There are more American players making waves in European club soccer than ever before.
More and more teenagers are signing professional contracts, domestically and abroad.
It is safe to say there hasn’t been this much excitement about an entire generation of American players in many, many years. But that brings up some interesting questions.
- How did they get to where they are?
- Who actually developed them? What other factors were involved in them “making it”?
- Why are European teams interested in Americans? Why are certain countries more interested than others?
- Why is MLS starting to change its tune about training compensation and solidarity payments?
These are all important questions and topics.
Through a series of episodes, we’re going to explore the process of American youth development and advancement. We’ll be tracing as far back as we can to see what went into the making of some of the most prominent American players and most exciting future prospects.
We’ll examine some of the roadblocks, policies, and procedures that have helped and hindered players.
We’ll talk about some names that you’re familiar with, and some that you’re not.
Let’s kick this off by talking about who should actually claim credit for developing a player.
This is something I became interested in when more and more players started to be labeled as MLS homegrown players, but had spent very little time in an MLS academy, or in the academy for which they signed their homegrown contract.
In fact, Tristan Bowen, the first-ever MLS homegrown player, was initially scouted at a camp that he had to pay his way into. LA Galaxy offered him a homegrown contract despite never having played for an LA Galaxy youth team.
A bit misleading, right?
Another example is Darlington Nagbe, a player that has been used in advertising campaigns at U.S. Development Academy events. The Development Academy was formed in 2007 and Darlington was already off to Akron to play for Caleb Porter in 2008. So to claim the Development Academy played a major role in his development is a bit misleading, right?
But that brings us into today’s topic.
Who Developed Him?
A player ‘makes it‘, and then everyone who’s ever touched him claims development credit.
So who’s responsible? All of them? Some of them? None of them? And how can credit (or blame) be distributed?
Age is definitely a factor.
So at what age(s) was a certain player under the tutelage of a certain coach?
Much is made of “the golden years” which – depending on who you talk to – can range from birth, all the way to U12. And while there are truths in that meme, the reality is the entire trajectory is critical.
The vast majority of the potential created in the golden years is technical. And technical development during this time happens first and foremost on the player’s own time and/or playing in informal settings like “street-ball”.
Again, the golden years serve mostly to elevate the potential of players. What is lost in that discussion is that potential is useless, unless realized. And that’s where coaching at the older ages is absolutely crucial. Coaches here, must have the capacity to take that nice slab of marble and form a sophisticated footballer.
If anywhere say between U10 to U20, that marble isn’t being properly sculpted … that player’s development is getting screwed. You need god-damned Michaelangelo’s throughout the age groups that can take that potential from the golden years, and realize it.
The US is a very tricky monster in that the players who make it pro here are not a reflection of proper and deliberate development. It is far and away a reflection of the time put in by the player himself, pedigree, crude physical attributes, and circumstance. None of which are bad things, but they are not development attributable to a coach.
Circumstance… that’s another very important topic. We’ll come back to that in just a moment.
Time is another factor.
Next let’s touch on the time factor.
I posit the following:
- 1 year is sufficient time for a coach to considerably develop or considerably damage a player.
- 1 year with a master is not the same as 1 year with an average Joe.
- Time spent with average Joes hurts, not helps development.
If anywhere along a player’s trajectory, he’s been with mediocre (or worse) coaches, that players ultimate peak has been negatively impacted.
It may be 80% of what a player is comes outside the formal training environment. But that remaining 20% … is like a swing vote! That 20% can make, or break you.
Let’s be clear: not make or break you in the ‘making it pro’ sense (total junk becomes pro here). But rather in the sense of achieving the qualities of a sophisticated footballer. The difference between having that and not, is in the finest of details.
The question is what coach(es), if any at all, had a meaningful and positive contribution to that 20% – to those details?
And what coach(es) were actually a waste of that players time?
These are terribly difficult, if not impossible, things to conclude by the masses. Which is a principle reason why every single coach who’s laid hands on a player can and will continue to claim credit.
And that is why we’re going to continue digging into the history of top players and prospects to make sure you know what’s what and who’s who.
But here is the thing I want to make clear. In American soccer, there is a serious effort to highlight things like homegrowns and time spent in Development Academies, but an equally powerful campaign to eliminate any mentioning that does not benefit the Development Academy, MLS, or US Soccer.
