The Developmental Delay of American Soccer PlayersThe US player developmental system praises itself, while some of its best go undiscovered until far too late
by Abram Chamberlain | Monday, April 09, 2012
Bi-yearly, due to moves in their careers, or failures at youth national team levels, I find myself writing something about Freddy Adu, Landon Donovan, or Clint Dempsey. These three players (for better or worse) are case studies in what is wrong with the American soccer development system. Dempsey, Adu, and Donovan – in some order – are the most globally recognizable faces in American soccer (all due respect to Brad Friedel, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard).
Positive or negative, they represent three different dynamics in the American soccer hype machine. Adu, the overhyped prodigy who hasn’t yet amounted to much; Donovan, the vaunted kid who came oh so frustratingly close to meeting expectations; and Dempsey, the underestimated talent from the US college ranks, hustling his time in MLS, and then far exceeding all expectations, are the prototypes for the paths taken by the players in the American pool.
Blame it on college, a lack developmental understanding, academies, MLS, or the draw of the four bigger team sports in America, but the late development for American players has been the cause for the shallow American player pool for years if not decades or even centuries. How can this country of 300 million people continue to fail developing twenty-three players to compete internationally at soccer?
This weekend, Jared Dubois, a co-host of The North American Soccer Network’s The Best Soccer Show, tweeted out, “The difference between US Soccer and the rest of the world? ‘He's only 23.’ vs ‘He’s already 23.’” This is extremely telling, if not somewhat overstated, analysis. Perchance American soccer develops its players too late in their “careers”, or perhaps never.
Over the past months, two players who have made nearly zero impact for the USMNT have been destroying their club-level competitors. Herculez Gomez led Santos to a completely expected 6-2 thrashing of Toronto FC. Gomez – who has surpassed cult-status and entered an almost God-like stature in American soccer circles – had a brace. Gomez has been shredding up the FMF, even tying for their 2010 Golden Boot with some guy named Javier Hernandez.
And speaking of Golden Boots, San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski – a man who has been misused time and time again by both club and country – had a brace of his own in MLS play. Wondo’s first goal was a well-placed poacher’s goal. It was not artwork, but rather a quick chance, by a guy riding the offside line perfectly, then slotted past the keeper. His second goal, a mid-air volley into the net, that one was fine art.
Wondolowski and Gomez are perhaps the two hottest American forwards in the world for a while now – unless you consider Clint Dempsey a forward. Back when Jozy Altidore was struggling on loan to Hull City, he was still the USMNT’s top striker in the 2010 World Cup; meanwhile, Gomez was the back-up to the back-up. And who was Jozy’s primary back-up? Robbie Findley (let that sink in for a bit). Wondo was not even on the roster; rather, he was in MLS winning his first Golden Boot.
Today, two years after that World Cup, Wondo and Herc are 29 and 30 years old respectively, with only a combined 14 caps for the United States Men’s National Team. They were “discovered” and “placed” into the national team too late. They were “self-developed,” which is not necessarily a bad thing, but now we have two men, that are lighting up their respective leagues, and have contributed nothing more than a few cursory appearances to their national team.
It is tough to make it in soccer while living in a country with an almost inhospitable soccer club culture. Not every player at club-level wants to play in MLS, and those who do can take far different routes to get there. Herc and Wondo didn’t travel a similar path, nor did Donovan and Dempsey, nor did Adu and Stuart Holden. There are many ways to make it in MLS, or European leagues (just ask Billy Schuler or Jay DeMerit). Perhaps, say many MLS supporters, with our academies in place, Gomez or Wondolowski would have been discovered earlier, and players like DeMerit wouldn’t have fell through the cracks.
And granted, we are starting to see younger Americans training with big European clubs, as Ben Lederman signed with Barcelona Academy at 11 and Marc Pelosi joined Liverpool’s reserves at 17. But both Lederman, at 11, and Pelosi, at 17, have far more publicity, hype, and expectations than either Chris Wondolowski or Herculez Gomez had until about two years ago when they were respectively 26 and 28. Neither Barcelona nor Liverpool’s lowliest academies would have picked them to join their academies at 11 or 17.
But imagine what either one could have done if they were discovered at 12, 13, or 14 as opposed to in their late 20s. Maybe they would be huge stars, but maybe they would not be the players they now are. Perhaps they would be like so many burnt out League One players in England who wander the pubs talking about what might have been.
And yes, right now, many are shouting to phase out college soccer completely. But what about C.J. Sapong? Sapong was not even good enough in high school to wind up full-time with the DC United Academy. Now people are saying he’s the new Brian McBride. If he had been required to only take the academy path perhaps he wouldn’t even be playing soccer anymore.
Maybe it’s fortunate that in America we still have the college system – regardless of its lack of quality development. Like Sapong, Wondo and Herc some players will naturally be late bloomers. Even if we feel 23 is too old to be a young professional it’s going to happen. If Sapong could not make it in DC United’s Academy at 17, 18, or 19, there is little chance he could have made it at Bradenton or with a European club.
The American pool is always to have a mix of players from different developmental routes. It will be the Donovans and Adus but it will also be the Dempseys. It will be the Pelosis and Ledermans – eventually – but it will also be the Sapongs. Maybe one day however, it will include the Wondolowskis and Gomezes before they are 30 years old.
The questions will arise: How do we find Wondo and Herc when we can develop instinctual players into fully formed professionals at 17, 18, and 19? Is it even necessary or worth the resources?
We complain that the majority of the world’s late bloomers are blooming at 22, 23, and 24 while the US’s late bloomers bloom at 27, 28, and 29. It’s a tricky predicament. There is no solution…yet, and if I knew how to navigate that system to perfection, I’d have Sunil Gulati’s job (or at least Caleb Porter’s).
But for now I’m just stuck, staring in amazement at Wondo and Herc, saying, “what if?”