By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 7, 2012) US Soccer Players — Do you know where to look for talent? Do you know what you’re looking for? What if you look too soon?
For well over a decade now, US Soccer has been working diligently to grow its player identification network, casting a wider, finer net in an effort to make sure they don’t overlook any prospects. The Federation has also pushed those efforts deeper and deeper into the youth development system, under the concept that promising players need structured development at earlier ages in order to maximize their potential.
We’re gathering younger players for national team camps, housing our brightest teenagers in the Bradenton Residency program, and maintaining a nationwide youth scouting network of more than 60 veteran coaches to spot diamonds in the rough. Even Major League Soccer is lending a hand, signing “Homegrowns” and setting aside substantial Generation adidas salaries to entice college stars to leave school early to go pro.
It is, of course, the right approach, the standard in top soccer nations around the world. A North American player who arrives in a full-time professional environment at age 22 typically has some catching up to do when facing counterparts who’ve had four or five years in that setting. Didier Drogba fits the international definition of a “late bloomer” because he signed his first pro contract at age 21.
How curious, then, that Alan Gordon made his National Team debut at the age of 31. The inclusion of Gordon and the absence of Jozy Altidore became the story leading up to the final stretch of the semifinal stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Altidore is perhaps the best example of the changes to player identification in US soccer. Gordon is a career MLS player.
Gordon performed well in his first game with the United States, setting up Eddie Johnson’s crucial game-winning goal against Antigua & Barbuda.
For a long time it looked like Gordon’s most notable contribution to American soccer history would be his colorful side role in “The Beckham Experiment,” Grant Wahl’s book on the English superstar’s messy arrival in MLS. Gordon kept at his trade, keeping faith in his own ability to improve day by day in a professional environment even as he approached, and passed, what most experts would define as the chronological end of his career window.
You’d be hard-pressed to say Gordon got any bigger, or faster. He did grow smarter and better, though.
His San Jose Earthquakes teammate Chris Wondolowski is another prototypical late bloomer, toiling in reserve-league obscurity for years before the Houston Dynamo traded him to San Jose – along with a conditional draft pick, amazingly enough – for Cam Weaver. Now “Wondo” is the league’s deadliest marksman, with 61 goals in the last three seasons and co-holder of the all-time single-season scoring record.
Tonight, when D.C. United meet the New York Red Bulls in a win-or-else playoff game, their offense will revolve another classic case study, Chris Pontius. United’s 2012 team MVP, Pontius couldn’t even break into the A team of his respected Southern California youth club, Irvine Strikers, as a teenager.
Pontius ended up the final member of UC Santa Barbara’s 2005 recruiting class because his high school coach sent in a highlight video. Four years of college excellence and one NCAA national championship later, Pontius ended up a first-round MLS SuperDraft pick. Growing as a player in MLS, he’s now on the radar of US National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“Completely different,” said Pontius of his own career track compared to the norm. “I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer because everyone takes different paths. For me, obviously the Academy probably wouldn’t have worked out. Or it may have worked out later on, it just wasn’t the club soccer. I got recruited by University of Tulsa through club soccer, and that’s about it. It was high school soccer for me.”
Pontius’s college coach Tim Vom Steeg noted that Toronto FC playmaker Luis Silva, another of his program’s more notable products, was also the last member of his respective recruiting class. He and his staff are convinced that the sprawling SoCal youth scene is too big for hidden gems not to fall through the cracks.
“Chris is an example of what I always think is great about Major League Soccer – and extend it out to the National Team,” Vom Steeg told me this week. “MLS gives players who might’ve been drafted really low, or maybe not ever drafted, an option to get onto a team, and then two or three years later you find out that the player is really good…even though they haven’t come through the blue-chip ranks, played at [Development] Academy level, called into residency, the whole deal.
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