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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.