BRENT LATHAM - Tuesday, May 6, 2008
The US has an important run of friendlies coming up next month against top notch competition, and it will be interesting to see who Bob Bradley decides to call in.
The coach's choices will be made easier by the closing of the season in Europe, and the elimination of the club commitments of American players there.
However, many of the US stars who do play regularly at their clubs, like Oguchi Onyewu and Tim Howard, will need some rest after a long season, and others, like Bobby Convey, are fighting off nagging injuries and could use a break. Some have dropped in form and lost their spots at their clubs over the past months.
Others standbys like Landon Donovan and Ricardo Clark will be starting the MLS season, and it seems unfair to their club teams to call them away when they will be needed later in the year for World Cup qualifying.
So it would be nice to think that the US roster against will feature some new faces.
But that seems unlikely. Bradley tried that last year for Copa America, and it didn't turn out so well. It is much more probable that the US will call in the usual suspects and sink or swim with the group.
How else to explain Cory Gibbs, who hasn't played in two years, hanging around camp in Poland? Or the habitual presence of near-senior citizen Eddie Lewis or the goal-challenged Eddie Johnson?
The sad truth is that the senior team continues to be limited by lack of quality depth and options of an international caliber. The usual suspects, notwithstanding injury, poor form, or club commitments, are called in for match after match by necessity, not by choice.
And that is a major disappointment for US fans and US Soccer, which has sunk time and resources into developing young players on its own the last ten years via the Bradenton Academy and youth national team programs.
The downside of developing our own talent, an approach unique in the world for a national federation, has become apparent. It was essentially to put all of our soccer "eggs" in one basket, and it has translated into a senior team without depth.
Throughout this decade, US Soccer has maintained a frighteningly myopic approach to selecting youth teams. The players were chosen almost exclusively from the academy, or from graduates that had gone on to college, or to warm an MLS bench, greatly limiting the options for the national team to choose from and the opportunity for promising players elsewhere to become involved in programs at the national team level.
It's not that the US youth program hasn't produced its share of excellent players - Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, and Onyewu being among the most well known.
But it has also turned out the likes of Santino Quaranta and Eddie Gaven, guys who have much to prove even at the MLS level, and seem to continue to get looks with the national program only because of their long time affiliation.
And the program doesn't work very well in terms of developing international stars, even for the best of the players included.
The standard career path to Europe through the youth ranks means graduating from the academy after high school, usually going to college for several years, then joining an MLS team, working into the starting lineup and gaining experience. The most successful players move to Europe after a few years in MLS.
That's fine for goalkeepers, who have a much longer career expectancy. We know that the US has produced its share of world class players at that position. In the world of international field players though, there's simply no time for this.
Nations that compete for the World Cup turn out world class players by the age of 20 or 21. American players who have gone to college are hopelessly behind in skills and competitive level at that age. US players who succeed in the system and have the chance to move to Europe from MLS at 24 or 25 still need time to adjust to the European game.
That puts US players six or seven years behind, too much time to hope to make up in the short lived career of an international athlete.
The US will not challenge for a World Cup title until more of its players are developing more quickly in soccer environments like those that benefit the world's best players. The US youth system is simply not enough.
But things may be slowly changing for the Stars and Stripes, and the best indication of that came earlier this month in Portugal, where the U-20 group that will represent the US at next year's FIFA U-20 championship came together to compete for the first time.
The results on the field were a bit disappointing. The U-20s dropped two of three in Portugal, the first an embarrassing 3-1 loss to the lowly Cape Verde Islands, followed by a 4-0 blowout at the hands of Portugal. Sandwiched in between was a 3-1 defeat of Northern Ireland.
Looking deeper than the defeats though, there is a ray of hope.
This time around, several of the most noteworthy players currently involved with the U-17 and U-20 programs have followed routs other than the traditional.
The roster of this squad did include a few players from the IMG Academy in Bradenton, and graduates of the academy who have gone on to college, like promising forward Peri Marosevic of Michigan, who scored against Northern Ireland, and midfielder Brendan King of Notre Dame.
But the bulk of the lineup came from professional teams. The team was able to call on several developing pros, a luxury less typical of the US program and more common to the most successful soccer nations.
Of the 21 players who made the trip, thirteen currently play for professional teams either in the US or Europe.
Seven came from MLS systems. While a few of the MLS guys are still in the developing ranks, many, like Jorge Flores of CD Chivas and Anthony Wallace of FC Dallas, are seeing regular time with their full squads, and others like Abdus Ibrahim of FC Dallas and Alex Nimo of Real Salt Lake, probably will soon as this MLS season moves along.
Even more encouragingly, six of the U-20 squad came from players tied to European clubs.
Bryan Arguez has already made his Hertha Berlin debut while Alfredo Martinez, and Ellis McLoughlin are currently members of the German's youth team. Jared Jeffrey will sign with Belgium's Club Brugge when is legally able and Vicenzo Bernardo and Mikkel Diskerud are, like Martinez and McLoughlin, youth teamers of Napoli in Italy and Stabaek in Norway respectively.
Perhaps the best tournament showing was that of Diskerud, with three assists against Northern Ireland. Bernardo played well too, with a smooth finish and skills that can only be picked up by training day to day with the players of the caliber of Serie A or other top European leagues.
While only Arguez has seen much time with his full club squad, the others are at least developing in a professional soccer environment. On the old continent American players are getting the world class training and soccer education that will help them realize their full talent level. That will help at least some of them develop into the type of players the US can benefit from on the international stage.
More importantly, those that do develop will do so at a young enough age to make an impact at the club and international levels before their skills begin to wane.
Having players developing with professional teams at a young age, and even better in Europe, can only be positive for Team USA's prospects. As the US senior team continues to progress, it is imperative that the next generations of American stars develop with the same benefits as the rest of the world's players.
Only then will the national team have the depth necessary to choose which players to call on for its international engagements, and the "usual suspects" lineup give way to a selection of the American talent in best form at any given moment.