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Where are the next American stars?

LOST BOYS
The mechanism for developing players in the United States is in transition.
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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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Over the span of the past two years, the United States men’s national under-20 team failed to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup; the United States men’s national U-23 team didn’t make it to the 2012 Summer Olympics; and, on Sunday, the US men’s national U-17 team stumbled against Honduras 3-1 in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, meaning it will miss out on the U-17 World Cup for the first time in its existence, dating back to 1985.

Grim tidings from the youth front indeed for a soccer federation that has as its stated objective to join the world’s elite.

Especially alarming is that while the US isn’t reaching these tournaments at all — falling to federations of much lesser means during the qualifying process — arch-rival Mexico is medaling in them. El Tri’s youth delegations won the 2011 U-17 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics and placed third at the 2011 U-20 World Cup.

US Soccer president Sunil Gulati recently said that he believes the downturn in the youth national team program’s fortunes as contrasted with Mexico’s success is cyclical, rather than structural. And it’s true that there have been times where the US posted good results while Mexico lagged behind. But in the past two decades or so, ever since the US became a serious soccer country, the chasm has never been so wide or lasting in either direction.

And knowing what we do about the difference in the quality of player development between the US and Mexico — theirs is increasingly professionally run in a well-thought-out national structure that incentivizes the biggest clubs to nurture young talent; ours is scattershot and ad hoc and frightfully disjointed — it isn’t terribly surprising.

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The mechanism for developing players in the US is in transition. The old high school-travel team-college route employed by most other American sports is widely being eschewed for the more straightforward and efficient road to the pros offered by academies that are either independent or run by Major League Soccer teams. This is a step in the right direction.

But most academies don’t start until the under-14 level, by which point — as common soccer player development knowledge holds — the most crucial time for a player to acquire technique already has passed. Nor, for that matter, are there enough academies to cover the country’s vastness. Between those factors, it’s little wonder that many prospects in border states opt to play in Mexican academies. By now, some 15 percent of Mexico’s youth national team consists of players of Mexican origins who are American-born.

Until recently, the only serious attempt at mass-producing quality soccer players in America was the under-17 live-in academy in Bradenton, Fla. It has delivered a good share of senior US national team players. Gulati has told me that with the emergence of academies run by professional clubs, the Bradenton facility soon will have outlived its utility and disappear. For the moment, however, it constitutes the entirety of the feeder system into the U-17 team. And therein lies another problem that can be drawn more broadly. Player development is a game of numbers, of hedging your bets. Even most good prospects don’t make it. So the more of them you produce, the better your chances that a few will emerge at the top and make a mark. This is true for any country in the world. But the US U-17 academy houses just three dozen or so players at any given time. Those are not good odds. In order to build quality youth teams — to say nothing of the senior team — the player pool should number in the hundreds at any given level, not the tens.

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Certainly, players who previously missed the cut flow into the pool later on through other avenues. But the overall scope of development remains extremely limited, and this in a country that counts more registered youth soccer players than any other on the planet. The base is incredibly wide, but the top end, where the serious talent is cultivated, is far too narrow. Other than these few dozen chosen ones who get to join the Bradenton or a pro team’s academy after the most crucial phase of their soccer life already has passed, most players are getting their soccer education from undertrained coaches or even parents.

While this always has been so, it’s come to hamper US teams in international competition now that the improvement and streamlining of youth development in other countries in the region are quickly outpacing that of America. They are, simply put, outdeveloping us.

And that isn’t a cyclical problem. That is very much a structural problem.

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