Call of duty

Dave Hannigan looks at how Ireland are hoping to attract young footballers with a US education but an old country sentiment

In a little-noticed cameo during the February international break, Derby County striker Conor Doyle made his debut for Ireland Under-21s in a friendly against Cyprus. Born and raised in Texas to a father from Dublin, the 19-year-old’s appearance came just three months after Giovanni Trapattoni expressed interest in establishing a scouting network to find new talent for Ireland in the United States. Indeed, Trapattoni went as far as asking for a full list of Major League Soccer players with Irish-sounding 

To understand why the Irish are looking west, it is necessary to know the story of Neven Subotic. Constantly linked with a move from Borussia Dortmund to the Premier League, the 22-year-old Subotic spent the formative years of a peripatetic childhood in Utah and Florida. Having first gained international recognition with the US Under-17s and Under-20s, one of the most prized young defenders in Europe eventually switched allegiance to Serbia, the country of his birth, following a row with an American youth team coach.
”I based my decision on my heritage, origin and family,” said Subotic. “I was always different than the American kids because my parents were from Yugoslavia.”

Having already seen his native Italy bag the highly rated Giuseppe Rossi, a kid who learned the game in New Jersey before his father brought him to Parma just before his 13th birthday, Trapattoni can be forgiven for thinking the US might yet prove fecund ground for Ireland too. After all, Argentina and Mexico also have American-born players currently knocking around their senior and Under-21 squads. Against that background, Ireland, a smaller country and one with such a long history of emigration to the US, can surely pick up a couple of children of their diaspora too.

Trapattoni isn’t the first Irish manager to try to tap into this vein. Brian Kerr made an informal approach to the New England Revolution’s Pat Noonan in one era and Steve Staunton capped the college prospect Joe Lapira in another. While nothing came of those particular efforts, it seems Trapattoni and the FAI have now decided to take the potential over here a little more seriously, impressed perhaps by how the recruitment of American-born players has improved the Irish women’s national team.

This sort of move won’t require too much investment for the cash-strapped association because there is already a ready-made network of scouts. At last count, there are nearly 100 Irish working as professional coaches at university level from New York to California. Their work brings them into contact with the best youth teams in every region on a daily basis. This same network has already proved useful in identifying and bringing on board female players, and it would only take the unearthing of a single Rossi or Subotic over the next few years to make the whole thing worthwhile.

Arguably the biggest problem the FAI may face is the strength of organisation in the American game. Almost as soon as a promising player begins competitive soccer in this country, his coach will be asked to recommend him to the Olympic Development Programme so he can began regional training, with a view to one day making the national senior team. Impressive as that set-up may sound, the enormity of the country ensures some still fall through the cracks.

Also, as has been demonstrated by the defection of Michael Hoyos, a Californian teenager now tipped for greatness with Argentina, there will always be players who can have their heads turned by parents and romantic attachments to other countries. Irish-Americans have never been slouches in that respect, often rearing their children to be more Irish than the Irish themselves.

Apart from exploiting that rich sentiment, the FAI can also point out the greater professional opportunities available to a footballer carrying an EU passport, and mention the fact America has such an enormous pick (capping almost 100 senior players between World Cups) that many players get lost in the shuffle.

Even though Conor Doyle claims to be still undecided about which country to commit to, this initiative looks very promising for Ireland. Well, aside from the fact the FAI chief executive John Delaney appears rather ill-informed about the state of the sport in the US. Talking on Irish radio after the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, Delaney pointed out that the one thing the Americans are lacking is a professional league. Which would be news to all those Irish-eligible players in Major League Soccer.

From WSC 290 April 2011