By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 24, 2017) US Soccer Players - Major League Soccer faces a myriad of challenges if it is going to reach its self-stated goal of becoming one of the top leagues in the world anytime soon. Without thinking too hard, things like television ratings and national relevance stand out as problems that have no easy solutions but are crucial to any progress. Things like winning the continental championship and attracting existing soccer fans who currently ignore the competition loom large for anyone who wants MLS to be more than a middling competition in a massive country. Solutions won’t come tomorrow, but there’s at least some reason to believe in progress on a shorter timeline.
There’s one challenge connecting all of the above issues that requires significant investment and the utmost patience: youth development. Even as MLS invests more and more money into its academy structures, there’s a recognition that getting better at teaching up-and-coming talent to play the game at a level that will make MLS better requires outside influence. That means hiring foreign coaches while the American scene improves. Unfortunately MLS can’t attract enough of the former, and can’t afford to wait for the latter.
Which leads to things like Major League Soccer’s partnership with La Liga. In the interest of strengthening ties between the North American competition and the Spanish top division, a group of MLS academy directors and coaches traveled to Spain to get an inside look at the operations of several of the country’s academies.
“La Liga and Major League Soccer (MLS) are establishing closer ties and stepping up their collaboration," Spain's league revealed in an official announcement. "In recent weeks, academy directors, coaches and officials from several franchises in the highest tier of the United States' soccer pyramid have visited LaLiga's facilities and exchanged knowledge with the leading Spanish experts on educational methodologies for the training of players and coaches alike.”
Details involve academy directors attending a workshop this week with a host of speakers initiating them the ways of the La Liga methodology. A group of nine coaches got behind-the-scenes looks at academy life at Malaga, Atletico Madrid, and Espanyol. The hope, clearly, is that they will take some of what they see back with them to the United States and Canada and apply it to growing the next generation of domestic talent.
This is not the first partnership with a European entity meant to improve the quality of coaching in the MLS academy system. In April, MLS announced the third iteration of a collaboration with the French Football Federation that provides a 14-month youth development course. Since launching in 2013, 40 coaches have taken and completed the course. The coaches earn an “Elite Formation Coaching License” or “EFCL”.
The La Liga program is extension of the EFCL program available to those who complete the FFF program.
These efforts to accelerate the knowledge and level of MLS academy personnel are difficult to measure in the short term. Adopting what each of the releases about these programs calls “best practices” isn’t going to show immediate improvement.
That doesn’t mean these programs aren’t important or only serve as PR fodder and window dressing. By all accounts, getting an EFCL isn’t easy and requires a real commitment to the craft. There’s real education happening.
Whether MLS applies these lessons appropriately is an open question. It’s up to each individual MLS team to take its newly learned group of coaches and put them in a position to succeed. Identifying talent is the key aspect of any academy program. That's more difficult for American and Canadian clubs than any team in either France or Spain. The base level of ability in those countries is higher, the geography smaller, the opportunities greater, making the chances of producing senior level talent that much better.
That changes nothing for what MLS needs to do. Partnering with foreign entities like the FFF and La Liga provides immediate credibility for programs that don’t have much prestige in the wider soccer world. That’s not a small thing when it comes to keeping some of the top American talent in the country when clubs around the world are anxious to poach the best this country has to offer.
It took entirely too long for MLS to get their academy structures off the ground. Investment in academies will not satisfy everyone, especially those upset with the lagging nature of American youth talent.
MLS needs to lay those bricks. They need the foundation to build. How long it will take for those bricks to begin to resemble a house is the question. Until that day comes, MLS will continue to chase expertise from beyond its borders.
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