Focus on the future
Even those who still disparage Major League Soccer will admit that the league has made progress since its inception. Much debate, however, centers on what is needed to take MLS to the variously defined "next level".
The league itself seems inclined to commit money and resources at this point to building stadiums (nearly every club has or is in the planning stages for a soccer specific venue) and discussing wage structures that allow for clubs to break the salary cap bank on at least one exceptional player.
This idea is known as the "Beckham Rule", though it obviously has never actually applied to the Real Madrid midfielder, whose earnings abroad eclipse the entire league payroll.
The argument for the rule is that the league needs more stars - and if clubs are granted the leeway to sign them, the profit drawn from newly-interested fans will compensate for the inflated paychecks.
There's validity to the idea. There's also a list of various high-profile signings going absolutely bust in MLS. Exhibit A: Lothar Matthaus of the Metros.
In fact, it's the young stars of MLS that have brought the league a fair share of the current recognition it now enjoys. Even after prospects such as Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey moved on to leagues in Europe, the evidence that all those players developed in MLS raised the profile of the domestic game.
Freddy Adu, Eddie Gaven and Justin Mapp are now some of the fresh talent fans come to games to see. Many enjoy the developing skills on display. The reserve league of MLS has offered even more opportunity for new hopefuls to improve their game.
What's missing from the picture, though, is true youth development on the professional scene. This could aid MLS (and ultimately, the U.S. national team) on a number of levels, including financially.
Some MLS coaches, including the Los Angeles Galaxy's Steve Sampson, are campaigning for such a development.
"We still don't have the complete picture yet with all of our MLS clubs. And that's the first team, the reserve teams and the developmental teams all the way down through the youth levels. Until we have that, it won't be a true developmental league. I think that's right around the corner."
During the 2005 youth world championships, for both the U-20's in Holland and the U-17's in Peru, nearly all the rosters for the non-USA teams were made up of players on professional clubs. In contrast, for the U.S, many of the U-20 roster were from the college ranks, while the U-17 players came from Bradenton, the U.S. Soccer developmental residency in Florida.
The college game itself isn't what hinders a player's development - yet the lack of a developmental alternative to the college option just might.
MLS does have the Generation Adidas contracts, which offer a guaranteed payment to a young player who chooses to sign and turn professional. It also ensures college tuition payments if a pro career does not come to fruition. This year, eleven players signed, including U-17 players Blake Wagner and Josmer Altidore.
One problem with the program is that without a truly established regimen set up to instruct adolescent players, they often sink or swim with random success. They are subject to the vagaries of the head coach's willingness to work with juveniles. It's also easy for a youthful player, who may have no peers on a squad, to feel disconnected from his teammates.
Yet at college and Bradenton, the opposite problem becomes an issue. Players who dominate at their own peer level may not learn to test themselves against the skills needed in the pro ranks until their styles are already set. Re-teaching becomes a difficult process at that point.
There are also other biases inherent in a program like Bradenton. In the final game played by the American U-17's in 2005, goalkeeper Brian Perk became an anomaly of sorts when he took the field against Mexico, the recently crowned youth world champions, for a friendly.
That's because Perk was younger than many on the squad, which is primarily built around players born in even-numbered years, since the Youth World Cup is contested every two years.
"I wasn't the youngest on the field, Jos was," Perk pointed out, referring to Altidore's substitute appearance later in the game, a 2-0 U.S. loss.
Perk, Altidore and Daniel Kelly are among an impressive group of players who have had the misfortune to be born in the gap of the cycle that leans toward the oldest players still eligible. A professional club, unfettered to international youth competitions, would not put much stock into such an arbitrary element - and instead focus on a player's long-term potential.
MLS should prioritize those with the capacity for the game, or it may have to compete with established programs from other leagues which have a solid history of developing new talent.
"I'm not quite sure where I'll end up," admitted U-17 standout David Arvizu in December. He acknowledged that there was a possibility he could head to a club in Mexico. "I want to go pro, but I'm still considering my options. I just don't know where."
Arvizu seemed willing to give the domestic league a chance.
"Hopefully, I'll be staying here in MLS."
For every starlet that MLS is able to nurture, the league then may profit handily via transfer fees to other leagues. There's no compensation when young players bypass MLS entirely.
"I'm looking at professional prospects overseas and at MLS," declared another U-17 player, Kyle Nakazawa. "That all depends on how interested the clubs in Holland are in me. I've got to weigh my options on whether it would be best for me to stay here in MLS or go overseas."
Most observers do not see the U-17 players able to transition easily to the physical demands of MLS play anytime soon. Indeed, neither Arvizu or Nakazawa signed Generation Adidas contracts - at least thus far. But with an eye to the future, MLS could view them as investments - if there was a way to assure their continued training within the league.
"There's going to be a time real soon where MLS is going to become a shopping market for the big clubs in Europe," predicted national team star Kasey Keller.
Keller's observations are made from the perspective of a U.S. player who has spent his entire career abroad.
"The [MLS] players are continuing to improve, no doubt about it. The big problem is the European players now, because of the European Union, all count as non-foreigners. We still fall under the category of a foreign player, and for clubs, that requires that extra bit of commitment to make that signing. I think when they see players from MLS step into an English premier season or a Bundesliga season and be successful, it shows the credit and the quality of what's coming out of here."
What the U-17 group lacked in their match against Mexico wasn't ability, but that extra bit of composure to pull off what their talents were capable of. The pressure of a pro environment, even in a youth team version, would go a long way to toward instilling that poise.
The U-17's Preston Zimmerman, put the burden of making the jump to the pro game on his own young shoulders.
"We need to just develop and get better every day and keep working hard. It's really up to each of us individually, whether we're going to get there or not."
Zimmerman finally elected to bypass MLS en route to his professional dreams - coming to an agreement with Hamburg, a German club, to train with their youth teams until he is old enough to sign a professional contract with the team in 2007.
Neither he nor any of the gifted soccer hopefuls in the U.S. should have to go it alone. Bradenton has served as a limited solution to the lack of options, but it isn't an ideal situation. Neither are the youth clubs, with their politics and pricey requirements. The college venue comes too late for many.
If MLS is to establish itself as a league with true power and potential, it must look to take care of its own first. Youth academies linked directly to the club teams are the next step, one that will ultimately benefit the league far more than any outside arrival. MLS will have truly arrived, not simply when it manages to sign a big name player, but when it can prove capable of consistently developing homegrown talents into big names that other leagues hope to sign.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org