The United States could be the world power in soccer. The team is talented, and the system IS very organized. We spend as a nation more than any other when it comes to soccer, and bought more tickets to the World Cup in 2010 than any other nation. Though it is ranked as the fourth or fifth favorite team sport, soccer is growing at an incredible rate. The MLS is growing. We have more youth soccer players, boys and girls, than any other nation in the world. So why are we being left behind on the world stage? Why is it that the US is considered the perennial underdog and not the greatest superpower? Is our greatest asset, youth soccer, holding us and our players back? Yes, and no!
Go through player profiles of some of the top European soccer players. Most of whom you might notice are signed by professional teams to their academy systems at a very young age. Sometimes players are scouted as young as eight years old. These players go through the academy system, playing against top teams, not just at the domestic and international level. Their soccer skills are constantly tested against the very best at their age group. Not everybody makes it, and players come in and go out at each age level, but by the time these players reach 19 or 20, they are ready to take on seasoned professionals with confidence. Sometimes you get someone like Wayne Rooney, and they make it to the pro stage as young as 16.
Can the United States compete with that? We could argue that our major soccer teams do not yet have the resources to attract and nourish the talent of the future, that this should instead be left to the system of youth soccer as it is already set up. The impetus of the soccer system in the United States should be about making it to the college soccer level. There are many advantages to playing college soccer, especially for a prospective high school athlete. There is the competition, a chance to improve and test yourself at a higher level, but also the ‘safety net’ that university education provides. This is the same for all college sports, but is it really true for soccer?
Case in point. Andy Farrell was signed by the New England Revolution as a number one draft pick through the Louisville Cardinals. He made an immediate impact on the Revolution, becoming a key part of their defensive line on the right hand side. That was until he came across 35 year old Thierry Henry who had been playing academy soccer since the age of six and Andy was taught a few lessons, to say the least. Ryan Nelsen, on the other hand, had a very successful career in England at the highest level and internationally with New Zealand after his college soccer career. Many of the USA national teams’ players have had distinguished college careers which have been the springboard for them to play in the MLS or WPS and become recognized internationally.
Can college soccer and academy soccer systems exist together? Absolutely yes! That would become the greatest asset to US Soccer. This will give the US two competing systems that will create experienced, talented, and educated soccer players. It also gives soccer players at different age levels multiple routes to pursuing their dreams or combining sporting and academic pursuits.
The decision for a parent and the athlete is certainly not one to be taken lightly. Neither route guarantees success and both have their advantages in the development of the player’s skills and education (academies will often pay for schooling). A great sounding board to talk to is your soccer coach, who might have gone through similar decisions at some point in their playing career. Their experience is invaluable, and they may shed more light on the subject than any article can.