Part 1: Where Are We Now?
I think the biggest challenge the USMNT and USSF have in front of them is TALENT ASSESSMENT and PLAYER GROWTH. How do we know when a kid has the potential to blossom into a star and how do we make sure it happens?
YOUTH TEAMS PERFORM WELL, BUT DON'T PRODUCE "STAR" PLAYERS
For years, US youth teams that have regularly competed and even done very well in the U17s, U20s, U23s World Cups. The USSF and staff have done a mediocre job at turning young potential into mature superstars. We have had so many decent youth teams, yet comparabily, other countries youth (teams we've even defeated) go on to be megastars; our kids go on to be Dax McCarty--a decent player, MLS bound, but no superstar. US players seem to hit a wall as soon as they hit the age of 20-21.
In the 2003 U17 WC, the US team played pretty well. We made the Quarterfinals (as we nearly do now every year in the U17s). Yet while our very competitive youth teams perform well (we beat Italy in 2005 U17 WC), and while the players when young are up to par with other big futbol nations at the youth level (see the game vs Brazil a while back), American players seem to "drop off" while other nations players become mega-stars. Let's look at the 2003 U17 USA roster (don't be surprised by the number of times you say "who?"):
This roster of the 2003 U17 team that played so well and went on to the U17 WC quarterfinal is a good example of what is happening to our young players once they hit 20-22 years of age. When they were 16 and 17 they competed equally with the European counterparts, but here's the "now and then" picture:
1 became an investment banker
1 is now a high school coach
2 last played in college
2 play in the USL (one for a team that just folded)
2 have never been heard from again
8 play in the MLS (some play very little)
1 plays in EPL
1 plays (rarely) in France Ligue 1
2 play in 2nd Division Clubs in Europe
In the 2003 U17, our "star" players that "moved on" were Adu and Spector. Neither of them became superstars. Yet a number of Spain's youngsters, who did only one round better than us, went on to become MEGA-stars or top rate players: David Silva, Fabregas and Javi Garcia, just to name a few-and that doesn't even take into account that Sisi, Markel, David, Jurado, and Arzo all play in La Liga. Only 1 player on the Spanish U17 team ended up in futbol oblivion. The majority of the 2003 team at least play in the Segunda Division.
Why couldn't we get at least 1 MEGA-star out of our batch of U17s in 2003? Are we still looking for Adu to become one?
IMG ACADEMY: GRADUATING CLASSES SINCE 1999 ARE LESS AND LESS IMPRESSIVE
There is a trend here. In many ways, our soccer academies, like the IMG Academy seem to be turning out fewer successful players now, than they did in 1999 when Donovan, Beasley, Convey, Onyewu were all in the graduating class-three of which are regular starters on the USMNT and all now play overseas. What have we got since? Justin Mapp? Eddie Johnson? Well, Jozy, Edu and Spector are not bad--but no one near "superstar" status. Beasley, Donovan and Onyewu are the closest thing the USMNT has to stars right now outside of Clint Dempsey.
So, what's going on? Are we in a temporary dry-spell? Are more Donovans and Onyewus on the way? And even if they are, will we ever develop one MEGA-star player like a Torres, or David Villa, Lionel Messi, Christiano Ronaldo, or Wayne Rooney? Even Nigeria, whose U17 team didn't even make it out of the first round in 2003 U17 WC developed a MEGA-star in John Obi Mikel. And he doesn't exactly ride the pine at Chelsea either.
And while we now have all these improved youth programs and academies to prepare our youngsters better, it hasn't gotten us the BIG results yet. Perhaps Subotic would have been the very first superstar out of the academy--but of course he's now renounced his US allegiance.
Some may say "be patient." Well, I've been patient for 20 years, and I'm tired of waiting. We need to make it happen sooner rather than later. I think its time for the USSF, IMG Academy and the whole USNT program to ask itselves a few questions (and then answer them!):
- Why do our players stop progressing for the most part in their early twenties?
- Why haven't the academy programs had an outstanding graduating class since 1999, when Donovan, Onyewu, Beasley and Bobby Convey all graduated?
- What can we do differently to move our young players to that next level--if not to megastar status--but at least high quality?
- When can we finally expect the first American mega-star, someone capable of playing on the best club teams in the world?
As devoted USMNT fans, we deserve answers to these tough questions. And if the USSF and USMNT and the Academies cannot answer these questions, then they need to look themselves in the eye and wonder "why not"-because these are important poignant questions that any outstanding organization that wants to be successful should be able to answer with candor . There must be a new set of goals and strategies and remedies.
Next Week: PART 2: The Solutions