Soccer development in the U.S. shows progress and room for improvement
Youth development has been a popular topic of discussion across American soccer since the beginning of time but the volume of conversation increased considerably when the U.S. U23 team failed in March to qualify for the Olympics for the second consecutive cycle. It grew louder still as the national team finished fourth at last month's Copa America Centenario.
Everybody seems to have an opinion.
In April, MLS commissioner Don Garber told The Associated Press' sports editors that "at the youth level, we're just not good enough, and not as good as we need to be." In May, New York City FC midfielder and Italian national team legend Andrea Pirlo said that the training of young professionals in the United States lagged behind that of their European counterparts.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann suggested during the tournament that 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund phenom Christian Pulisic, a Pennsylvania native, would have had a harder time earning first-team minutes in his home country.
After Klinsmann's team was played off the field in the 4-0 semifinal loss to Argentina, USSF president Sunil Gulati lamented the gulf in class between the Americans and the Lionel Messi-led Albiceleste. "We're obviously a long way off," said Gulati, who told ESPN FC and others two weeks earlier that while the federation must do more to increase the quality of young players, it can't recreate the organic, unstructured environments to which many of the game's top stars can trace their beginnings. A recent legal dispute between youth teams and U.S. Soccer also speaks to a current disconnect.
Between the U23's loss to Colombia and the start of the Copa, ESPN FC asked some of the brightest minds in the domestic game, guys who are on the front lines, two simple questions: What's the state of youth development in the U.S.? And how can it improve?
The 10 respondents are diverse in their backgrounds, having either played or coached (or both) in the U.S. and abroad. They definitely had no shortage of insight.
Where is youth development in the U.S. right now?
Bob Bradley, former coach of U.S. and Egyptian national teams, current manager of French club Le Havre: Where is it? It's probably all over the map. Just like everywhere else in the world, some clubs do it properly by making sure they have the right kind of coaches and things are done well. And there are clubs that are probably behind.
When push comes to shove, there still aren't enough good youth coaches. There aren't enough top youth coaches who are working with the people making [hiring] decisions. There probably aren't enough people able to access those things. Finding coaches that understand what goes into a good training session and can turn that into action every day is still what it comes down to. That's no different anywhere else around the world.
Oscar Pareja, FC Dallas head coach, former FCD academy director: America has talent. Americans probably don't even know how much talent we have, but we still have a lot of holes to fill at the youngest levels.
We need to increase the competition for our youth internationally. It's not good enough right now. We need to figure out a way to have our kids compete more frequently at the highest level, because that will make our players better. Against Colombia, we looked naive. The talent is just as good but I feel like we're behind because those guys have more miles in their careers. We looked young.
Earnie Stewart, Philadelphia Union sporting director, former technical director for Dutch clubs AZ Alkmaar, VVV Venlo and NAC Breda: We don't put enough time into developing players. We don't talk about the 10,000-hour rule for nothing. We get kids out of college that we're still having to develop at 21-22. At that age, there should've been some things in place already. In those 10,000 hours there are tactical things. There are physical things. Time with the ball. We're later in that process and it translates on the field.
We're behind on that compared to other places. Other countries' players already have been pros on a regular basis for a couple of years already by the time they're 21 or 22. It's not about the talent. It's the structure. Our college season is three months' long. How do we make up for that? In sports in general, if you ever want to reach the top, you have to do it all the time. Our structure makes that difficult.
Owen Coyle, former Burnley, Bolton and Houston Dynamo manager: Those formative years between 16 and 20 are so important. In Europe, if a young player isn't breaking into the first team at 19 or 20, they're probably not going to play at that club.
I think there's tremendous young talent in the USA. A lot of players come from an affluent lifestyle, so things sometimes come easy. But in terms of quality, athletically, American kids are always very good. They have technical ability. What's missing sometimes is a soccer intelligence, an understanding of how to play the game. How do you problem-solve during a game so you're not just a robot? With the speed of the game now, you have to find solutions very quickly. I think that is something we can help develop.
Giovanni Savarese, New York Cosmos head coach: The positive thing is everybody now understands the importance of youth development. For me, the most important thing that young players need to think like professionals. Young players need to struggle like professionals. They need to learn what they can expect in the future. We're fighting a culture that I feel year-by-year doesn't help the kids be able to fight adversity.
A lot of times, these kids' first thought is to find an easier solution than to confront adversity. I think we're afraid [in the U.S.] to push kids or put them in difficult situations. People are more concerned about protecting them rather than preparing them to overcome obstacles. It's a false security. It makes them feel like if soccer doesn't work out, it's not their fault: it's the system, it's the coach, it's the teacher. They're allowed to escape into a different place where things will be easier.
Of course you need to play in order to be able to get better, but you have to understand sometimes that you need to earn your spot and fight through and not take it for granted. I think those are all important factors in developing players. It's not about talent. It's about personality, and how young players confront problems so when they get into a game, they can solve them. We need to develop character along with soccer skills.
Peter Vermes, Sporting Kansas City head coach: It's always easy to be critical. I think you also have to see the strides that have been made. What an incredible leap forward we're having with our academies, how organized they're becoming and the level of education that our coaches are getting. People are working toward it. We have made incredible strides. Don't get me wrong: We have a long way to go, but I think we're at an accelerated pace. You can't say that the player pool hasn't grown. We're developing really good players out of our academies. We never had the chance to do that before.
There is an expertise to developing young players as they grow up, and we don't have enough good coaches at the younger age groups from a development perspective. Knowing what they need at that stage of their motor development, what they need technically, when to introduce tactics -- there needs to be a plan around each of those areas. It's not about training the kids. It's actually trying to train the coaches so that they're more educated on what they're supposed to teach at a specific age. We're getting better with player development all the time.
