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MLS academy system needs revamp to be stronger feeder to USMNT


If the United States is ever going to become a true player on the international soccer scene and gain the ultimate prize of winning the World Cup, the country needs to start producing more talented players.

While that is a simplistic statement, it is more complex than it appears.

To really improve the ability of the players that will one day represent the U.S. Men’s National Team, changes have to be made on an academy level. Those changes need to start with the country’s top division, Major League Soccer.

[ +READ: USMNT show same courage, same heart, same defects in World Cup defeat ]

While DeAndre Yedlin is the first MLS Homegrown Player to play at the World Cup for the U.S., a significant chunk of his soccer education wasn’t spent with the Seattle Sounders. Yedlin, like 10 of his USMNT teammates, spent time in the collegiate soccer system.

Jurgen Klinsmann has lamented the shortcomings of the collegiate system since 2010.

“You are the only country in the world that has the pyramid upside-down,” he said after the U.S.’ exit to Ghana at the previous World Cup. “You pay for having your kid play soccer because your goal is not that your kid becomes a professional soccer player – because your goal is that your kid gets a scholarship in a high school or in a college, which is completely opposite from the rest of the world.”

The collegiate system works for some, but there needs to be an alternative. While heading to college provides an education and degree — if the player sticks around all four years — problems still persist. In college, the seasons are short and intense followed by a long winter break, and then an even shorter spring season.

The alternative, to produce a higher level of player going to the national team, is to revamp the academy system. The U.S. and more specifically MLS need to allow players to grow in a system from the tender ages of 10 or 11 years old in hopes that they make the transition to the professional team.

While this won’t be an option all would choose to explore, having young, precocious talent nurtured in a professional environment where competition for places is always strong would certainly reap benefits.

While not every player will make the jump, some will still play at a lower level or eventually decide that a professional path doesn’t suit them, which is perfectly fine. It’s no different than what happens in academies all over the world.

[ +READ: Jurgen Klinsmann: Should he stay or should he go now?]

For a parallel situation, look no further than England’s national team.

The Three Lions did crash out of the 2014 World Cup in the group stage, but they are a team in transition — implementing younger talent and trying to change the playing style, much like the U.S.

There is one club in particular that recently and could for the foreseeable future have the biggest impact on the national team, which the MLS and its clubs should emulate. It’s not Arsenal or Chelsea. And no, it’s not Liverpool or the Manchester clubs.

In fact, it is a smaller-sized club on the country’s South Coast: Southampton. The Saints contributed three players of theirs – at the time — to England’s World Cup squa: Adam LallanaLuke Shaw and Rickie Lambert.

Lallana, who captained Southampton, and Shaw are academy projects while Lambert’s played his best soccer in a Saints kit. All three have since been sold, with Lallana and Lambert moving to Liverpool and Shaw making a switch to Manchester United.

[ +READ: Should MLS try loaning youngsters to England’s lower divisions? ]

The Saints also played a role in the development of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, now at Arsenal, on the roster that made the World Cup. Had Theo Walcott, also currently at Arsenal, and current Saints player Jay Rodriguez not been injured, Southampton would have played a role in two more players in the Three Lions’ squad in Brazil. Not to mention that the Saints developed Welshman Gareth Bale, widely considered one of the best players in the world.

Danny+Welbeck+England+v+Montenegro+FIFA+2014+67e6JUHFARElWhile Southampton was struggling with administration and possible liquidation in League One — they have since returned to the Premier League —  the sale of Walcott and Bale helped keep the club afloat. From then on, a new vision was born. The club planned on building the roster through homegrown players raised in their academy.

“The academy is very important to become a sustainable business,” Nicola Cortese, former Saints’ executive chairman from 2009-2014, said last year. “We would want to see a starting 11 in the Premier League that is fed from our youth development.”

In the production line of young talent, the club also has youth internationals like James Ward-ProwseCalum Chambers and Sam Gallagher, which have all played in the Premier League. A more familiar name may be Cody Cropper, a goalkeeper who has been called into U.S. national team camps.

While Southampton’s players like Shaw — a member of the club from age eight and who was just sold to United for £30 million ($51 million) — continue to get plucked by bigger clubs, the Saints won’t get to experience just how good the playing squad could be or how many trophies they could win. However, the club continues to do a great service to the national team.

