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.
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.
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 Lallana, Luke 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.
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.
While 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-Prowse, Calum 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.
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.’”
However, 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.