Gregg Berhalter, Columbus Crew SC coach and sporting director, former manager of Swedish club Hammarby: We're at an interesting point because people are starting to take youth development really seriously. You see an increase in quality across the board that's going to have a big impact in the years to come. People have really started to pay attention to detail and get things on the right track. It's infrastructure, it's spending, technology, coaching methodology. There's been big improvements but it took a lot of people saying it has to be better.
Overall, we need to get better as a nation in soccer. We need to be developing more players and a better quality of player. We're just in the beginning stages. Technically and tactically, we need to improve. I think in the next five to seven years, there's going to be a lot of really good players coming out of the U.S. in world soccer
Mike Burns, New England Revolution general manager: Developing that world-class player has eluded us, but there's no question that the player pool has grown. The last couple of World Cups, the pool that the coach had to select from increased dramatically, and that's in large part due to the success of MLS.
At some point that world-class player is going to come from the U.S. I have no doubt in my mind. With the progress we've made as a country the last 25 years, I think it's inevitable in the next 25. There's a lot of people putting a lot of time and effort into it.
Mike Sorber, Philadelphia Union assistant coach, former U.S. national team assistant: Everybody likes to talk about the academies, and better coaching. Christian Pulisic comes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. If you think he was playing in the best environment, you're wrong. Sure, his dad played. That helps. But Pulisic had something before he went to Dortmund, just like Lionel Messi had something before he went to Barcelona.
Development is more art than science. In Germany they're not all playing in the street. German kids play video games, too. But you do have to have little pieces that keep feeding the fire. That can be a coach that gives you a piece of information, or being on a team where you play a lot and you get to explore things yourself and develop not just technical skills but the ability to solve problems, for your brain to pick up certain cues. That's complicated. You can't write that in a book.
I think a big problem that we have is we're too focused on the individual, not focused on the team. And so this whole idea of technical ability and who's talented and who skillful, there are a lot of guys that are talented and skillful and have some soccer brains. But where we're coming up short lately is putting it together.
Bradley: Youth development didn't start with MLS. We've had good people in different places in the U.S. where good work was being done. Now, when you have a league and clubs in some places start to become a little bit more committed to youth and then U.S. Soccer starts to play a role, it gives it a little more structure. That's a good thing.
None of this is meant as criticism. What it does mean is that even when you've provided more structure, it still ultimately comes down to the quality of the training inside all these individual situations. How many places is it being done at a really high level? That's the bottom line.
I do think progress is being made. I think with more support and more money, the opportunity to make sure good development happens in more places consistently should be there. But it comes down to how good we are at putting it into place. And right now, as I said at the beginning, it's probably all over the map.
What can be done to make it better?
Pareja: This comes from the bottom of my heart: The players, the coaches, the managers, the people who invest in the game in this country -- we have to be convinced, first and foremost, of the talent that we have. Second, that we're good. Third, that you need to make American kids feel that they are developing their own identity. They don't need to play like Germans, or like Spain or Colombia. They need to be Americans. Once we believe in that 100 percent and we all buy into it, I think we're going to make big strides.
The talent has been growing but the commitment to the academies and to our youngsters can improve: better coaches, more money. We're still behind other countries' academies. We're not behind on the talent. But we need to work with it. We have a lot of good coaches here. But for the youngest ages, we need more teachers who can tell them and show them how to get better. I don't see many.
Coyle: There has to be a way to marry the soccer education and the college education. When we do that, the U.S. will have players breaking into the national team at 19 or 20 just like every other country in the world, as opposed to at 22 or 23. If we find a way to broker that young talent and give them that education at the same time, the national team is going to be so much stronger. When young talent comes through at a younger age, you can develop them quicker and it stands them in good stead for the rest of their careers.
Sorber: Going to Dortmund helped Pulisic, no question. They have the right setup; he can go from U16 to U19 to U21s to the first team. MLS is starting to get some of this now. With that USL [affiliation], there is a connection from U12 all the way up to the first team at the Philadelphia Union. The gap has been bridged. Now there's a better opportunity to get some better players to develop. That will make a difference in the years to come.
Schellas Hyndman, former SMU and FC Dallas head coach: If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about soccer in this country, it would be to have an identity. We would develop players with this identity so when they get to the national team or the Olympic team or the U20s, they're all playing this way.
I watched the Colombia game in Frisco [Texas], and those players played the Colombian way. Right now, we're trying to model what's happening in Germany or the Netherlands or Brazil. But no model can duplicate the American culture.
I think back to when Bruce Arena had the national team, that was a pretty good American team with some damn good players. Where are those players today? I think the academies are wonderful. They are developing players -- Kellyn Acosta played for me at FC Dallas as an 18-year-old. But we have to find an identity. If we find an identity, we won't be looking all over the world for Americans that can play for us.
Savarese: At younger ages, the most important thing is being able to work a lot with the ball, focusing on the technical skills and not traveling too far for games. And once you're 12, 13, 14, 15, you have to be in a professional setup.
Bradley: I've been in on hundreds of discussions about youth development in the United States, and many times I would look around the room and hear people who were talking, and I would think to myself, "I don't think this person has ever developed one good player." It's one thing to have all these meetings and strategize. It's another thing to put ideas into place over time.
U.S. Soccer and MLS have spent more in this area compared to what it used to be, but if you compare that to how much money was spent by Germany when they thought they had a youth development problem, we're still behind. We have to realize that to continue to do it right costs money.
The end result has to be that we're identifying our best talent and putting it places where it can be developed by people who understand how it works, so that it's not just hit or miss. With the involvement of professional teams and the U.S. Soccer Federation, I would hope more talented players will come through. Time will tell.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.