats for a few years before the player, and sometimes the owner, is on their merry way?

To be fair, we’ve seen movement toward developing soccer talent stateside. Top clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton and soon Ajax have or will have development academies here, staking a claim in what they must feel is a largely untapped treasure of athletic American athletes. The designated player rule does attract the attention of some fans who would otherwise ignore MLS, but it can’t be used as the sole way MLS clubs attract top-level talent. And it certainly can’t be the only way MLS attracts a fan base.

The players homegrown academies develop could build a steady base for soccer fanatics in America more than any single game (see this week’s USWNT Women’s World Cup game, or the 1999 version, which was also supposed to rocket soccer to top-3 sport in America status) or single player ever could. Imagine your son or daughter playing for a development academy. All of a sudden your friends, family and neighbors care about soccer, and all are sure to track your kid’s movement and development more closely if they someday they could be a professional athlete. But all that starts with buy-in and selflessness from those in position to fund and maintain youth soccer in America, namely U.S. Soccer, and yes, Nike and Adidas, who have done some– but must do more.

For now there’s smoke, but no fire.

Andrew Villegas writes about Major League Soccer for The Yanks Are Coming. You can follow him on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew and you can e-mail him at andrew.villegas@gmail.com.

Andrew Villegas

  • Great article, and really hit on a lot of problems with American development.

    I would also look at college soccer as a significant reason the US doesn’t produce top players consistently. Let’s say you’re a prospect who can’t afford the $50,000 a year to get trained in Florida. What’s your next move? Most likely try to get a scholarship and play college, and maybe get drafted by an MLS team. The problem is that college soccer is a completely different game than proper soccer. Timeouts, unlimited substitutions (a player can go out and come back in), and a lack of extra time make it a different game. Considering that college players are trained mostly in the physical side of the game, with little attention paid to technique, it’s not so surprising that most college players burn out.

    Proper rules and experienced coaches would definitely help out.

  • Jeff

    Why are none of you in charge of soccer in the US?

    • PUCK

      Probably because there would be a 5 drink minimum for all US Soccer staff after lunch, Monday – Thursday. Of course weekends and game-days would be bumped up to 8.

      Things may get crazy, but I guarantee they would never be boring.

      • Jeff

        And let’s be honest, how many more fans would we have… probably thousands? And a drunk Puck and any of the other writers is better than a sober Bob and the rest of the suits

  • Anonymous

    American players made far more appearances than Europe than Mexican players; most of those American players had their starts in MLS. 

    You can’t lionize someone like Efrain Juarez without noting he was benched at Celtic for incompetence while Maurice Edu played for Rangers…and is a backup for us. 

    I think the distinction between amateur clubs and pro clubs to be overstated also. For one, I don’t think Colorado is representative at all–I know for a fact New York, DC, and Dallas are all cost-free. For two, for all of the emphasis placed on pro clubs developing players, why is Japan doing a better job with development than we are? We both started taking soccer seriously at approximately the same time. We both rely on amateur clubs or even high school soccer. Yet Japan’s amateur clubs produce Shinji Kagawa and Yuto Nagatomo, among others. 

    • Ufficio

      You can’t lionize someone like Efrain Juarez without noting he was
      benched at Celtic for incompetence while Maurice Edu played for
      Rangers…and is a backup for us.

      I got caught up on that bit, too, but I don’t think the author was arguing that Mexicans in Europe are having more success than Americans, but just that they don’t have hordes of mid-level talent going off to either a roughly equivalent league, or a better league where they sit on the bench, just because they can get a better paycheck than at home. Assuming I’m right, the point was made a bit confusingly, though.

  • Upper middle class families don’t want their kids to become professional soccer players, they want their kids to grow up to be members of the landed American aristocracy: Wall Street Types, doctors, lawyers, Don Draper. They’re encouraged to grow up and stop playing that “kids sport”. Can you blame them? 

    Mexico has less opportunity for regular people to join the 10 percenters. That means there’s more emphasis on soccer as the way out of the countryside or slum, whatever hell they inhabit. Couple that with a love for soccer, and not football or basketball, and you have your answer.

    Unfortunately, the longer this recession (or anemic recovery, however you want to put it) goes on, the better it will be for the development of young soccer talent in this country, as more people realize their child has less of a chance of being Bill Clinton, and more of a chance of being Clint Dempsey. 

    That’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but you can see my point.

    • Anonymous

      This is probably overstated, also. The median years at college has been steadily dropping for the USMNT, and we see more players skipping college or leaving college early than ever before. 

      At any rate: sometimes colleges produce Neven Subotic and Vedad Ibisevic; sometimes they produce American Plodder X. Why? 

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  • Anonymous

    Very interesting to be replied to by KHN. By any chance are you hiring?