For as far as soccer—the official Sport Of The Future on these shores for decades now—has come in America, we still haven't hit upon a sustainable youth development model to cultivate all levels of professional talent, from squad-fillers to superstars. This leaves interested parties at home and abroad arguing over where, how, and with whom this country's brightest prospects would be best served honing their abilities.
The Guardian has an article on this topic, using the recent decisions of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and, to a lesser degree, Everton to get into the American youth prospecting business as reference points. Bayern have partnered with the Massachusetts-based soccer program Global Premier Soccer (GPS), a company that trains some 55,000 youth players, to exchange some of the German club's ideas, philosophies, and strategies about player development; Everton have come to a similar arrangement with FC Westchester, one of U.S. Soccer's Youth Development Academies; and Barcelona have opened their own full-blown academy in Florida to directly tap into what they hope to be a productive well of American talent.
The positives of these kinds of programs are obvious. If America wants to develop world-class talent, it's probably a good idea to enlist the help of the very clubs that have proven the ability to do so, and even better if the clubs set up shop here themselves. However, there are also potential risks to buying into revolutionary-sounding development secrets should they actually turn out to be nothing more than marketing strategies. As Alexi Lalas puts it, "US soccer is littered with decades of people coming over with little more than an accent to their resume."
The Guardian's own opening scene offers a strong hint to which way the wind is actually blowing. The article opens with Joe Bradley, CEO of GPS, in Bavaria, observing a Bayern youth team practice. During the session, he has an epiphany about the youth coaches' area of emphasis:
"They had a real commitment to game intelligence and the technical aspect of the game, and didn't worry so much about winning or losing," Bradley says of the games he saw, with players ranging from 11 to 16 years old. "We're going to put this at the top of the list," he adds, referring to the work GPS does training about 55,000 youth players in 11 northeastern US states.
If the CEO of a company charged with training 55,000 of America's young soccer players is shocked that skill development and not meaningless on-field victories is what clubs like Bayern focus on, American soccer is a lot further behind than we thought.
The incremental improvements of the USMNT, the careers of American players overseas, and even the growth of MLS can sometimes blind us to the fact that the U.S. still has a long way to go if we want to really matter in this sport. Deep World Cup runs and the increased ease of following the best European leagues serve as additional boosts to soccer's popularity and thus interest in playing it. Still, left largely to our own devices, we've been unable to produce a truly elite player.
That's where Bayern and Barcelona come in. By taking advantage of their tried and true philosophies and processes of player development, we at least ostensibly have a much better shot and finding and cultivating the inchoate soccer talent that must be present in a country this populous. Barcelona's narrow focus on Florida for talent might seem limiting at first glance, until you remember that Spain as a whole is only about 2.5 times bigger than Florida, and that the weather allows for the kind of year-round training common in Europe and South America yet difficult in colder U.S. climes. Bayern's different strategy too has its benefits, with the club getting to see their development ideas implemented on a huge number of players, increasing the odds that their brand of teaching will polish off a diamond in the rough or two.
However, if only to do our due diligence, we shouldn't ignore these European clubs' ulterior motives. Lalas plays the doubter in the article, and has a more cautious, less altruistic interpretation of proceedings:
"Make no mistake," [Lalas] says. "This is a gold rush. This is a land grab."
Lalas allows that Bayern and Barcelona may bring useful ideas and good coaches to their programs, but is concerned about the nation's millions of youth players and their families overcoming what he calls an "inferiority complex".
"[C]ertainly while American coaches can learn from [European clubs'] curriculum and methods, I don't think they have a magic bullet, or anything completely revolutionary. It's a pretty simple game, and we often complicate it."
The "gold rush" Lalas apparently is concerned about probably has a couple prongs. For one, both Bayern and Barça state that this is mostly a brand opportunity. These sorts of programs are an easy way to engender a good reputation among American soccer fans. They probably make lifelong fans of each kid under their tutelage, and make these clubs seem a lot more local and knowable than watching matches happening thousands of miles away ever could. Still, while these goals could be reached by sending over clueless coaches mainly interested in getting the club crest in the newspaper during photo shoots, it would seem a waste of money to announce sweeping programs like this only to, say, develop a pocket of Barça diehards in Southern Florida.
A more reasonable concern is that the European invaders might be more interested in unearthing that singular star player so as to slot him into the first team and rake in the money. If Fulham in the days of Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra, and Dempsey became America's team, imagine the pandemonium that would follow a Barcelona team featuring a legitimate world-class American or two. In that case, Barça and Bayern might see this as a way of getting first dibs on our finest players while only nominally training up the bulk of what would emerge as MLS's and USMNT's crucial though underheralded squad players.
Really, this isn't too far afield from last month's debate between MLS and USMNT manager Jürgen Klinsmann. This country has the raw materials to create great soccer players (we've developed great players in pretty much every other sport), and whoever ultimately starts churning them out will enjoy enormous benefits in multiple different veins. MLS would like it to be them; some European clubs are betting they can do a better job of it.
The thing is, they're probably right. If we did happen upon a kid with the potential of a Neymar, the last thing we would want is for some MLS academy to fiddle with it. For basic structural reasons—the prevalence of high school and college soccer; the lack of year-round training; the burden of academics when other countries pay teens full salaries to focus on the game and nothing else; America's physical and intellectual distance from Europe and South America, which limits the quality of ideas and the collaborative benefits of these ideas competing for supremacy; the size of the country, which prevents us from inspecting every last player with promise the way a Uruguay can, etc.—the U.S. is, conservatively, decades away from being able to take a Possible Neymar and turn him into Realized Neymar. The geographic congregation of soccer's elite isn't an accident, and those factors cannot be replicated just by throwing money at it and thinking everything will improve.
Still, someone has to figure out how to develop truly world-class talent, because the potential galvanizing force of an American superstar cannot be overstated. Soccer is still enough of a niche sport that attention and exposure to the game are just as important as the low-level, middling training and development plans we've implemented to this point—maybe more so. Without an example of a great, winning, rich, and popular superstar thriving at the highest club level, it's difficult to imagine why our best athletes would elect to specialize in soccer besides dumb luck. USMNT World Cup Round of 16 exits every four years can only go so far; annual La Liga title runs and Champions League semi-final appearances lead by an American could do much more. And that would be better for everyone, even and maybe especially MLS.
Ultimately, barring restrictions on who and where American soccer players can seek hone their craft, the choice will be in the players' and their families' own hands. The only evidence of the production of greatness itself lies with the Europeans, as does the closest analogue for an American.
Giuseppe Rossi was born in New Jersey and showcased his talent here until the age of twelve, when he moved to Italy to receive the best training he could get. Now Rossi might not be the kind of superstar we might hope for in the future, but that's down more to terrible injury luck more so than a dearth of talent on the Italian-American's part. (He was, after all, bought up by Manchester United as a teen, lead his Villarreal into the Champions League, and was seriously rumored to move to Barcelona before the start of his sustained injury problems.)
If Rossi is anything to go by, the American Lionel Messi will probably be trained by Europeans rather than Americans. Instead of fretting over where and for whom this potential future star develops his abilities, let's focus on giving him and players like him the best chance of reaching those heights.