FROM STEVE BRENNER IN ORLANDO
Don Garber was utterly convinced Alex Morgan was wrong. While basking in the glory of another World Cup triumph, the US striker went on the offensive. She suggested the American soccer production line was in need of major repair, accusing US Soccer’s heavily criticized pay-to-play youth model of being “detrimental” to the future of the game.
Garber wasn’t impressed.
“I don’t agree with that,” the MLS commissioner told the Guardian earlier this month. “Maybe that’s the case in the women’s game but not with the men. We are investing over $100m a year outside of our senior rosters and that’s not even including what we have invested in facilities. That is exponentially more than what it was three or four years ago.”
Garber’s confidence was understandable (MLS and US Soccer are, after all, intrinsically linked) even if it only covers part of the problem of failing to maximise young talent. That problem came into sharp focus for the umpteenth time following the US men’s team’s catastrophic failure to qualify for last summer’s World Cup in Russia.
During the no-expense spared build up to this month’s All-Star match against Atlético Madrid in Orlando, a ‘Homegrown’ team consisting of MLS academy products took on a youth side from Chivas de Guadalajara. This showcase to help find the next Christian Pulisic or Alphonso Davies is a product of the rule brought in by MLS in 2007, one which ensured the clubs have exclusive rights to sign their best prospects on pro-deals rather than lose them to others offering bigger money and grander dreams.
On the field were some true success stories – Gianluca Busio has been a breakout star for Sporting Kansas and last season, at the age of 16, became the third-youngest player in MLS history to start a game.
“When I was 14-years-old it wasn’t that known to see homegrown players make it all the way through but now you look at some of the teams and half the players are younger guys so that proves the quality is improving,” said Busio. “They are investing in youth more now and they are paying more attention to it, mainly because they see the success the younger guys are having in MLS. The pathway is pretty clear now.”
The statistics are undeniably impressive even if concerns over the state of grassroots soccer remain. MLS clubs invested a record-high of over $70m in youth development last season, and 34% of the US roster at the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup were developed in MLS academies. That is up from 24% in 2017 and 8% in 2015 for the same Gold Cup tournament.
Considering traditional soccer powerhouses in Europe and South America boast developmental systems bearing fruit for decades allied with a deeply ingrained soccer culture which cannot be bought, it’s only right the US is somewhat lagging behind.
Cost, too, is prohibitive and remains a massive, thorny issue. MLS academies may be free for those selected, but the US Soccer Development Academy system – which operates in both MLS and non-MLS markets – is expensive to participate in. Costs range from $2,400 to more than $5,000 compared with around $2,000 per year for a regular team affiliated to the sport’s governing body.
A recent survey claimed young players from households earning less than $25,000 a year amounted to just 11% of boys and girls in registered clubs, compared to 35% in households bringing in over $100,000.
Omar McFarlane went as far as establishing a completely free competitive soccer program last year in Davie, Florida to combat rising subscription costs. “I wanted to help those less fortunate,” said McFarlane who will continue to run Champion FC for the foreseeable future.
“The biggest problem with the pay-to-play model is that clubs are effectively fighting over clients,” added Kevin Chin, another coach based in south Florida. Chin works for Coerver Coaching, a specialized skills program which has been implemented in clubs all over the world. “If they lose games, they lose money.”
Being priced out at the start of the journey is problematic on myriad levels. Those in charge at US Soccer, however, will see 3 million registered boys and girls all paying fees contributing to an industry worth upwards of $4bn and rub their hands with glee.
In such a vast country, talent seeping through the cracks is unavoidable yet those helping strengthen the framework are adamant the pool is getting wider.
“There is a place for everyone,” counters Marcelo Neveleff, a vastly experienced former US Under-20 coach now in charge of Orlando City’s youth system. “Go back 15 years and everything was pay-to-play, even some of the MLS academies started like that.
“Now the pro-clubs go into the real development. I work with the scouting departments at US Soccer who are doing a great job trying to reach out to every market. Of course, in a country like this you will miss players but I feel the top ones are where they need to be. You always need to be aware of the situations in non-MLS markets but it’s a big country. US Soccer is doing a great job in education. But yes, we need to improve scouting, have better people who have better eyes to see players and see progress or projection.”
The seasoned Argentinian has seen first-hand the possibilities for those talented enough to make the grade. “I worked in Weston, around 40 minutes north of Miami, for seven years and we produced players who are now playing in South America, Europe and in MLS academies,” he said. “Inter Miami took around 50 players from Weston recently. In some markets, if you are good enough, you will get the opportunity. Clubs can give scholarships and financial aid – at Weston in some cases we gave 75% financial aid. Other families move to other areas – it’s a personal decision.”
MLS academies are on an undeniable upward curve even if the recent revelation that US Soccer has decided to split the league’s top age group, the Under-18/19 level, into two tiers for the first time. That means all MLS academy programs have been separated from some of the country’s most productive youth clubs – and it has caused understandable consternation.
A push to build 10 new academies (Minnesota, Atlanta, LAFC, Cincinnati, Miami, Nashville, Austin and three expansion clubs)started in 2017 and will be finished by 2022. That accounts for at least an additional 1,500 player spots yet the same old problems at the bottom of the food chain need fixing.
Coaching methods are continuing to be streamlined and pulled into accordance with the leading nations although many non-American coaches are left bemused at an approach focussing more on physicality rather than ensuring players are at home with the ball at their feet.
“What needs looking at is the profile of the player we are scouting and then having scouts and coaches being able to identify them,” said highly regarded German coach Eddie Löwen, one of the founding members of GFL Soccer and director of coaching at Largo United Soccer Club in Tampa Bay.
“There is a lack of a schooled trained eye allied with everyone not being on the same page. There have been a lot of improvements in all areas but in order to create a holistic club approach where the people live and are part of the club you need to take the monetary aspect out.
“Seeing it as a business is stopping the game explode. There needs to be more courageous decisions, we need to unify efforts. US Soccer has done some very positive things but they need to streamline everything and bring it under one umbrella. Why are there so many leagues? Because people make money out of it. It can be regulated much better.”
Löwen has seen first hand the difficulties some families encounter. “I have done some clinics in San Diego and so many kids there couldn’t afford to play,” he said.
The quality and direction of coaching at entry level – children aged seven – can undoubtedly improve yet no-one can argue that investing time, money and effort into the stars of tomorrow isn’t on the MLS agenda.
“The sport is too exclusive, not inclusive,” said former USMNT midfielder Taylor Twellman. “Most – if not all – MLS academies aren’t pay-to-play. The question is what do you do in all the other non-MLS markets? US Soccer’s problem is how do you connect all those dots to every market that doesn’t have an academy? That is a massive issue, even if the needle is being moved.”