American Soccer is Broken

An inefficient development system that caters the upper class is eradicating talent, losing future stars
by Roy Rosell   |   Wednesday, January 21, 2015

US Soccer Federation (USSF)

Last year, Jurgen Klinsmann watched from the stands as the US Under-17 won the Nike Friendlies championship game versus Brazil, coming away with a stunning 4-1 victory over one of the greatest youth programs in the world.

Shortly after the victory, the Brazilian u-17 coach approached Klinsmann to congratulate him on the quality of his youth players, but then he asked him one very concerning question:

 “How come once they’re done with this program, we don’t see them anymore?”

He was referring to the fact that many of the US’s youth national team players, though supremely talented, never quite make it to be the world class players. Whereas many of the players on that Brazil U-17 team that got trumped by the US will go on to become the next Ronaldos, Ronaldinhos and Kakas of world soccer, plying their trade for the world’s biggest clubs, history tells that none of the US players will go on to be global stars.

Fast forward a year to the U20 World Cup Qualifying campaign, where the US opened with a subpar 1-1 tie with minnows Guatemala. Three days later, Tab Ramos and his team were outplayed and lost to Panama, a team that the US had beaten in all of their previous meetings by a score margin of 9-0.

Though Ramos’s enthusiastic search for a silver lining gave some good reasoning behind their poor performances, it came off sounding desperate. The performance of the US U-20’s was shockingly bad. The inability of some of the players to consistently connect passes, trap the ball and cross in to the box was concerning to say the least.

Just a day later, a promising young attacker from Southern California named Enrique Cardenas slammed in a goal and was deemed the man of the match for Atlante FC of Mexico’s second division. A tremendously skilled and technical player who received First Team All-West Region and Big West Midfielder of the Year honors at UC Irvine ended up going undrafted at the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. Instead, the diminutive midfielder was scouted by Atlante while playing in a recreational adult league a stone’s toss away from the Stub Hub Center.

Take a short plane ride north, it’s day one of the MLS Combine and Michigan-raised Dzenan Catic shows why he’s a top attacking prospect for the 2015 draft class. Catic is 23, a few years too old for global “prospect” standards, but aside from a short stint with the Seattle Sounders academy, he’s never been given the opportunity to train with an MLS team or be brought up in an academy. Instead, he played his most important developmental years in the NAIA, which is often deemed as inferior to NCAA Division 2 soccer. He ended up getting picked in the 2nd round of a draft deemed to be historically bare of pro-ready talent.

A drive west will lead you to Jordan Morris’s dorm room at Stanford University, where the USMNT prospect ponders an important decision he’s made about his career. The college striker who has already received call-ups to Klinsmann’s squad has decided to reject contract offers from MLS and leagues abroad to finish his college education, stating “I’m really just loving it here. I have the friends here now and the experience would be so different coming back later to finish my degree.”

Throughout the US, there are thousands of players just like Dzenan Catic, Enrique Cardenas and Jordan Morris playing in high schools and youth recreational leagues. There are thousands upon thousands of young kids with skills that if properly developed, can produce world class talent for the US.

Had these players been born in the Netherlands, their skills wouldn’t go unnoticed. They have a system in place where thousands of volunteer scouts roam every square inch searching for the next Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, keeping a watchful eye on youth recreational leagues, school yards, street pick up games and document players with potential to send reports of their findings to professional academies. This leaves little room for overlooking.

Because we don’t have a unified system in place to find and develop talent from a young age, we rely on the youth and their parents to assure they are properly developed until they’re old enough to join an MLS academy (given that they live near one or are willing to relocate themselves and their families).

The ideal situation would be that they start off playing at a young age, move up to club soccer (where fees can be $2000 a year), get picked up by an academy, then hopefully get the right kind of training so they are ready for a first team debut by 18 or 19.  

In Brazil, Argentina, Spain, England, Italy and other top countries, soccer is a way out. It’s a ticket out of the slums and to the big time, a chance to bring their families glory and be financially set for the rest of their and their children’s lives. An opportunity to be a kid’s hero and the hero of their community. In top soccer country’s the sport envelopes kid’s lives and many are recognized and rewarded for it. In the US, soccer is a risk and a money pit. It’s an upper class sport. If a 19-year old kid is good good enough to play professional soccer, he likely won’t be found. He’ll have to cough up around $300 for a two-day tryout for an MLS team.

At eight or ten years old, our youth’s talent is equal or superior to everywhere in the world. Then the American system kicks in. Kids aren’t properly trained because the American mentality is to “WIN WIN WIN!” without much regard to technical and tactical development. Kids are forced to play at levels that don’t cater to their abilities because they can’t afford club soccer and the clubs are out of scholarship money. Talent is eradicated and the fervent interest that once existed is exterminated. The top talent gets bored, starts experimenting with other sports, playing a lot of video games and spending less and less time playing soccer.

Soon enough, they’ve fallen behind. Players in their age from other parts of the world are rising through the ranks of professional clubs, fighting day in day out to keep their places. The kid in the US keeps playing because he loves the sport, joining his high school’s team and tearing up the competition. If he’s lucky enough to be going to a school with high visibility, he’ll get scouted by an MLS academy at age 16. He’ll train with the academy until they graduate high school, then is faced with a dilemma. His family is still poor. He wants an education and is getting full-ride athletic scholarship offers from UCLA, UC Berkeley and Akron. He weighs his options: either stick around the academy, move up the ranks, get offered an MLS contract and scrape an existence making less than $40,000 for what could be the rest of his career.

They look at their other option. Get a free education at a top institution, play at a decent level and have offers for professional soccer and careers in his field when he graduates. Before deciding on his future, the kid turns on the TV to watch an MLS game. Only one of the day’s nine games is being aired and it’s a home game for the Colorado Rapids. Looks like there’s 2,000 people in the crowd. Not exactly his idea of being a community hero.

He chooses the latter and goes through four years of subpar development, playing a few months out of the year and partying the rest. By the time he’s graduating at 23, the kid is finally ready to take that pro career by its horns and work to eventually make the US National Team.

“And now, with the first pick of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft…” 


Cal Poly Pomona
Club Domestic:
LA Galaxy
Club Foreign:
Absolute fanatic, especially passionate about MLS and it's growth. LA Galaxy columnist with no filter and a knack for the controversial. Travelled the world watching soccer matches, but there's no place like home.