The lack of recognition to those outside of that network is particularly concerning considering there is already no financial compensation flowing back to the original sources of the players development.
Those are topics we’ll cover in future episodes.
I want to circle back and talk about the Matters of circumstance which impact a players trajectory, or in some cases, their disappearance from the face of the earth.
Who ‘makes it’ versus who doesn’t is just as much a matter of circumstance as it is a player’s quality.
An American born player with a European passport has a much different possible trajectory than an American born player without one. In his Players Tribune article, Christian Pulisic highlighted that his Croatian passport was a key ingredient in his development process. And there are no shortage of people who rightfully point out that if Christian would have stayed in Pennsylvania, he would have most likely been playing some USL or college soccer during the time when Dortmund injected him into the UEFA Champions League.
There are a lot of stories like this.
Ben Lederman wasn’t some phenom, out of this world, player.
But before we proceed, let’s get something clear: he was a player with good qualities and potential before he left to Spain. And having seen him train with our U12s this summer, and most recently at the U14 National Team camp, I can say he’s gotten much better. Only the untrained eye would question his call-up to Hugo Perez’s camp.
Now, the rest:
- He was playing in Southern California. What if, instead, he had been playing in Montana?
- His team manager made a connection with a little club that, at the time, happened to have a relationship with Barcelona. What if that connection didn’t happen?
- The decision was made (and possible economically) to take Ben’s team to compete in Barcelona. What if that didn’t happen?
- Barcelona agreed to play a match against Ben’s team. What if they hadn’t agreed for whatever reason?
Barcelona rolled out their B-team for this match (pretty sure they thought they were going to destroy this ‘fan club’ from America). Ben’s team jumped out to a 3-1 lead. Barca then rolled out their A-squad. Final score 4-1. Spanish eyes were opened! So … the what if’s:
- What if Barca rolled out their A-team from the beginning? What if Ben’s team was not as talented individually as it was? If Ben’s team was not of sufficient level and they got thrashed, would he have been identified? Would a trial have been arranged the following year? Or what if … Barca had an outrageous crop of players on that team already – would they have made room?
- After the trial, how important was the relationship between Barcelona and us in determining whether they offer Ben a spot?
- What if Ben’s family didn’t have the wherewithal and the brass balls to uproot the family and move to a foreign country?
And so on … ad infinitum.
Yes. You need to have a requisite quality or potential as a player. But there’s so much more to it than that:
- How many other players across the nation could be in Benny’s shoes if their ‘Matters of Circumstance‘ lined up? (Don’t all you parents jump on that boat at once.)
- How many former college players would have been drafted if their team had made it to the college cup instead of not even making the tournament?
- How many current MLS players wouldn’t be pro if they hadn’t landed on the right college team?
- What player would not have been released from their pro club, if the coach were someone else?
- Would Jermaine Jones ever smell the National Team jersey if Marcelo Bielsa were the coach?
- Would Dempsey have been playing Champion’s league with a top 10 club if his ‘Matters of Circumstance‘ were different?
- How many players would have been recruited to a top D1 school if only their club coach had more initiative and influence?
I mean, we could do this all day.
It seems to me that it’s difficult to appreciate the magnitude of these things. Human beings tend to simplify the world around them, so they may navigate it. We are creatures of generalizations – particularly when it comes to topics we’re ignorant or novices in.
It’s far easier to have a blanket worldview where the ‘cream rises to the top‘, than to take the difficult journey of acquiring domain expertise.
It’s far easier to believe Josh Gatt got to where he is because he’s among the very best produced American players, than say he’s primarily there due to ‘Matters of Circumstance‘. The same can be said for Brek Shea, Julien Green, Andrew Carleton, Antonee Robinson and so on.
How much is a particular player’s situation due to quality, versus circumstance?
Well, that requires some expertise in what quality means and an appreciation for what the field of circumstances are, doesn’t it?
Every time you reach another level of domain understanding (or sometimes just experience), you realize things aren’t as simple as they seem from the outside.
By the way, Ben Lederman, the now 19-year old player originally from Southern California, just signed a professional contract with a team in Poland’s first division. His journey, if examined closely, is like a treasure chest full of valuable information.
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