Photo: Tsering Topgyal/AP

Josh Sargent is one of the hottest American soccer prospects in the U.S. Soccer system. In three weeks, the 17-year-old will ship off to Germany as he prepares to sign his first professional contract with Werder Bremen. The St. Louis native has starred for the U.S. U-17 team, the U-20 team, and even earned a call-up to the senior team earlier this fall. Sargent’s got a nose for goal and the sort of physical tools that should excite any USMNT fan, and his choice to skip town for the Bundesliga places him among a growing cadre of American teens who’ve realized that their best chance for attaining true success in the sport lies in away from America.

Sargent spoke to American Soccer Now’s Brian Sciaretta today about his future, the wild year he had, and his decision to go to Europe. He made some good points about how difficult it is for an American teenager to decide to leave home and go learn a new language while also trying to stand out in a more competitive development environment. Most tellingly, Sargent correctly pointed out an alarming fact about MLS’s paltry record of playing time given to young American talents.

MLS was definitely an option for me at first. It would have been nice. Everyone speaks English and it’s only three hours away. But I believe in life you have to do what is hard for you in order to build yourself as a person. When you look at MLS, you don’t see many young players getting minutes. But Weston and Christian are getting minutes. I don’t know how you can refuse that.

Just think about that: This season Germany’s top league—one of the most competitive ones in the world—has prominently featured just as many American teens as America’s own domestic league has. It’s a stat as stunning as it is troubling.

This hostile climate for young players—more than MLS’s lagging standard of play, nonsensical league structure, or ambition-ending cushiness for USMNT stars—is the single biggest indictment of the league. It’s helpful that Sargent’s abilities have shone brightly enough with the youth national teams to attract the attention of a club like Bremen, but were he forced to begin his career in MLS, would he even get opportunities to show off and entice a larger European club to come calling in a few years?

Because of FIFA’s rules about youth players changing clubs, Americans can’t even go off to play in Europe until they’re 18 (unless, like Christian Pulisic, they can lean on a European passport), which would seem to ensure MLS some time to groom and feature the best American teenagers before they cross the Atlantic. MLS’s lack of promotion and relegation—at least as a certain line of pro/rel skepticism goes—should motivate teams to develop young players for the future without fear of losing their spots in the top division, and yet Tyler Adams and Djordje Mihailovic are the only American teens who got serious playing time during the recently completed MLS season. Unlike the hordes of minor European teams who rely on developing and selling young players for a profit, American clubs don’t receive compensation when a youth prospect moves up in the soccer world thanks to an arcane U.S. Soccer bylaw (an issue which is being actively worked on). This means teams have less incentive to develop youth players, and the whole system suffers because of it.

Advertisement

The obvious rejoinder to this line of logic is that there simply aren’t enough good American teenagers to break into MLS first teams. Even if that’s true—which, hell, it might be—it still doesn’t explain why nobody is even giving their kids chances. If anything, the two things are related. Because of how sports work here in the U.S., more teenagers are spending some of their most crucial development years in the stultifying high school and college systems, while the very best take their chances in Europe when they can. But surely there is a middle ground, a group of gifted but unpolished MLS-ready players who could contribute in the domestic league as they grow and develop as players. And if MLS and U.S. Soccer are to find that elusive long-term success, it will be because of a youth development system that gets promising teenagers into first team setups.

Ideally, whoever runs U.S. Soccer next can make MLS actually useful both for its own benefit and for the enrichment of American soccer and its players, though it shouldn’t take Josh Sargent pointing out the obvious for anyone to recognize what a problem this is.