BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, February 8, 2012
When it comes to developing young American soccer players into professionals, a frequent debate has been where players should begin their career.
One side of the debate argues that players should move overseas at the earliest opportunity. Others say that Europe is not for everyone and that there is nothing wrong with beginning a career in the United States.
Truth be told, there have been success stories from all perspectives for American. Clint Dempsey played NCAA soccer for two years, then moved to MLS, and then moved to Fulham. Steve Cherundolo played NCAA soccer but moved to Germany right after to begin a successful career with Hannover.
There is also a growing trend of young players who have successfully moved directly to Europe around their 18th birthday - the earliest day they can legally move abroad without dual citizenship of their destination country. Jozy Altidore left for Spain at an early age and recently top American prospects Josh Gatt and Joe Gyau have made the move at 18.
So while players succeed from all different paths, one of the most successful programs in recent years that has given players a solid foundation to make an appropriate decision regarding their future has been the SuperElite All-American International Showcase.
The SuperElite All-American International Showcase is a program that brings an elite team of young American-based players to Europe each summer to train and play in a professional environment that is heavily scouted by European teams.
The names of the alumni from program are impressive and include Josh Gatt, Bill Hamid, Soony Saad, Kleyn Rowe, Sean Cunningham, Orr Barouch, and Seth Moses - all of whom are now playing professionally in MLS or Europe.
The technical director from SuperElite is California native Jon Spencer who recruits the players for the tour, schedules the opponents, builds relationships with European teams, and help to advise some of the veterans of the previous tour.
With 2011 now in the history books, Spencer is happy with how the previous tour went and is looking forward to the 2012 version with the competition for spots on the roster increasing every year.
"The players that we brought last year were a little bit wider range in age," Spencer told YA. "We are very pleased with everything. We've done very well over there. Competition has increased every year that we've gone to Europe, so as far as just a level of play it's becoming increasingly more difficult."
Spencer emphasizes that he does not want to simply assemble a group of all-stars but instead wants to build a team that consists of players at each position who fit the profile European clubs are looking for.
After he finds players that fit that profile, he then attempts to determine where their ceiling is and whether or not he could fit into a European club in the future.
"When we scout players and evaluate players, I try to look and see if they can fit into a European environment," Spencer explained. "Whether it's now or in two years or four years, what would their long-term potential be as well, not just their immediate ranking or rating or value in the event we should acquire."
The philosophy for Spencer is to give players a glimpse of what it is like to play in Europe so that if players make that jump, they will be far more familiar with the environment, rathern than making the jump blindly.
"If we can get them into a European environment where they have the right structure and support network around them, these players are going to grow and blossom," Spencer said. "It really requires a lot of work on our part, to identify the right players. We work with them along each step of the process knowing that every player has a different personality, and will react to the process differently."
There have already been players who have signed with European clubs based in large part from their performance on the Super Elite tour.
One of the challenges for Spencer is to ensure that these player who may sign, do so with clubs that are a right fit. So part of Spencer's job is to build relationships with coaches to understand their philosophy.
"Part of my job is also trying to find a club where we can sign a player that is connected with a coach that has a similar philosophy on the game and wants to work with that player," Spencer added. "I have the relationship with those coaches so I am able to monitor the progress. We are in constant contact with the clubs and players, so essentially, it's a team working together domestically and abroad to see the players succeed."
Following the tour, players take vastly different routes ranging from NCAA, MLS, or Europe. Sometimes players have opportunities to make the jump into Europe afterward but Spencer has been honest with the players as to how he views their situation
"Whether they go on our tours or play in college soccer, we're going to be honest with them," Spencer stressed. "If they're not ready to for Europe, we have to tell them it doesn't make to sense to go over right now because they're not ready to do it. Players should not be rushed to accelerate their career if they are not ready. The big thing is trying to get players to understand to be patient."
The jump to Europe is indeed a major one for most young American players and the biggest reason is that the training is more frequent and far more intense than what most youth programs offer in the United States.
"The reality is we're still behind what Europeans are doing," Spencer said bluntly. "Are we getting better? Yes we are. Are we getting closer? Yes. Even though Joshua Gatt is now excelling in Norway, those first three months in Europe, were very difficult."
"Why is it difficult? Because you go from a comfortable training environment with less intensity to a place where it's your job every day, and you have to be one hundred percent focused on what the job is ahead. And here in America, we have a lot of distractions. We only train three days a week whereas European Professionals are training anywhere between six and eight times a week, and constantly competing for their spot in the team."
As for the future of the Super Elite tour, Spencer is aware of the changing landscape in American soccer. MLS continues to invest heavily into its youth development via academies and the reserve league.
Despite the evolving nature of youth development in the United States, Spencer feels that the Super Elite tour will continue to serve a purpose
"Our country, though, is improving, so we're shifting our prime," Spencer concluded. I hope we're making significant strides to the direction we've made in the last ten years. Soccer in America has been changing rapidly and drastically. Something could change in six months and, it completely changes my approach and how we try to operate.
"Our country here is becoming more and more successful. They're doing a better job in developing young talent. I don't know what's going to happen in five years. I will say this, hopefully we will be the same in helping see players develop into being the best players they possibly can be."