BRENT LATHAM - Thursday, April 23, 2009
Vidal could be poached next
If you don't watch too much television in Spanish - where, with a few notable exceptions, you can find the most knowledgeable coverage of American soccer - you may have missed the news, but Univision is at it again.
The cast from La Republica Deportiva, now including Marcelo Balboa, recently completed what has become an annual tradition of uncovering a budding American talent in their reality TV contest "Who Wants To Be an MLS Player?"
The competition is in fact called "Sueño MLS." As if the message wasn't clear enough, this year's winner, Alberto Lopez, secured for himself a youth contract with the Chicago Fire, and will be playing under the nose of the USSF offices in Chicago.
Now, no one is saying that Lopez, who is a star in high school, but has never played on one of the youth clubs that USSF promotes through its development academy, will develop into the next Claudio Reyna, or even the next Jorge Flores - the 2007 winner - for that matter.
The point that Univision seems intent on making is that there are tons of American kids out there who have the talent to be stars, and want to at least try their luck professionally, but are still on the outside of the system looking in.
As obvious as the situation has become by now, I wouldn't bother to touch on another angle of the same theme, except that I continue to hear and read that one reason the US isn't developing star field players is because the club system is too expensive, and excludes players from families who cannot afford to pay the fees for their son to join a team.
While it may be true that the families of many promising stars can't afford club soccer, one of the most commonly accepted fallacies of youth player development in America is the notion that those costs make it too expensive for economically disadvantaged youths to play soccer in the US. That, my friends, is specious reasoning of the highest order.
Even if the conclusion - that the US needs to involve more economically disadvantaged kids in the club system - didn't smack of classism, first in that it assumes the expensive system is superior to others, and second that poor kids are better athletes than rich ones, there would still be no evidence anywhere to support the idea that the youth club system is even capable of producing soccer players of an international caliber in any quantity.
On the evidence of the world's great soccer nations, many of which are not economic superpowers, and have no such thing as an elite, amateur youth club system, we can conclude that there are high quality players everywhere in the world who have learned the game, at least at the youth level, largely without expensive cleats or perfectly groomed fields.
What the otherwise forgettable Univision contest proves is that these days, such players exist in America as well. The problem is not that they're not being produced; the problem is that they are being ignored.
Such potential stars might be found in pickup leagues organized by Mexican-Americans in California or Georgia, or in the backyard of a family in rural Texas, or, in the oft-referenced case of Neven Subotic, playing pickup in a park in Florida.
Many are first generation Americans, and that makes them highly prized commodities outside the United States. And if these players prove one thing, it's that a kid can become a great soccer player in the US without spending a dime, just as youths around the world do.
But the kid who doesn't spend, still will likely never be seen by the USSF, MLS, or anyone else that matters to American soccer, save Univision, and perhaps the Mexican Football Federation.
What is being done about all this, you ask?
The USSF, for one, is at least trying. They have recently increased greatly the amount of scholarships they will give out, allowing underprivileged kids to participate in the scores of clubs that form the US development academy. That is a bold, presumably expensive step forward. But increasing the number of scholarships, even to a couple hundred, still leaves the vast majority of economically disadvantaged youths on the fringes of the formal American system.
Other than a few small tweaks, the powers that be in American soccer appear content to work within the existing system, and the talented players outside the establishment are left to register on other radar screens.
Persistent reports in the Mexican media insist that the Mexican federation has placed youth scouts around the United States to look for young Mexican-American talent, and the Mexican professional league, whose scouts continue to frequent American youth tournaments, is the natural choice and by far the best option for young Mexican-Americans who choose to pursue a career in soccer.
The first big casualty of the process for the US was Edgar Castillo, a New Mexico native who could really help Bob Bradley on the left side of the field right now. (Castillo did play for a youth soccer club, and excelled, but was still overlooked.) Naturally, many other prospects will continue to end up in the Mexican national team setup long before the US can identify them.
Even given this continuing oversight, the American system admittedly works reasonably well. The United States continues to dominate Mexico and the region, particularly on the youth level, so why be concerned with this problem?
For starters, including the best possible talent on the field will obviously make American teams more competitive. Perhaps finding a way to merge talent produced by the formal and informal US systems could provide the boost that finally puts the United States over the top as a soccer nation.
In addition to the question of competition, however, this issue is in essence one of fairness and equality.
National soccer teams are the international representations of a country in many important ways. As long as the predominant route into American national team programs runs through an expensive, and therefore exclusive, club system, our national teams will move further and further from being a true representation of the nation's complex socio-economic makeup.
We should ask ourselves if that is the type of representation we want, as soccer fans, and more importantly, as Americans.