BRENT LATHAM - Sunday, March 15, 2009
In my last piece, I asked why the American Under-20 team that has just qualified for the FIFA World Cup in Egypt is still comprised mostly of amateurs, seemingly putting them at a disadvantage to largely professional rivals.
This time I will try to shine some more light on the topic, and propose a simple way to increase the U-20 professional player pool, and improve player development between the vital ages of eighteen and twenty-one.
Much has been written piecemeal about player development in the US. But getting to the bottom of this complex problem, which involves disparate facets, including a willing federation with a highly successful youth program, youth clubs scattered around the country, and a stubbornly independent professional league, all operating in the context of a global game, requires a disciplined approach.
So let's go about it in a methodical way, by first asking how the US is different from countries that are producing global stars, from Germany to Brazil to Ivory Coast.
The United States is, of course, unique in many ways among the two dozen or so foremost world soccer powers. Perhaps the two most important differences are the prevalence of universities as centers for amateur sport, and the corresponding lack of league substructure to encourage professional talent development.
Interestingly, the American system, presided over by USSF, is already doing a world-class and rapidly improving job in developing talent at the Under-17 level, for what that is worth. Having failed in the narrow Bradenton strategy of selecting a handful of young players to groom, the Federation quickly learned to cast a wider net. This year, it brags that over three hundred graduates of the recently formed national development academy are headed to the next level.
That's quite an advance for USSF. The problem is, in the US that next level is college, not a professional league. For young players in the prime of their soccer development, that misstep may represent a diploma and a door to a better life, but it will represent a serious delay, or even an end to, their professional soccer aspirations.
It is easy to rationalize that decision by thinking that collegiate soccer is a good development substitute for the pros, but hardly anyone associated with the game in the US would argue that point for long.
But what about the young talents in American soccer who do opt to pursue a professional career rather than college?
A handful of American youth are trying their luck in European systems. Many of these are Bradenton graduates who have benefited from the international stage of the U-17 level on which to market their abilities.
Also interesting is that more and more Americans youths of Mexican heritage are now trying their hand in Mexico, with sometimes disastrous results for the USSF - such as the case of Edgar Castillo.
The common thread is that at about eighteen, the approximate age at which the best players around the world are moving to bigger teams and beginning to develop into true professionals, the chances are much better and the incentives much greater for an American to take that college scholarship.
MLS recognizes this tradeoff. As part of Generation Adidas, players are offered money to go back to school if their careers don't pan out. But only a handful of players, some of whom are not even American, are offered the Generation Adidas option each year, and those who are form far too small a group to adequately stock an U-20 pool.
It's simply not enough.
Now, if we are going to bring MLS into this discussion, we must do so in the context of what MLS is - a league run by very rich and intelligent businessmen with designs on creating the dream of such types: a money printing monopoly.
It would be easy to declare that MLS should solve the problem by recruiting more American youth players and pay them more, or to make up new rules forcing the teams to do so, but until we have a soccer czar in America who rules by decree - the case of Sunil Gulati not withstanding - a realistic solution will work within the guidelines of MLS to propose an outcome that is universally beneficial. So let's try that.
MLS is a large part of the developmental problem mostly because the owners insist on tediously following the business model of established American sports leagues. They do so because that model works very well, and the story would end there, except that there are a number of good financial reasons why MLS should seriously consider ways to get more young American soccer talents to turn pro at an earlier age.
Leagues like the NFL and NBA, selling still predominately American sports can afford to let the college systems take on the expense of scouting and developing talent for them, without a resulting decline in the quality of play.
But an interesting lesson can be learned from baseball. College baseball, for one reason or another, has never been quite the revenue generator that football and basketball are, and so money in turn doesn't get invested in developing college baseball players. It's no coincidence that Major League Baseball opts to do much of the development itself, in the minor leagues. In baseball, top prospects sometimes pan out, and others don't. MLB casts a very wide net so as not to miss out.
While MLS copies the NFL and NBA on the development front, MLS inhabits a world in which the other American professional sports leagues would love to reside, where its sport is the dominant one, driving millions of fans around the world to spend. Some American businessmen even richer than those involved in MLS, those investing in the Premier League, already get it.