Now, MLS clubs need to take on a similar mantra. How many clubs are actively looking to create a starting 11 of all homegrown talent? Not many, if at all.

[ +READ: Youth Coaches: How to keep from raising the next Luis Suarez ]

Southampton, which is a modest club, runs their academy at a cost around £2.3m ($4 million) – although that number was from a few years ago. However with a new massive television deal for MLS, some of that money should trickle down to go into youth development and the academy system.

With that in mind, the U.S. needs to at least take the first step and offer protection for current academy players. Getting compensation when players move on to other clubs would at least provide a bigger incentive to spend more time building and cultivating talent in academies.

As New York Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh has said in the past, “How can you invest in an academy or in your fringe young players if they can just walk away?

“We lost a 17-year-old goalkeeper a year ago, he just walked and he went to Reading. His mother wrote a note: ‘Thank you very much.’”

Amando-Moreno-RBNYHowever, providing a place for players to learn from a young age should foster a special bond with the MLS club as well as a direct passage to the professional team. If the player isn’t deemed at the quality the club is looking for, a move to another MLS club or lower-division should be made easier by the education they received from say the Red Bulls.

The biggest expenditure would be in facilities — either improving current ones or building new ones — similar to Southampton’s, with “school-rooms, medical centre, swimming pool, state-of-the-art gym, video labs, restaurant and office suites for the youth recruitment department, coaching staff and support personnel.”

While those financial outlays seem steep, the rewards would be great if the U.S. could produce players that were sold for $30 million or more at some point in the near future after the academies were revamped. More importantly, an education from an early age in a professional environment, based around technical and tactical know-how rather than wins and losses, would greatly impact what level the USMNT can reach on the global stage.

Starting players from age 10 on development deals that hopefully, more often than not, foster the transition to professional deals isn’t how things have been done in this country in the past. However, the shift to a more worldly system for the whole league should come now — the Red Bulls have begun to take up that initiative with a U-12 team, for instance.

The times already are a-changin’: MLS and U.S. Soccer not producing talent capable of a World Cup triumph is no longer an option.

Filed under: Clubs, Coaching, MLS, Pro, USMNT

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  1. cflsteve says:

    With MLS clubs now going to have a connected USLPro minor league affiliate along with the growing NASL at the D2 level will help the process of giving younger players a chance to come through academies and have a chance to turn pro right out of the academies or leaving college earlier.
    When Jurgen the great appeared as the US men’s savior the pro option leaving the Acedemy were very limited, either being good enough to stick with the MLS club or leave the continent to play pro.
    Now with the USL Pro direct connection more players at a younger age can become a homegrown player and be able to be shipped out to their minor league for playing time. Players from the Academy would also have the ability to sign a minor league contract with the USLPro club.
    NASL clubs can scout the MLS Academies as well as NCAA players at their college and/or in the PDL and give the players who fall inbetween a chance to turn pro at a younger age wihtout leaving the country. Also NASL clubs are also starting their own youth academies as well as affiliating with already running independent youth programs and academies.
    This is not Europe so what works over there will not automatically work here. Also an 18 year old kid will more likely be more comfortable turning pro for a club in the US than in a strange country in Europe.
    Against Jurgen the Great’s philosophy even veteran players are more comfortable playing in the MLS for a more comfortable lifestyle for the player and his family.

  2. sdflash2006 says:

    Trying to find a middle ground between compensating teams for their ability to develop young players and the legal issues involved in the perceived exploitation of these kids will be extremely difficult to solve in this country. Hispanic kids, especially in the border states, have the LigaMX club academies as an option. For everybody else, the best solution is for the NCAA and MLS to work out some sort of a true partnership. The only way this will ever happen is if MLS puts money into the college system. I get why the NCAA serves as a minor leagues for the NFL and NBA. The prestige and money they gain from the so called “student-athletes” is significant. What I don’t understand is why the NCAA continues to be a B____ for Major League Baseball. Except for a few schools, baseball can’t be making any money and the regular season is ignored. On top of it, they play the stooge and sign kids to scholarships knowing full well most of them will never show up after they are drafted. It strikes me, much like MLS clubs need to buy stadiums in cities that MLB franchises get for free, that MLS or US Soccer should be able to purchase some sort of deal with the NCAA that will serve both parties interests. This would not be in place of MLS academies, but another route for kids to take. This would be some groundbreaking stuff, but when it comes to the development of professional soccer in the US…what else is new.

