By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 20, 2017) US Soccer Players - Last weekend I returned to the city of my birth to take in the final few days of the Dallas Cup and Generation Adidas Cup. Both are among the most prominent and talent-laden tournaments on the American youth soccer calendar. In the process I got a snapshot of both the progress made and the lingering shortcomings in the efforts to close the longstanding development gap that separates the United States from the global elite.
Arguably one of the most renowned youth events on the planet, the Dallas Cup marks its 38th year in 2017. It annually attracts quality teams from across North America and the world. The highlight is the Gordon Jago Super Group, an Under-19 division packed with professional clubs like Manchester United, Everton, Tigres UANL, Eintract, and myriad other big names through the years.
What makes the experience truly special, though, is probably the “HomeStay” program. That arranges for participating players from overseas to live in the homes of their local counterparts throughout the week. The cross-cultural connection lives long in the memory of even the most successful Dallas Cup alumni like David Beckham and Wayne Rooney. Dallas Cup always takes place over Easter Week in order to minimize the amount of school missed due to participation.
A decade ago MLS debuted the GA Cup as the showcase tournament of its burgeoning academy system. Today it’s grown into a 32-team event featuring both MLS Under-17 teams and their counterparts from a range of clubs around the world. Its last four editions have taken place alongside the Dallas Cup, tapping into the older event’s reputation as well as the DFW Metroplex’s extensive soccer facilities.
It all adds up to an exhilarating festival of competitive youth soccer, and a useful signpost on the youth landscape. Both tournaments provide domestic players and teams with very important, and often all-too-rare, exposure to different styles of play and cultural approaches to the game. It’s both an educational tool and a barometer of progress, or the lack thereof.
MLS teams generally found it tough going against overseas competition. Argentinean power River Plate won the GA Cup’s upper bracket, the Championship Division, which consisted of eight foreign and eight domestic teams. The New York Red Bulls were the only MLS side to reach the semifinals. They fell to Brazilian club Flamengo on penalty kicks. In the second-tier Premier Division, where only five of 16 teams hailed from abroad, two of the four semifinalists came from MLS. Led by standout prospect Gio Reyna, son of Claudio, NYCFC edged Mexico’s Tigres in the final.
“I think it’s the professional approach to the game from the foreign teams,” Red Bulls coach Paul O'Donnell told me after his side defeated Ecuador’s Independiente del Valle to claim third place. “Taking very little risks, their ability to compete and tackle – these guys are fighting for jobs down the road. They’re so competitive in every tackle, they’re a little bit soccer-savvy at times when they need to be. As we progressed we got a little bit more soccer-savvy, more competitive, and realized that hey, we can play with these guys, there’s nothing to be scared of.”
Much like MLS teams often find in CONCACAF Champions League, academy players from Latin American countries are already adept at controlling the flow and tone of a game, sniffing out weak points, and testing referees and opponents alike with sly gamesmanship. They’re specifically groomed to do so. In Mexico, for example, U-17 and U-20 academy teams replicate the same weekly league schedule as their clubs’ senior squads, often traveling with them on road trips.
“You take a look at some of the top teams and you see the level of savvy, the level of control, competitiveness,” said San Jose Earthquakes academy coach Paul Holocher, whose squad finished in third place in the GA Cup’s Premier Division. “It’s derived from their culture: Since they were 8 years old they were competing.
“I got to watch some of the U-12s play, and they’re primed to be little professionals at 10 years old. That’s different from our US culture. But the more that we’re exposed to that, the more we’re going to realize that yeah, these are the expectations that we have to have.”
Lack of intensity has long been a complaint among US youth soccer insiders. Perhaps due to the sport’s roots here in early childhood and recreational play, many detect a soft, easygoing tone to the formative adolescent period that other nations treat as a pivotal stage in forming future stars. It’s only in the past decade or so that professional clubs have built a coherent pathway from youth to first team, and many are still playing catch-up.
The US Soccer Federation created the Development Academy in 2007 to provide elite competition for top players from coast-t- coast, and it has been successful in many aspects. The increasing sophistication of top-end academy programs like RBNY, FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake, and the LA Galaxy is evident. They give youth players a more holistic preparation for life as a pro. That's found only in pockets at this stage. Even the best of the best in this country don’t have sustained opportunities for baptism by fire.
“It’s tough to replicate,” said O’Donnell. “We get it with the MLS [academy] games, we get it with the international games. But some [Development Academy] games, we’re allowed to get away with some mistakes, whereas here you get punished for your mistakes. Little mistakes at this level cost you.”
The Galaxy’s academy is full of youth internationals and likely future Homegrown signings, led by one of the most respected coaching staffs in the nation. LA routinely travel overseas to gain tournament experiences similar to GA Cup and typically dominate their DA and MLS foes. Still, they too lost in the knockout stages in Frisco, edged by a handful of tight plays in key moments.
“It’s absolutely mandatory that our top players get these types of games, because they see real opponents, they see real game scenarios that are going to test them, to see who’s going to be a pro, who’s not going to be a pro,” said coach Brian Kleiban. “If we go against a 10-man-deep block every weekend like we normally do in our league games, it doesn’t help our players. So that’s the biggest takeaway. it’s something we’ve known for a while and it just got validated again over the last 10 days.
“The Mexican teams, they travel with their first-team counterparts and play in these type of intense games week in and week out. The Flamengo team plays their local rivals week in and week out. You can just see that they’re more match-ready for these type of games and being in adverse situations and having to defend in 1v1 situations constantly, winning their battles – where we’re not. Any little detail, any little mistake gets exposed.”
It’s not hard to argue that top American players need more top competition from week-to-week. Creating a better model is much more complicated. Rumors of a breakaway MLS youth league, or a new and distinct professional division added atop the Development Academy remain just that.
The country’s size and scale means substantial new costs – financial and otherwise – would be nearly unavoidable, however. It might only serve to further insulate MLS teams from outside competition, an ongoing bad habit for the single-entity league.
In the meantime, coaches like Kleiban will seek out every possible crucible with which to harden their prospects as they prepare to venture out into the big, bad world of the global game.
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