The MLS guys clearly understand the marketing side, hence the David Beckham saga. But they still seem intent on overlooking the player development and market side that has made clubs across Latin America richer and improved their level of soccer considerably.
It's no coincidence that Mexican clubs now frequent the US looking for youth products, and Scandinavian clubs raid colleges and MLS for free agents. The talent is here, it is free for the taking, and MLS is a hindrance rather than a conduit to the flow of the international player market. Agents know it. They regularly advise promising college players to stay in college until the jump directly to Europe rather than get caught up with MLS and their low-ball contract offers. Even the players know it. Younger Americans are moving to Europe, and now Mexico, en masse, rather than mess with MLS.
The only group that seems to be out of the loop here is the MLS. And they are perhaps the entity with the most to gain from American player development, both in financial rewards and improved quality of play. Further, MLS does not need to revamp its cautious financial approach to take advantage.
In fact, the solution to the player development quandary is really so simple and universally beneficial that it's hard to believe it hasn't been implemented. In its haste to copy other American sports leagues, MLS has made sure to put the clamps on player salaries, and that's fine. But it has also implemented one other rule ubiquitous in American sports, with again the interesting, if partial, exception of baseball, but rare in international soccer: a limit to the amount of players on the roster. Doing away with that limit would not only lead to a surge in quality American youth players and the game in the US, it would almost certainly benefit MLS financially.
Right now MLS teams can have twenty players on the senior roster and four more developmental slots. That's a decrease from a couple years ago, after the elimination of the developmental league.
The player cap is the biggest factor preventing MLS teams from taking a risk on young players, opting instead for middle of the road foreign players or mediocre veterans, who may cost five to ten times more than an anxious 20-year old, but take up only one roster spot. If you are an MLS team with only twenty spots and cap space, you can't take a risk on a young guy when a proven quantity is out there. Eliminating the player limit would immediately reverse that equation for teams willing to develop players.
This may sound expensive, but it needn't be, and shouldn't be if the goal is to encourage development of young players. Keep the salary cap, and let more enterprising teams with better management and coaching focus on stocking up on more, cheaper players. For the $720,000 price tag of one aging veteran like Luciano Emiliano, an MLS team could sign an entire squad to a $40,000 a year deal, and invest the leftover money in coaches, scouting, and facilities, then see which players pan out.
There will be arguments that this will reduce the quality of play, but I would respond with the LA Galaxy as exhibit number one that spending money in MLS does not improve play substantially. Why not give clubs the option of trying it a different way and seeing what happens? With larger rosters play in international tournaments is sure to improve as well.
Other restrictions, such as the draft, free agent restrictions, and allocation, need to go too. It is obvious that MLS also needs to allow its clubs to ramp up their nascent development academies, and let them sign, retain, and sell players from them. But the key is the roster limit. It's a simple process of incentivizing the desired behavior. The team that uses cap space on an expensive player misses out on a slew of developmental players.
Of course the cycle of player development, once begun, should also provide some income through transfer fees for new and improved training that facilitates development of new players. But notice -and this is important - that money from selling players is icing on the cake. Becoming a feeder league is not the primary financial driver motivating player development in this scenario.
The MLS could choose to keep the stars it develops if it wants to pay them, and financially it would be a wash. The goal is to incentivize MLS teams to take a chance and spend money on development, not penalize them for it. The teams will then in turn incentivize young players to turn pro, and the cycle begins.
Another beauty of the system for US Soccer is that college soccer isn't going anywhere, even if it loses the majority of its potential stars. College would remain an option for those players who choose not to sacrifice their education to pursue their soccer career, and it would be a developmental safety net for players who are late bloomers or don't make the cut at the developmental academies.
Furthermore, such a system would provide umbrella motivation for American players to pursue a professional career. There would be no need for the MLS, or USSF, to pick out a handful of stars to motivate individually, hoping they turn out to be the best choices over the long run. That means more players with a chance to develop to the fullest of their abilities.
Most importantly, a wealth of young, professional American talent would finally have the setting to emerge, from which the U-20 team could simply cherry pick. That would make the FIFA Youth Championships, instead of a late spring break trip for a group of college players, a legitimate showcase for American players, as well as a shop window to strengthen MLS' bottom line.