  3. Ok – you lost me when you suggested we emulate something in England. England is the last place to look. They have not won a major tournament since 1966. Why don’t we look at the countries who have revamped their systems and shown success, say like Germany.

  4. Lonaka says:

    On this years US MNT world cup team the only player with soccer vision was Michael Bradley. Landon Donovan would have been the other player but was not chose. All the other players possess very little soccer vision. Even the players from Germany. It they were good the German National team would have secured their services and not allow them to leave for the US. I’m not too sure if the German clubs will help these players develop. Why should they, they invested in these youths and they left to play for the US. Do you think the US would be that generous and develop all these foreign players only to have them return to their adopted country.

    • soccermom#6 says:

      Lonaka, agree. I think Taylor Twillman mentioned this after the game. Michael Bradley got the assist on Julian Green because he saw Green making the run and gave him a nice ball. While other players were on (Bedoya, Zusi, and others), no one was making runs for him to make good passes. And everyone is s******* on Bradley but the reality is others around him didn’t rise to the occasion. If Green came early on, we’d have gotten two out of him or he’d have inspired others to play better. Who knows. I am just appalled that focus has been on fitness and not soccer. Oh well, we will give it another 4 years. But I have no hope. I know that a lot of academies are choosing players who are physical and overlooking players who are skilled but skinny. As long as that trend continues by the coaches with big egos (winning is all they care about), we are not going to get better.

  5. Woody says:

    So tell me why we can’t go the college route? Doesn’t it work for just about every sport in this country. Isn’t our basketball program NBA, MLB, NHL and so on… the best leagues and most competitive leagues in the world? So why can’t we do it with college soccer? If the player is good enough to go pro at an early age go otherwise go the college route. Who says the European way is the best practice? Does it work in England? does it work in Scotland, Denmark, Russia, and so on…Look we’re not ready to win the WCup yet, but we’re on the right road.

    • soccermom#6 says:

      The sports you talk about are played mostly only in the US. Being best in the country doesn’t mean you are the best in the world or world champions as we try to call the winners when the sport is played in only this country. In soccer, we are trying to compete with the best of the best from across the world. So some reality check is in order. Having said that, I am in favor of college route because eventually a college degree is the one to put food on the table for 99% of the athletes.

    • Lonaka says:

      I think we can go the college route. Just be mindful, that there will be only a handful of players that will bet to the top. So the 99.9% of the other players better be prepared to have a plan B if they don’t make it at the professional ranks. We are not developing players are being sort by the Elite leagues of the world. Our goal keepers are about the most successful soccer players playing at the highest world level. Many of our field players are good for a very limited time. Even Michael Bradley came back to the MLS. If he was an “world class” player he would have stayed overseas and ended his career their and return to the MLS as a retirement stay. What is needed here in the US is better soccer teachers. We don’t need people that call themselves “coaches” and have no proven record of either a player or a successful coaching career. A successful coaching career is where players playing in that persons system is highly recruited by colleges, professionals and foreign clubs.

    • Josh says:

      This is actually not completely accurate. College is a secondary feeder system for the NHL — a far greater number of draft picks come from the junior system (very similar to European soccer development). Not to mention that many college players enter college after going through a youth system that is unique among sports in this country.
      Baseball-wise, college plays only a partial role in player development. Many players go pro straight out of high school, and regardless, there is a lot of development going on in the minor leagues — being a pro does not mean playing at the highest level.
      As far as football goes, there’s TONS of money poured into college football because it’s the one sport that universities actually make money on. Because of all the money in it, you get elite facilities and elite coaches and, therefore, elite development.
      You will never get elite development in college soccer because universities make NO money on their soccer programs. In fact, as it is they likely lose money. That’s why so many colleges axed their men’s programs for Title IX.
      That’s not to say there’s no place for college soccer and that players there don’t develop, it’s just that you will never see the college system revamped for truly elite development. There’s just no money to be made on it.

  6. agapao13 says:

    Apropo post. Let’s do it.

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