By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 7, 2016) US Soccer Players – In 2003 Danny Karbassiyoon turned every young player’s dream into reality, rising from youth-soccer obscurity in little Roanoke, Virginia to earn a professional contract with Arsenal FC as a teenager. Karbassiyoon signed during the English powerhouse’s iconic “Invincibles” era, no less.
Injury brought his own playing days to a premature end. Karbassiyoon continues to forge new ground as an Arsenal scout, where he’s spotted US youth international Gedion Zelalem and Costa Rican talent Joel Campbell and brought them into the Gunners camp. Now Karbassiyoon has shared his remarkable story in a book called “The Arsenal Yankee,” and this spring he returned to his native Virginia to visit with youth soccer players contemplating their own ambitions in the game.
During that trip, he graciously joined USSoccerPlayers.com for a detailed, honest conversation about player development, US soccer and why more of his countrymen haven’t followed his path into one of the biggest clubs in the world.
Arsenal’s scouts found you as a kid despite the fact that you grew up in rural Virginia, far from the population centers where top talent is usually found. Yet you and Gedion Zelalam are the only Americans to play for the Gunners. Why haven’t more US players made it to the club?
A lot of people just immediately forget that a large majority, unfortunately, of the [US soccer] population – especially when it comes to England – you have to look over them just because they don’t have [European Union] passports. That’s one big issue. A lot of people now are also setting the standard, because the Premier League is so accessible, [asking] ‘Why don’t we have players at United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, all these clubs?’ It’s a real thing and it’s very difficult to get past if a player doesn’t have a European passport. That’s A.
But, honestly, and I’ve seen a lot of soccer around our country and I’ve seen a lot of age groups, especially since I started scouting in the US at [age] 22, 23 to now. And I would 100 percent say the standard has improved dramatically … The education has improved, the players that were playing abroad are now coming back and bringing a lot of pretty amazing stuff. The coaching education is just getting better and better, and there’s [US Soccer] Federation guys going everywhere, learning how the best clubs in the world develop their players. But I don’t think it necessarily means that you’ll be able to create a guy that becomes suddenly good enough to play at the top level.
The general standard, I would say, has certainly improved, but you also have to understand: these clubs are looking absolutely everywhere. They’re not just looking in the States, they’ve got guys in Brazil, Argentina, Spain – and when you think about it that way, that’s who you’re competing with when you’re trying to get to a monster club. You’re competing with all the players that the Brazilian scouts are looking at, all the players the Argentinean scouts are looking at, the Spanish guys, the German scouts. Just because the development system here has changed and improved dramatically over the past decade, I don’t think we’ve suddenly caught up in terms of being able to produce players one after the other, especially world-class players, with the traditional soccer countries.
I just think it’ll take more time. But it’s definitely moving in the right direction and it’s just getting to that next step where instead of just one player signing for a big club, it’s multiple players going to different clubs and then all of them not just getting released at the same time. It’s guys getting a chance to play in the first team, being in the squad, playing regularly … that’s when we’ll start to know that what we’re doing is working.
Our country is so big and so geographically diverse, and culturally diverse – that’s another huge difficulty. At least, I found when I was looking at players. To bring a kid from a place like LA or Texas who’s accustomed to the sun every single day of his life, culturally he’s with a huge family, he sees them all the time, and you just take him out of that and throw him in England and say ‘deal with it.’ You have to find pretty mentally strong, special people to set all that aside and focus on what they need to focus on. It kind of comes into the whole package: You have to have that passport, you have to be very good, you have to have the personality of like, ‘regardless of what happens, I’m here to make it, I’ll do anything that it takes to make it.’
US fans are very excited about Christian Pulisic right now, a player with enormous potential who earned a spot at a big club like Borussia Dortmund at age 17. I’ve heard it said that he would likely not get such a chance back home in MLS, where veterans are often preferred over youth. What do you think?
I think historically speaking, certain managers, certain clubs are known for giving youngsters a chance and taking a risk. The board [of directors] is on board with it, the fans are on board with it – especially if a manager brings a boy like Christian in who makes an impact almost immediately. It’s only positive and it only allows you to do it more and more.
Taking that risk is huge and I understand, at times, potentially why maybe MLS managers don’t want to take that big of a gamble. There’s already enough – in terms of selection, salary, cash and all that sort of stuff – there’s already enough going on to worry about in that regard, where a youngster who’s very unproven, who nobody knows if they’re good enough for the starting XI – whether or not it works out can change a lot for the manager.
I don’t know if, had a player like Christian stayed here, if he would be making an impact, at 17, in MLS or not. I don’t know if he would actually be given the chance. I don’t doubt that he would make an impact – I’m saying if he’d actually be given the chance to show that he could make an impact.
[When] a 16-year-old Cesc [Fabregas, Karbassiyoon’s former Arsenal teammate] was plucked from the reserves and thrown into training with the first team, you can see what happens if you do excel. I think a lot of people undervalue that. Because coming in and training every single day and getting to play in the reserves, it’s motivational and it’s inspiring and all that. But at the end of the day you want to be in the first team and when you see players get plucked from your group and start training with the first team regularly or suddenly they get to dress with the first team and then they make their debut and then they get to start the next game, I think that’s huge and we lack that a bit in our country.
There’s very few professional clubs, very few circumstances in this country where that actually does get to happen. Whereas over there it’s quite common, just because of the structure, how everything’s set up. Never mind just a club like Arsenal – when I went to Ipswich Town there were guys that had grown up playing throughout Ipswich Town’s whole development process and by the time they were 17, they were involved with thee first team, they were making their debuts, they were making an impact on the first team. I think that just helps the whole development process, just from seeing the long-term vision – and then if you’re good enough on the short term, you get the opportunity to prove it.
