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Mar 30, 2007

Youth team success yet to translate to senior level

It doesn't matter how patriotic you are. One is hard-pressed to argue that American men's soccer is the best soccer in the world.

First of all, there are no real facts to back it up. Compile a list of the game's 10 biggest names. OK, 50. How many Americans are on that list? If it's a legitimate list, it's likely there are zero.

This is not an attack on the American game -- it's just the truth.

So the question is, when do things change? American kids probably have every advantage when it comes to sports. Sure, their foreign counterparts grow up in societies where soccer is the be-all and end-all when it comes to sports, but in soccer households across America, soccer holds the a similar place.

Compared to kids in Brazil, Mexico, Ghana or most of the planet, American kids have almost every tangible advantage -- top-level facilities, elite coaches, funding to travel across the country and sometimes all over the world. There's camps and clinics and who knows what else. (That doesn't mean every player across America has such advantages, but those that don't can be considered in the minority.)

Furthermore, these kids have parental involvement. For better or for worse, soccer parents, in many cases, justly have earned their label -- from being dedicated and involved to sometimes obsessive and crazy.

Sure, the United States soccer scene has to compete with other higher profile sports for the top athletes, but so do a number of other sports -- such as swimming and track and field. But Americans are just as dominant as their international counterparts in these events.

So what's the difference? There's a great deal of speculation as to why U.S. athletes aren't playing a more pivotal role in world soccer.

It has to begin at the youth level. It always does.

Perhaps in the past, U.S. programs were subpar, but that's not the case anymore. Time and time again, U.S. boys teams at the youth club level are proving themselves capable of holding their own against the developmental teams fielded by the world's top clubs.

The Dallas Cup attracts numerous professional club youth teams from overseas every April. Last year, the Dallas Texans won the tournament's international "Supergroup" over such teams as Real Madrid and Manchester United.

A similar scene played out at the Disney Soccer Showcase held over New Year's. Event sponsor Adidas flew in Real Madrid, Newcastle and Tigres (Mexico) to compete against the U.S. regional ODP and U-17 national teams. Newcastle was the only club to go undefeated in its four games, but was surprised by going 2-0-2 with both draws coming against U.S. teams.

"I didn't expect that," Newcastle midfielder Rob Cavener said. "American teams have come over in the past and played us in friendly games, and we've beat them comfortably. The Americans are top athletes really."

Events like the aforementioned give U.S. players a chance to demonstrate their skills, as well as a chance to see where they stack up.

"They get the opportunity to play some of the best players in the world," Solar '89 coach Kevin Smith said. "How big is that -- playing Real Madrid, one of the biggest clubs in the world?"

Smith's Solar squad out of Dallas is one of two American teams invited to take part in the 12-team elite bracket in April's Dallas Cup. The tournament also will feature 10 youth teams affiliated with professional clubs.

"[Our players] are going to challenge themselves to say, 'I can go play abroad and be a professional soccer player,'" Smith said. "We've got a lot of kids that want to do that. That's their dream, and now they're going to get to judge where they're at."

So if the talent level is comparable, what gives? Perhaps it's just the way we have things set up.

The gap between how American club teams and their European counterparts are run is about as wide as the Atlantic. U.S. clubs are run by individual organizations, whereas overseas they serve as feeders for the pros.

"There's not that much difference [in talent] to be fair," Newcastle U-17 coach Vince Hutton said. "The only advantage is we have 92 professional clubs where players can go play. Unfortunately, you don't have that. That's taken a long time to set up over the years, but I know it's a massive sport here."

Still in the UK, Hutton says, "it's easier for boys to get set up" with professional teams.

Maybe that's what it takes, and there is an early movement in that direction as MLS establishes youth programs affiliated with its professional clubs.

Some people, like Bob Bounpane, U.S. Youth Soccer committee chairman for the Boys Olympic Development Program, see that as the legitimate solution.

"From my own personal standpoint -- this is not an official position -- I think the next move for soccer in the United States would be having professional teams take over some level of development for players," Boupane said.

Of course, that's much more complex than it sounds because of size and the role that non-professional soccer clubs play in the sport.

"It has to be at a very broad base because of the size of our country and the makeup of things," Boupane said. "We're two to three times the size of most soccer-playing countries.

"We'd like to see more involvement where players have more opportunities to play at the professional level. That does bring up opportunities overseas also. I'd like to see more players get into environments like the youth academies in Europe and Latin America.

That's probably the next step, that more players are available at the professional level if they choose to go that route."

But maybe the biggest difference and the issue that's having the biggest impact is the way most U.S. soccer clubs don't operate on the show-up-or-ship-out principle that professional youth club teams do.

"These [American] guys grow up on their club teams and once they're on a club team they're going to stay on a club team," U-17 national team coach John Hackworth said. "These kids that come from an international club team have to compete every single day for their job. It might not be that cut and dry, but that's the reality."

When it comes down to it, at the Serie A/Premiership/Primera Liga level, the difference in skill is generally minute at most and what separates the great from the good is mentality.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson U.S. kids can take from playing foreign clubs is realizing the need to continuously perform as though their job is on the line.

Find a way to hammer that point home at an early age, and it might not be long before there are a few American names to add to that all-time great list.

Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.