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Friday, January 27, 2006
Maybe it's just that columnists need something to write about with MLS in the offseason and the USMNT not having much in the way of compelling matches as the try out players for the last few roster spots.

Maybe it's become habitual to find something to be pessimistic about when it comes to the evolution of soccer in the United States.

Maybe sports editors are no different than news editors and think that negative headlines attract more readers (and hence more advertising revenue) than positive headlines.

Whatever the reason, it occurred to me over the weekend that I'd been reading a lot of negative stories about the development of young players over the last few months and for the life of me, I can't figure out why.

Development of US Talent

The first line of complaint I've noticed recently has to do with the quality of the youth development programs in this country. Topics range from the specific (we, as a country, aren't developing enough quality players) to the general (MLS doesn't devote enough of it's time and/or money to player development).

Regardless of the flavor of the story, the message is the same – we aren't developing quality players here in the States.

I admit I'm an impatient guy. I keep hoping that more of the guys who have made a name for themselves in MLS – the Twellmans, Cunninghams, and Mastroenis – will get more attention from Europe or make it clear that they're "World Class" somehow.

What I think we have to admit to ourselves is that they are part of a transitional generation in American soccer. The generation that came before them produced only a few players who were even good enough to be recruited to European football and even fewer who flourished.

This generation, led by DaMarcus Beasley, has already done what we as Americans expect – they raised the bar. More of them are playing in Europe – enough to justify an entire website dedicated to covering them. They are playing with higher profile clubs – Manchester United, PSV Eindhoven, Ajax, and Bayer Leverkusen aren't exactly chopped liver.

Granted, not all of those moves have worked out, but in the mid-90's, American soccer fans would have been dancing in the streets at someone like Tim Howard being given a tour of Old Trafford – now, we're disappointed that he's not starting every match.

This gets me back to the arguments that I've been reading about player development. MAYBE I'd understand them if it seemed like things had stagnated with the Beasley, O'Brien, Donovan, Howard generation. But, as far as I can tell, the next generation seems like it's poised to build on that success.

Jon Spector graduated from playing in Illinois to Old Trafford at a young age. Benny Feilhaber parlayed his success coming up through the college ranks into a deal with Hamburg SV, who are 2nd in the Bundesliga and poised to play in the Champions League next season if they keep it up. Preston Zimmerman, a veteran of Bradenton and the U17 squad, followed Feilhaber to Hamburg.

Lee Nguyen went from collegiate success at Indiana University to signing a contract with Eredivisie powerhouse PSV Eindhoven. Finally, Michael Bradley followed Nguyen to Holland by making a move to UEFA Cup contenders Heerenveen.

In addition to the actual signings, there has reportedly been tremendous interest expressed in MLS players like Eddie Johnson (when healthy), Danny Szetela, Marvell Wynne and Freddy Adu by various European powerhouses.

After the few performances I've seen in the Under-17 World Championship and the Nike Friendlies, I'm guessing that David Arvizu can't be far behind on the European trail.

And these are the results of a broken developmental system? I'm left wondering if there'd be any room in European football for actual Europeans if our youth development programs were doing a GOOD job.

MLS as a Developer of Talent

Given the penchant among the media to eviscerate MLS at every turn, I suppose it should come as no surprise that there has been a strain of negative stories that have come out related to the decisions by Feilhaber, Nguyen, Zimmerman, and others to play their football abroad.

I'll be the first to say that there are plenty of things MLS does that can be criticized – scheduling without regard for the USMNT schedule being highest on my list right now. However, I don’t include player development in that list of things at this point.

Would I prefer to see MLS develop more players? Sure. On the other hand, I'm realistic enough to realize that job #1 at MLS is to grow their business. While player development is a part of that, it isn’t everything.

Let's summarize: MLS teams need to get butts in seats and dollars flowing into league coffers from sponsors and TV. Period. If they can do that, then the rest will work itself out.

Here's a brief list of the things that are NOT job #1 for MLS teams:

1) Be a training ground for US Soccer and the US Men's National Team – it's a nice side benefit, but player development for the USMNT is ultimately the responsibility of US Soccer.

2) Be a training ground for European Leagues – it's great when players can "graduate" to Holland, Germany, or England, but it isn't the job of Sigi Schmidt to get Danny Szetela prepared for Reading or Fulham, it's his job to win games and attract fans. If focusing on Szetela's development is the best way to do that, I'm pretty sure it will be done. If it isn't – the Crew shouldn't feel any sense of duty to US Soccer to make it happen.

3) Play potential American stars in favor of better players because it's "good for their development" – as a DC United supporter, I know I'd be angry if management didn't put the best product out on the field. I certainly hope that they can find a way to coach up Freddie Adu so he's a part of that, but expecting that he'll play just because he's SUPPOSED to be the next great thing is a disservice to both him and the fans.

MLS has consistently improved development activities throughout its existence, most recently by adding a reserve league. As operations become more profitable, I'm sure these efforts will expand.

However, expecting MLS teams – who, we are all painfully aware, don't have nearly the TV contracts of their European counterparts nor of other American sports – to immediately mimic the developmental infrastructure found in Europe is unrealistic and an example of our collective impatience that leads to the resultant negativism in the face of positive developments.

So, here's the challenge to the rest of the soccer media:

The next time a young American player moves on to the professional ranks here or abroad and starts performing well, let's celebrate the progress that we're making and not just mention it as a news story.

When that contract turns out to be with a European team, let's celebrate the progress that having options represents, rather than assuming it means that MLS is fundamentally flawed.

If we can all suck it up and give credit where credit is due, maybe we'll be more credible as a group when we turn around and rip MLS or US Soccer for something they're really screwing up…

…like scheduling MLS games while the World Cup is being played.
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