It’s no secret that the way the US treats the development of its athletes is significantly different from how the rest of the world treats the development of theirs. While many young foreign superstars are signing their first pro contract, the best American athletes are running late to 8th-grade math.
Now, the US’s status as an absolute powerhouse in sports like Basketball or Baseball implies that the current system of keeping amateur athletes through college is the best way to develop excellence. This holds true for all except one major sport: Soccer.
Despite significant progress over the past decades, USA soccer as a whole is far below their European counterparts in regards to skill and ability. The MLS, while earning more respect, is still nowhere near the level of the top divisions in Europe.
Searching for an explanation, a quick dive into the career paths of three American soccer stars playing on some of the world’s top teams reveals a striking reality for young American Soccer players.
Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), and Sergio Dest (Barcelona) are three of the top USA men’s soccer players in the world.
And three of the few that have managed to carve a name for themselves in Europe’s top leagues. These three all have something in common, they did not go through the conventional student-athlete route that most American athletes go through.
Instead, they opted to play directly for the youth programs of different professional clubs. In the case of Pulisic: as a fifteen-year-old prodigy, Christian moved to Germany to play for Borussia Dortmund.
It seems these youth programs can provide young players with a set of skills and abilities that the current NCAA system can not.
Sure, playing for a Division I school can land you an opportunity to play in the MLS and be a domestic star. But it seems that in order to make that leap to the best in the world, it requires a strong foundation of professional coaching beginning at a young age. Something that is impossible to achieve while focusing on your GPA.
Many will point to how the NCAA system produces top-tier NBA talent every year. But in a sport like Soccer where athleticism is not as prevalent, and players are judged primarily off skill level. Early professional development can make the difference between a local star and an international sensation. And as it stands the USA just does not have any structured professional system for its young stars.
Convincing parents to sign their kids up as professionals as fifteen-year-olds will always be a tough sell. But it would surely be more common if it didn't require a plane ticket and learning a new language. It seems the key to unlocking the full potential of USA soccer is building a structured system for young players to start training like professionals in their hometowns.
It will be interesting to see if the emergence of more American players making appearances for top European clubs encourages USA Soccer to rethink its youth development process. But until then, it is nice to see USA Soccer carving out a place for itself amongst the best in the world.
But we still have a long way to go.