A while back, I read an article on a British website titled, “Major League Soccer: Can the MLS Revolution Surviv and Thrive?” I think it can, but it has to keep changing and evolving with the times. The real question is, can soccer as a whole thrive in America where football, baseball, basketball and even hockey take more sport column inches than the World’s game?
I would like to look at soccer in America in several parts. In the previous part, I focused on the MLS, its continuing growth, and whether the current model is the correct one, or even sustainable in the coming years. Today, I would like to talk about the youth in America and what I have seen while out and about.
In America, a lot of the professional sports teams get their talent from the college teams playing in college leagues. The colleges offer scholarships based on talents and their particular school’s sporting interest. So, once football, baseball and other sports scholarships are taken care of, how much is left for soccer players?
It is not fair to put this burden on colleges alone, and I think it is certainly time for the MLS clubs to take the lead with their own youth programs and teams. If they could work out deals with the local colleges, that could be a great way to encourage the young players to apply. I think, rather than throwing more money at new franchises and new stadiums, although both are great, it would be better for the MLS and its teams to invest in their own youth programs, and with it, their own talent pool for the future.
That doesn’t always work, however, and clubs need to be careful not to rush the ‘product’ before it is finished. DC United and the authorities made a mistake a 10 years ago with Freddy Adu, and it his not his failure, but that of the MLS that he now plays for Bahia in Brazil rather than in Milan for Manchester or Madrid.
In 2004, at only 14-years old, he was touted as the next Pele; those are some big shoes for a 14-year-old to fill. Pele had quit the New York Cosmos almost 30 years before, and all the players developed in all the World since, but not a single one has eclipsed Pele. Diego Maradona came close and is a star in his own right, and today you have Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but none started for their first team until at least 17. So much pressure was being put on his young shoulders, that the best case scenario would be what we have now after he was rushed into DC United’s first team and scored his first goal at 14.
It would have been better to have him in a DC United youth program, developing the skill and shaping the player for another four to five years, or even loaning him out to take part in European youth teams. With his development out of the spotlight, I think when he would appear on the world’s stage, still 18 or 19, he would be a much better all around player. Now at 24, he will be looked at to make an impact at the World Cup in Brazil, rather than being obscure in a Brazilian league. The last time he made an impact with the US Men’s National Side was when he scored two goals in a 4-2 defeat to Mexico in the Gold Cup in 2011.
So, the balance has to be right. As a country, it is important to encourage and nurture the raw talent I have seen this past weekend, but not be in such a rush that we neglect it and in the process ruin it. So, can the World’s game state a claim on the American psyche? It already has for a large part of the country. We just need to get to that tipping point, and that is closer than we all think. If you took a picture of that field in Baltimore on Sunday, you could have fooled anyone in believing that it was any field in Europe. The youth system is there, the coaches are ready, and the kids are willing. With the MLS, we have a good, domestic league, and it gets better each year. It is now up to us to not abandon the kids right before college.
Jason Bardwell is a Soccer writer for Rant Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @PACityboy or on Facebook.