There's been a thorough, positive reform in the American soccer landscape over the last 20 years. With that in mind, let's get into part three, looking at the development of American youth talent and the USA's national program.


Youth

Growth starts at the youth level. First, children around the country need to be exposed to and encouraged to play soccer. That's where the increasing popularity of leagues like MLS, USL, and NASL factors in. When the overall number of youth players increases, more talent is bound to be produced. Once this occurs, another problem emerges: scouting and development. In order to reap the benefits of an increased population of young soccer players, a more developed scouting network and a higher quality development academy both become necessary. The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) already has both of these things in place, but there is certainly room for improvement. Right now, after players are scouted and selected, they can enter one of the development academies spread throughout the country.

While there are benefits to having local academies, the ability to access much of the population at a more foundational level, those benefits are outweighed by the costs. Having the country's best players separated makes their skills development more challenging and makes comparing players logistically more difficult for their coaches. A better method, one used by the likes of France, Germany, England, Italy, and Spain, is a centralized academy. These nations have all been incredibly effective at producing world-class talent while utilizing this system. With a centralized training academy, players can enjoy the convenience of having their education, training, and instruction all in one place. The USSF would be able to use all of their best coaches and training staff to develop their current players in one concentrated location, while still employing their nation-wide network of scouts to identify new talent.

Senior National Team

As the American youth continue to develop and the USA's domestic leagues keep growing, the benefits of both should be seen in the United States National Team. The ultimate goal of national youth development should be to see top young talent remain in the United States, play in MLS, and eventually feature in the national team. In recent years, the USMNT has seen mixed results. While the US had a pair of solid finishes at 2014 World Cup and 2016 Copa America Centenario, they endured a poor performance at the 2015 Gold Cup and had a rocky start to 2018 World Cup qualifying. After back-to-back losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in World Cup Qualifying, the USSF fired head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and replaced him with Bruce Arena. This move represented an important shift in the mechanics of US Soccer.

Replacing relatively anti-MLS coach Jurgen Klinsmann with very pro-MLS manager Bruce Arena showed American soccer fans the belief that the USSF has in MLS's quality and in domestic development. With a new manager at the helm, MLS players have been much better represented in recent national team games. In Arena's first game at the helm (a record 6-0 win against Honduras) five of the six American goals were scored by MLS players.

For now, the senior national team has been anchored by MLS mainstays Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya, and Tim Howard. Many of these players are being phased out of the team due to age and they are likely going to be replaced by younger, equally talented MLS players. Players like Kellyn Acosta, Darlington Nagbe, Matt Hedges, and Jordan Morris are all beginning to make appearances for the national team.

Youth National Teams

Another key developing resource within the US National Team ranks are the USYNTs (United States Youth National Teams). The US Under-20 team just finished playing at the U-20 World Cup in Korea, after winning their CONCACAF qualifying tournament. Big time American players are getting the opportunity to play in the biggest U-20 tournament in the world. As a reference point, a total of 12 MLS players made the final roster, making up more than half of the entire team.

The US Under-17 team has their World Cup this fall, which will take place in India. Likely the squad will look similar to the team that took second place in their CONCACAF qualifying tournament and will be headlined by Atlanta United star Andrew Carleton.

These youth national teams are winning; and more importantly, they are developing talented players. With more of these kinds of results, from both the youth and senior national teams, the future of soccer in America is bright.


As wonderful as growth, development, adaptation, expansion, and exposure are for soccer in the US, the thing most vital to its success is support. Without support, first at the youth level, then the local and professional levels, and finally the national level, soccer in the United States has little chance to be anything but a marginally popular item. On the other hand, how much could enthusiastic, educated support change the fortune of soccer in the United States? The results would be mind-blowing.

There can be no doubt that when intelligent player development by the USSF, informed business savvy from America's domestic leagues, and elevated product from individual teams combine with real, genuine, and passionate support, soccer in the United States will reap the benefits for years to come.

 

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Published by Joseph Lowery