The never-ending quest for youth soccer talent

Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel has a must-read piece for anyone interested in U.S. soccer development: Alianza soccer program exposes overlooked Latino youth to elite training opportunities.

The details are worth reading, but for purposes of continuing without plagiarism, here’s the gist of it: A program called Alianza de Futbol is finding young Hispanic players in the USA who may not have had an opportunity to play elite youth ball.

In reading it, I thought of two people who nearly fell through the cracks:

– Andy Najar. Coincidentally, Tenorio wrote about his high school team adjusting to losing him to D.C. United. After moving from Honduras to Alexandria, Va., he was “discovered” playing pickup soccer at school.

– Clint Dempsey. He played a lot of pickup soccer and only made it big in club soccer when his family started making the lengthy drives to get him to Dallas.

No, Dempsey isn’t Hispanic, as far as I know. So this isn’t simply a question of ethnicity.

And Dempsey’s story may be more emblematic of the basic problem with U.S. youth development: This is a really, really big country. You’re not likely to have elite clubs everywhere. The next great soccer player could be in North Dakota, his or her parents drawn northward by the energy boom. He or she could be busing tables in New Mexico. Or in the inner city, geographically close to large clubs but financially and socially miles away. They could even be in a comfortable suburb but unable to make the time commitment to a major travel club because both parents are working and can’t drive them all over creation to practice and play 3-5 days/nights a week.

It’s not as if U.S. Soccer isn’t making an effort to find them. From Tenorio’s story:

The Alianza showcases are similar to the larger scale efforts of U.S. soccer to reach some of the same communities. U.S. soccer stages several hundred free “training centers” per year in cities across the country to identify players outside of its academy structure.

That’s good. It’ll never be enough.

And that’s one reason why I think soccer people need to pay a bit more attention to high school soccer. Not everyone can make the time and money commitment to play club soccer. High school soccer just extends the time a student spends on school grounds, which is actually a good thing for parents who are often scrambling to get kids home in mid-afternoon.

Another factor in scouting youth: As much as we don’t like to admit it, good athletes can sometimes pick up soccer skills in a hurry. I see kids in my U11 rec league who are new to soccer but have quickly progressed past players who have been in “travel” since they were 9. Some of those kids will play travel; some won’t. But we may see them at tryouts for the high school team.

And you see it among older players. When I took my E license class, one of the other students was a young Hispanic guy who drew attention with a 40-yard blast off a crossbar and his ability to leap for a header and snap his body like a salmon twisting in midair. Did he play in college? Sort of. He played basketball.

Stereotyping, as a lot of well-intentioned but arrogant coaches and pundits so often do, doesn’t help the search for talent. (No, coach — your inner-city program, as nice as it may be, is not the sole force pushing a revolution in the U.S. talent pool.) The next great player could be kicking around on a dirt field in the exurbs. Or playing basketball. So the pool has to be vast, broad and diverse — and not just along ethnic lines.

Where does this leave the Development Academy, which comes off as a bureaucratic ogre in Tenorio’s piece on Alianza? As much as Jurgen Klinsmann and company may try, it will never, ever be the only path to elite soccer.

As long as we remember that, the Academy will be fine. Just remember to keep those players humble so they don’t freak out when some kid from the streets of Nacogdoches, Alexandria or Rogers (Arkansas, home of the player in Tenorio’s lead) turns out to be their equal in the talent pool.

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Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

One thought on “The never-ending quest for youth soccer talent”

  1. Yeah there will definitely always be room beyond the ‘preferred structure’ for ‘outsiders’ to scour for talent in the US. It’s unfortunate that a hole this large exists for guys that, if they succeed, will certainly end up playing for Mexican clubs rather than MLS clubs, and possibly Mexico instead of the US. Perhaps US Soccer should try to get behind everything that’s working all at once, in order to have some shot at a benefit from it, even if it seems to ‘compete’ with the structure they’ve set up.

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