By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 28, 2021) US Soccer Players – American soccer has taken undeniable strides when it comes to player development. With that comes an increase in the reputation of the young American player in the hallowed halls of Europe’s biggest clubs.
It wasn’t that long ago that getting players from the United States into high-level European environments turned on the phenom. It took talented players who showed such immense promise that their potential overcame any hesitation.
But if you weren’t playing for the US youth national team in one of FIFA’s marquee events, getting a chance even to prove your worth to European clubs was difficult. The story of Christian Pulisic’s move to Borussia Dortmund is one of chance. The German powerhouse was scouting one of his youth national team teammates when Pulisic caught their eye.
Back then, few clubs had relationships in the United States that would help funnel young talent their way. Though Pulisic would quickly show his unique attacking abilities as a teenager in Dortmund, it would be a few more years before a new wave of American players arrived in places like Juventus and Leipzig and prompted a run on what America had to offer.
Few recent stories highlight the new reality for the American player than that of 19-year-old Jose Gallegos. The San Antonio native is fresh off a stint training with defending UEFA Champions League winner Bayern Munich, an experience born of Bayern’s willingness to mine for talent in the United States and San Antonio FC’s investment in player development.
Historically, player development hasn’t always been part of the equation for lower division clubs in the United States. Just running a senior team and keeping a business going is tough enough.
San Antonio’s success in pushing Gallegos to Germany for a high-profile tryout comes despite disappointment on the MLS expansion front. Not that long ago, San Antonio FC was actively making its case for a spot in the top flight.
A change in the MLS landscape, particularly the arrival of Austin FC, just up the road from San Antonio, changed the equation for the USL Championship operation. According to San Antonio FC managing director Tim Holt, there’s a silver lining of missing out on MLS expansion when it comes to player development.
“You’re limited by your ambition and your ability to execute and perform on and off the field,” Holt said. “We still think [USL] is a tremendous platform for us. And from a player development standpoint, which is a big part of the club’s identity here, it gives us autonomy and a lot of ways that we wouldn’t otherwise have, perhaps if we were in Major League Soccer.”
To be fair, Gallegos is both a unique talent and a product of converging factors around American player development. Holt didn’t hesitate to credit the player himself ahead of San Antonio’s system, though the former Orlando City executive believes in the efficacy of the academy model for his second-division club.
“Jose deserves all the credit for his development,” Holt explained. “Hardworking, humble kid, positive role model for our future academy players. And that’s what we want to be. That’s such a huge part of the club identity of San Antonio FC right now. Everybody sees the USL Championship team piece and we want to be in those big games that everybody aspires to play in. But there’s so much happening below the surface to change the future, both here in this market and for the sport in general.”
Putting money into an academy program means buying into a future that is not guaranteed. The reason so few clubs below the top division spend on player development is that any windfall can only come well down the road.
Holt pointed to the seeds San Antonio FC planted five years ago, ahead of any chance at MLS expansion. Seeds that are only just beginning to bear fruit.
“It was always a long-term build approach for us,” Holt said. “In 2016 we started with under-12. We didn’t jump into the 17s or the 19s, we started with under-12. Our academy is one hundred percent club funded, which means every one of those players on a scholarship and we’ve eliminated the pay-to-play obstacle. Now we have a group of kids that has been with us in our program with our club and our coaches in a professional environment that’s connected from the first team for five years. There’s this emerging group that we’ve invested in ourselves and in this soccer community and in top talent and believing in that.”
Even in the absence of big MLS money, the appetite for a similar commitment to player development is one of the missing cogs in the fully realized American soccer development machine. Working beyond the academy as a first-team feeder system and turning it into a revenue generator will help convince more clubs to put in the work.
“I still think we’re a bit of an anomaly in being a non-MLS professional club that is in the youth that’s investing in their players,” Holt said. “It’s an important part of the end game for us in terms of the pathway which extends beyond the reach of our club in San Antonio. The best players that come through here, SAFC won’t be the highest level which they play. And that’s fine. That’s a very positive thing. We’re one step that gets them going in careers and it’s great for us overall.”
Intrinsic to the ability to turn talented young players into dollars to reinvest in various parts of a club is that increased interest in the American player. Gallegos is the leading edge of investment in local talent for San Antonio FC. Holt is already seeing how the landscape is changing for clubs up and down the American professional soccer ladder.
“I think it’s changing. You can almost see it changing in real-time,” he explained. “There’s a group of players that are being developed in markets outside of Major League Soccer at USL clubs that are just as heavily invested in youth player development, professional player development. Then I think it starts to change the mentality. But it’s a process and I think that process is occurring. I don’t think we’re at the back end of this process and you need success stories. Hopefully [Gallegos] will be one of those. He will not be the last out of this program. And I know, you know, just based on what a whole bunch of other USL championship clubs are doing to get aggressive in that space, it’s an exciting time.”
American soccer already has several success stories in Europe, though none have emerged from USL academies to make their mark at the highest level. The signs are pointing to a day, sooner rather than later, when America’s second division is capable of producing players ready for the game’s prime time.
More From Jason Davis:
- Daryl Dike goes on a run in the Championship while Orlando City waits
- Mixed results for new MLS coaches
- The MLS youth movement in 2021
- Besler, Agudelo, and MLS free agency
Logo courtesy of San Antonio FC