State of Youth Development
By Tim Froh
Contributing Writer – Climbing the Ladder
While Freddy Adu’s recent transfer to Portuguese club Benfica has sparked endless debates about Freddy’s quality as a player, rumors of Danny Szetela’s move abroad have sparkedmore pointed debates about MLS’ ability to develop young talent. With each subsequent expansion, MLS further dilutes its talent pool, with each passing year making youth development more and more important to the league’s sustainability. But MLS is still lagging behind where it ought to be, struggling to develop its youngest talents. This struggle is inherent to the current system, one that is unprepared to deal with young talents and all the mental baggage that accompanies them.
In recent years, MLS has made tremendous strides in improving the quality of its soccer. The reserve league, first implemented in the 2005 season, was meant to give young players an opportunity to gain game experience when they were unable to play for the first team. However, as Jordan Russolillo and Jeff Curtin pointed out to me when I interviewed them, the reserve league is still very much an unfinished product. Too often are these teams understaffed, often forcing them to use "guest players," and thus negating any kind of cohesion that might have been forming on the field. Likewise, there are only twelve reserve games every season, meaning that players can often go up to one month without having played any competitive matches.
For those who are lucky enough to make the first team, development is a possibility, but for those who are not, true development is drastically more difficult. But there is still something to be said for the mental aspects of development that is often ignored when discussing this subject. That is, the idea that some players may never develop at all, regardless of their situation. This is a problem that is not confined to American players. There will always be those who are mature enough to develop and there are those who aren’t. This is especially important when fans heap scorn on MLS for the stunted development of players like Guillermo “Memo” Gonzalez, David Arvizu, and Marvell Wynne, among others.
The reality of course is that MLS clubs, like those of any other competitive league in the world, will play what they feel is their best eleven, regardless of how much “talent” a given player might possess. There is very little infrastructure for youth development and as a consequence, many of the more talented young players don’t have a situation in which they can continue to develop their talent and get in-game experience. This is why the harsh criticism of Sigi Schmid, and indeed, the entire Columbus Crew organization, is uncalled for. How can Sigi be blamed for not playing a young man who, until very recently, was totally out of form and playing at a standard below MLS level? Likewise, how can the Crew organization be blamed for the stagnation of the once-talented Kyle Martino? Most fans forget that it was a violent injury in the 2003 Confederations Cup that derailed Martino’s national team and club career and not the oft-criticized (and, might I add, rightfully so) Greg Andrulis.
However, MLS coaches and clubs are not entirely off the hook. It was clear from the moment that Szetela was sent to Columbus that he would need to receive special attention to help develop the mental aspect of his game and his life. His maturity as a person and as a player was a very slow process, and one that Sigi doesn’t seem to have facilitated. Still, Szetela is a tremendously gifted player whose main impediment was himself and not his club situation. He, unlike another former Schmid player, Guillermo Gonzalez, realized this and since the U-20 World Cup has started for the Crew. If anything, it was clear that Danny needed to stay in the United States, if not simply to mature. It looks even more unlikely now that he could have handled a move abroad at sixteen. But coaches across the league still don’t seem to know what to do with these exceptional young talents, as evidenced by no less than Bruce Arena playing striker Josmer Altidore on the wing. While MLS coaching has improved in the last few years, there are still enormous strides to be made, especially with respect to youth development.
MLS has proved a successful path for plenty of young players, but it’s record with especially young talents (sixteen-eighteen year-olds) is mixed. College players like Clint Dempsey, Ricardo Clark, and Bobby Boswell have transitioned relatively easily to the demands and physicality of the league. However, younger players have always struggled. Some, like Bobby Convey (who struggled in MLS) and Michael Bradley transformed their time in MLS into solid European careers. Others though, like Gonzalez and Santino Quaranta never were able to physically adjust to the league and could not mentally transition to the lifestyle. Youth academies and the reserve league will help, but fans must realize that not all players will be able to take their game to the next level. Some players will thrive anywhere, some need the right situation (location, coaching, etc.), and some others may just never make it at all. Young players will always want to move abroad, whether it’s the allure of fame and fortune, or the exhilaration of playing in the world’s best leagues, but MLS is saying and doing the right things to ensure that these young players will have a place to develop and grow their games.