As the United States prepares to face Argentina and Lionel Messi in the semi-final of Copa America 2016, CNN’s Motez Bishara asks, “Why can’t U.S. Soccer have its own Lebron James?” The question, of course, has perplexed American soccer fans for decades. Some Americans have long succumbed to pessimistic defeatism, proclaiming that U.S. Soccer should accept mediocrity when it comes to youth development because American superstar athletes will never choose soccer over other sports, which are more popular and lucrative in the United States. Others have sought to reassure their hopeless compatriots that it will someday be possible to produce an American Messi or Ronaldo if U.S. Soccer’s bold overhaul of youth development manages to ameliorate the win-at-all-costs mentality of the youth soccer culture in the United States. If we can convince coaches and parents to focus on skill development over winning, they contend, we can start to produce American players with a legitimate chance of playing in Europe.
Fulham’s Emerson Hyndman and Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic, after all, joined their clubs’ academies at only age 15 and clearly had the skills to succeed. The reason for their success is no mystery to experts of the game. Both Hyndman and Pulisic received adequate technical training at an early enough age because they both come from soccer families. Hyndman’s grandfather is Schellas Hyndman, one of the most successful soccer coaches in American history, winning over 400 college games and honored as the 2010 MLS coach of the year after he led FC Dallas to the MLS Cup. Pusilic’s father, meanwhile, currently coaches for Borussia Dortmund’s academy.
Unlike most American sports, where size and athleticism often trump technical ability, making it difficult to determine who has “what it takes” to become a professional until well after most players graduate high school, the technical demands of soccer are surprisingly onerous. Arsène Wenger, the master scout and tactical genius of Arsenal, famously explained in an interview with FourFourTwo that “at 12 you can detect if technically a player can make it or not.” That’s right. At twelve years old, one of the world’s most accomplished managers insists that he can determine if a player has the technical ability to play at the highest level! It is from that pool of technically gifted players that professional academies begin to find the players who can progress enough to make it to the first team. “At 14 to 16,” Wenger contends, “you can detect if physically he will be able to cope with the demands of professional sport. And from 16 to 18 you can start to see if a player understands how to connect with other players. At 20 the mental side of things kick in.”
If Americans are serious about producing a player as dominant as Messi or Ronaldo, then more coaches and parents will have to buy into the idea that youth development should focus almost entirely on skill development before the age of 12 to give our athletes a realistic chance of performing well in professional academies at age 14-15, whether at MLS academies or professional academies abroad.