The perils of predicting prospects’ futures

He was a young American phenom, joining a pro team in high school. He was compared to the best players of his generation. After signing in Portugal, things started to go wrong.

Freddy Adu? Nope. Jovan Kirovski, subject of a compelling profile by the San Diego Union-Tribune‘s Mark Ziegler.

Kirovski came of age in the days before the breathless hype machine we know today. He left California for Manchester United’s youth academy at age 16. By the time he was 19, everyone wanted him to be on United’s first team, where he was expected to be an impact player. Everyone except the work-permit overlords in England, who must have been especially grumpy the day Kirovski’s permit application crossed their desks.

Sports Illustrated noticed his plight, and he was the subject of rumor and wishful thinking among the community of soccer fans taking root on the relatively new World Wide Web. But in those pre-Fox Soccer Channel, pre-Champions League multicast days, few fans could see him play.

Kirovski did indeed play in the Champions League — on a championship team, no less. He made two appearances on Europe’s grandest stage as Germany’s Borussia Dortmund claimed the 1996-97 title.

The next few years: Some mildly productive stints at various clubs through a series of transfers and loans. More U.S. national team appearances but no World Cup games.

If anyone really knew why Kirovski didn’t become the USA’s Wayne Rooney, he or she would be wealthy. Every club in the world would love to know the answers.

So what’s different about Freddy Adu, whose last few detours are well-chronicled in another SI piece, a recent Grant Wahl story? The biggest difference is the attention Adu received in an era of media proliferation and globalization. European clubs noticed him around age 12. Then he, unlike Kirovski, excelled in every international youth tournament, even when he was two or more years younger than the rest of the players.

Not that excelling in a U-17 or U-20 tournament is a perfect indicator of eventual success. Check Kirovski’s peers from the U-17 level, and you’ll find only one person — John O’Brien — who had any sort of impact on the national team. It’s not just the USA — scan the other rosters, and you’ll see only a handful of recognizable names.

That reality hasn’t stopped the American soccer community from loading up expectations higher and higher with each crop of youngsters. The 1999 U-17 team that was unlucky to finish no higher than fourth provided something akin to a Golden Generation. Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu, Bobby Convey and Kyle Beckerman have gone on to productive careers, though most of that group inspires constant debate over whether they’re living up to their “potential.” Others from that team had short MLS careers.

Going to “Europe” has proved to be no sure-fire solution. Kirovski never had the expected breakthrough. Claudio Reyna did, though his career also refutes the notion that college soccer ruins players.

That missing link between 16-year-old success and international glory is almost as elusive as Step 2 of the Underpants Gnomes’ scheme. Those who say otherwise are probably selling something that isn’t worth buying.

But the good news for players is that there are many paths to relative success. Ziegler’s story on Kirovski is a terrific read, and the Galaxy player seems to be at peace with himself, enjoying the late stages of a wild ride. Plenty of reasons to congratulate him for getting to that point.

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