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Building up talent asking for trouble

Grant Wahl talks United States men's national team and Major League Soccer.
Grant Wahl talks United States men's national team and Major League Soccer.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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We live in a celebrity-driven culture. In our America, fame is as much the currency of success as money. Excel at anything at all and you’ll be acknowledged with name recognition and air time.

American soccer has lacked such a sport-transcending brand, personified by a single name - on the men’s side, anyway. Mia Hamm was that person for women for two decades. And Alex Morgan is well positioned to become America’s next sweetheart soccer player. But no man has ever wrested that role; no male American soccer player has ever achieved enough, or gained sufficient mainstream traction, to put the sport on his back and drag it into the national consciousness. Landon Donovan at one time came close, but he lacked international relevance. And perhaps marketability.

So the yearning and hoping and striving for that first American soccer superstar is understandable. To become a part of America’s intricate and cluttered fabric, you need an icon, that recognizable face that screams "soccer!"

Plenty of young players were built up early, and when they didn’t deliver instantaneously, they were forgotten or mocked. Much ado was made about Freddy Adu, forgetting that he was just 14-years-old and eight or so years removed from an age where he could reasonably be expected to be a productive professional. Jozy Altidore came next, after a flurry of goals early in his New York Red Bulls career. But he, too, was a teenager, and after a record $10 million move to Villarreal in Spain, he struggled in Europe for four years until he matured into a proper international-level player a year ago at 22. Then it was up to Juan Agudelo, who became the youngest United States men's national team goal scorer in November 2010, six days shy of his 18th birthday. But at 20, he is still only just beginning to make his way in Major League Soccer.

New names forever swirl. Philadelphia Union striker Jack McInerney is 20, shares the league-lead in goals and has already been dubbed "the American Chicharito" for his scoring instincts. Los Angeles Galaxy forward Jose Villarreal dazzled in the under-20 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament recently. Seattle Sounders defender DeAndre Yedlin has flashed uncommon talent too. All teeter on the treacherous brink of "next big thing-ness," a label which hasn’t served anybody well in the past.

The man tasked with shoving American soccer to the next level, men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, one of the world’s best strikers of the 1990s, thinks we’re going about it all wrong.

The best way, he argues, to make someone a star is not to call them a star. This is rather un-American, but necessary. "I think it would do all of them the best if you keep them with their feet on the ground," Klinsmann recently told a small group of reporters. "You don’t bring them up too fast to a level that they maybe are overwhelmed with. I’m not saying soccer-wise. They might be able to catch up pretty fast [soccer-wise] but the other thing is, are they able mentally to deal suddenly with that type of recognition, with that type of exposure that they get?"

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In a country with an insatiable hunger for whatever is next, the light cast upon the most promising of prospects is blinding. And this, Klinsmann argues, is what tripped up the under-23 Olympic team that stumbled in the group stage of qualifiers for the 2012 London Olympics. "We clearly saw it in our Olympic team that [they were] not ready to get that exposure," he says. "They were not ready to deal with it. They were not ready to see every week in and week out themselves on ESPN, in Adidas commercials. They were not – simple as that."

"They thought they were already there," Klinsmann says. "And it was too late to bring them back down to the ground. [Head coach] Caleb [Porter] was not able to do that in that moment and – boom – there goes your team chemistry and there goes your team. That was probably the best Olympic team over the last 20 years. There was so much quality in that team but they didn’t get their act together. And so you want to be very careful with the next generation coming through and don’t make them at the age of 19 or 20 something they can’t be yet. Give them time. Give them their up and downs. Keep them on the ground.”

That’s also meant telling MLS, which is understandably eager to develop star power, to do its brightest talent the courtesy of letting them grow in anonymity for as long as possible. "We had those talks with MLS as well," says Klinsmann. "Don’t make them poster boys for things they can’t be. They can’t deal with that yet – it’s just normal. Look at the rollercoaster of Jozy."

Yes, Jozy. He’s developing into the case study. Heavily hyped, it took him five tries before he found the right environment in Europe, lumbering about the old continent under the immense weight of premature expectations. With AZ Alkmaar of the Dutch league he is thriving. A patient, didactic coach schooled him on the basics he never had a chance to master before being tabbed for stardom. Now, at 22, he’s had his breakout season with 30 goals. A move to a European power is a possibility. As such, he’s right on schedule, even if he was supposed to become what he is now no longer after he first started scoring for the Red Bulls at 17.

Jozy might make it big after all. But if he does, it’s in spite of the hype, not because of it.

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