There’s a line of thinking that American soccer is too “soft”. That our players aren’t being challenged and tested enough, and perhaps lack the hunger that drives poor kids around the world to succeed.
I’ll put it this way. I went over there. I went on trial. I ended up signing. Even during the very difficult times, where I felt like I’d completely forgotten how to play soccer, in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘OK, if all goes wrong, at least I can go home and work in my parents’ print shop. I can go back to college, I’ll figure something out.’ Then there were kids that would come on trial – I remember this one boy came on trial from Senegal, and he actually ended up getting home early because he went into the first-team dressing room and stole Patrick Vieira’s boots, which is a bold move.
There were kids like that where, I asked him – and his English was very broken – ‘what league or team do you come from?’ And he said, ‘oh, I don’t play in a team.’ The difference of the mentality of coming here [saying] I HAVE to make it,’ it varies wildly. In the US there’s all sorts. There’s kids that have come from extremely wealthy backgrounds that end up doing very, very well, and there’s kids that were less fortunate growing up that end up doing really, really well. A lot of the kids at Arsenal at that time that I met, some of them came from ‘good families’ and others came from broken families where they had to make it – and a majority of them ended up not making it and getting released by the time they were 18, 19. They found it difficult to find another club suddenly, and after that, it’s hard for them to make a living. They don’t have the option to go back or go get a proper job. Some of them got into dicier stuff that they probably shouldn’t have been involved in.
If Sunil Gulati or Jurgen Klinsmann or Don Garber came to you tomorrow and asked you to “fix” the US system so that it churned out world-class players with regularity, how would you go about it?
[Laughs]. That’s a tough one. The biggest thing for me that I think I’ve noticed over the years, scouting and then also initially right when I got to Arsenal… the level technically at these clubs – and I stress this a lot when I speak, and unfortunately I don’t think I stress it enough – it has to be very, very, very high.
It’s no surprise that a boy like Christian is progressing right now at Dortmund, because technically he’s very, very good. He’s very intelligent, but that technical piece is massive. If you can’t hang in a session technically, it doesn’t matter how strong you are, how fast you are, even how intelligent you are, really. If you can’t hang technically, then you’ll be found out immediately. People won’t pass you the ball any more. Everything will break down on you. So to me that’s the biggest part.
When I was traveling full-time around CONCACAF looking at players, even throughout Mexico and Central America, sometimes, the technical level of players just wasn’t high enough to where I could confidently say, ‘I’m ready to take this kid over [to Arsenal] and I have no doubt that he’ll be just fine.’ Whereas with a boy like Gedion, the technical ability left me no doubt: He’ll go over there and be just fine, I know he’ll be able to deal with it. Maybe the speed of play, because he’s not accustomed to it, maybe he’ll struggle there. But good players sort it out and they figure it out.
I also keep going back to the geography of our country and how different it is … A player from New York is going to be very different from a player from Southern California. That’s just how it is. A player from England is very different from a player in Dubai, and essentially that’s the distance [across the U.S.] When people say, ‘what do you want an American team to look like?’ or ‘how do you want an American team to play?’ – at times it’s an unfair thing to say because of how big and different our country is. It’s a bonus and it’s also a little bit of a hindrance.
But above everything, the technical level in our country has to go up. A perfect example of it was in our game against Belgium in the World Cup – a tiny country like Belgium that had probably 11 very, very, very good players out on the pitch. Even when they were making subs, they were replacing one incredible player with another good player, and technically, they were all able to do it. I think at times our heart, our passion and our will to win in US soccer gets us very, very far, but it will only get us so far before the technical ability of our players and our teams will eventually let us down. And better teams will eventually win.
If you go overseas and watch training and shadow managers and whatnot, you can see how technical all these players are. If you’ve never seen a reserve-team game or a U-18 Arsenal game, then you don’t know what that level is. It’s hard to say, ‘oh yeah, my players are technically good enough to get there.’
Getting to train with the first team and doing a little technical drill and having Patrick Vieira or Dennis Bergkamp or Edu say, ‘hit it to me harder, hit it to this foot, not that foot’ – that to me hits harder. It’s not good enough just to get the ball from A to B … it’s what everybody else does in training, a lot of the simple stuff, they just do it very, very good, they do it at a very high standard and they do it all the freakin’ time. So when matchday comes, they do the simple stuff very, very well. That’s what affords these guys so much time on the ball, that’s what enables them to look up, to get the extra split second, the extra half-yard to play the killer pass.
It’s no coincidence when a guy like Cesc or a guy like Mezut Ozil finds himself with all the space around him. It’s not just because nobody saw him. It’s because he was more aware than the guys around him and then technically, he has a nice touch and then he has all the time in the world to make these decisions. I think that technical piece, as that piece comes, then people become way more comfortable on the ball. They’re not rushed, their second touch isn’t a tackle, they’re able to make better decisions on the ball, make better passes because they have more time, and suddenly the game just gets a lot easier. But it all comes down to that technical piece.
I noticed recently that Zlatan Ibrahimovic said he spoke to your former teammate Thierry Henry about life in Major League Soccer, and Ibra said Henry’s advice was that he’d have to be very patient with his MLS teammates.
[Laughs] Thierry, when I got to train with the first team that second year, I got to play with him every single day. And Thierry, when you misplaced a pass – especially as a youngster – he would give you this amazing look – as if to say, ‘what have you just done?!’
But it stressed to you the level of excellence required … it made you realize that in order for everything to fire on all cylinders, the level had to be very, very high. … I specifically watched him [when he got to MLS] just to see if he gave that look to people, and he did – I would say his first six months, he gave that ‘why are you here?’ look. But after that I think he understood that it was a different part of his career. He had new responsibilities. I think he realized quite quickly he also had the mentor role at the Red Bulls. People looked up to him.
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