Teenage anguish – USA

Mike Woitalla reports from the US on how the  MLS has tackled its youth development problem

Imagine this – you're one of the best 17-year-old players in the country. But you’re not so good at maths, or English is your second language, so you score poor­ly on a crucial exam. Your soccer career is over, because the universities don’t want you.

From 1984, when the North American Soccer League died, to 1996, when Major League Soccer em­erged, the fate of the nation’s young pla­y­­­ers depended on excelling in college soccer. Each of the 22 players in the US 1990 World Cup squad came from the college ranks. At France 98, only four players did not play American college soccer, and they were raised in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Yugoslavia.

MLS knows classroom skills have nothing to do with trapping a ball, and that the college system has too many flaws to produce the players the league will depend on. MLS cannot afford more than a handful of foreign stars. The current American players – mainly those with international experience – are adequate, but far from the level that can consistently draw fans, who are now exposed to large doses of foreign soccer, thanks to cable TV and Spanish-language networks.

To MLS’s credit, it has created a player development system called Project-40. It provides an avenue for the non-scholar and gives ambitious players a chance to leave college early for the pro ranks while providing them with a maximum of £22,500 to complete a uni­ver­sity degree, which in the US costs an average of £7,800 (public) and £31,200 (private). Players receive annual salaries of £14,400 per year and can be released at any time, but their educational fund has no time limit.

To comprehend why MLS has to conjure such a player development system one has to understand the unique nature of American sports, where pro teams are “franchises”, not clubs with their own youth teams. The National Basketball Association and the National Football League (gridiron) have never had to concern themselves with nurturing youth talent. They have had college sports, which is hardly about students getting some exercise. An athletic scholarship – tuition, room and board – is the only compensation a player may accept, but everything else surrounding college basketball and gridiron is professional.

CBS Sports pays £140 million annually for rights to broadcast the collegiate basketball championship. Crowds and TV ratings for top college gridiron games are often greater than for professional gridiron, which helps explain why the University of Florida head coach earns £600,000 a year – ten times more than the state’s governor. The University of Michigan’s £5.5 million five-year contract with Nike is typical of the money pumped into a university with highly rated basketball and gridiron teams.

This professional nature creates such a competitive environment for basketball and gridiron players of the ages 18 to 22 that the college level in those sports serves as a satisfactory farm system. Not so for college soccer. Though popular, with some 1,000 teams, the National Collegiate Soccer Association limits teams to 22 games per season and bans players from playing for other teams during the school year. Compared to the rest of the world – which basketball and gridiron needn’t worry about – college soccer puts the brakes on a player’s growth. A 20-year-old Englishman is surrounded by seasoned pros, but the American ­collegian is playing with peers.

Basketball and gridiron coaches – under extreme pressure to win because of the big money stakes – venture into America’s inner-city neighbourhoods to recruit working-class youths who would ordinarily not attend college. Their soccer counterparts generally restrict themselves to recruiting white middle-class players. Instead of looking around a Latino or Car­ibbean neighbourhood, the college coaches prefer to discover talent in the green fields of the suburbs, where the high schools prepare players for easy entrance into college. Most of the inner-city schools don’t provide suitable preparation for college, which about half of the US population enters, while about a quarter attend for four years, the usual time necessary to obtain an undergraduate degree.

Project-40 was launched in 1997, with the blessing of the US Soccer Federation, which chips in about £700,000 annually – from 1994 World Cup profits. More than 30 players have enrolled and they represent the core of the US Under-23 team trying to qualify for the Olympics. Players practise with MLS teams, but don’t count against the 20-man roster limit. If they aren’t picked to play, they fly off to the Pro-40 team that com­petes in the A-League, the nation’s Second Division. Several players, including 1998 MLS Rookie of the Year Ben Olsen, are already contributing in MLS. In the off season, the young players spend time training with foreign clubs, including Rangers, Atlas of Mexico, Universidad Católica of Chile and Sunderland. They also tour as a team, and in December reeled off five wins over English reserve teams, including Manchester United and Everton.

Between MLS, A-League and youth national team duty, Pro-40 players get up to 70 games per year, previously unheard of for young Americans. Project-40 hasn’t lived up to its name yet – its goal is to sign 40 players a year. But in a nation that brags about having 18 million soccer players, an emphasis on quality might not be a bad idea.

From WSC 145 March 1999. What was happening this month