The great divide: US Mens soccer vs its youth teams

The FIFA holds its youth World Cup every two years (U-20) and most of the talent on display form the nucleus of the national teams that we see in the World Cup. Usually there is a good correlation between successful youth squads and the mens national team. The Youth teams have produced legends like Diego Maradona, Jorge Burruchaga, Gary Lineker, Gerson, Bebeto, Marco Van Basten, Figo, and many others.
Since the first tournament hosted in Tunisia, in 1977, the Argentinians have won three titles under Jose Pekerman (before he took over the Albiceleste), and the last one in 2005, for a total of five titles. The Brazilians have won four, Portugal 2, Spain 1, Yugoslavia 1, Germany 1, and USSR 1. The Italians, French, and English youth squads have not done as well but the break up of the youth squad titles are a reflection of how of the World Cup has gone with all titles divided between the South American and the European countries.
The USA, in the U-20 World Championships have done exceedingly well. In 15 championship editions, the US team has appeared in 10 of them. They have made the semifinals once in 1989 and the quarterfinals twice, in 2003 and the 1993. They have made the round of 16 four times.
Compare this to the 18 times the Mens World Cup has been held. The US qualified in 8. The US achieved a third place finish in the first World Cup, in 1930, the quarterfinals in 2002 and made a first round exit in 1934, 1950, 1990, 1998, and 2006. The US did not participate in the 1938 World Cup.
The players in the US youth squads have done outstandingly well, with Eddie Johnson picking up the Adidas Golden Shoe award in 2003 for the highest scoring player with 4 goals. Taylor Twellman scored 4 also in 1999, Chris Falklaris and Steven Snow with 3. The 2003 squad had three players in the FIFA youth all stars with Bobby Convey, Clint Dempsey, and Steve Cronin. In the other squads Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Kasey Keller, Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, Jeff Agoos, have all been mentioned as all star players. The only player to make the FIFA all star list is Claudio Reyna in 2002.
Lets look at the individual trajectories of Eddie Johnson, Golden shoe winner in 2003 and Lionel Messi, 2005’s winner. Johnson played in this World Cup sparingly, almost as an afterthought, a victim of Bruce Arena’s ultra conservative effort on attack with the 4-5-1. Johnson played well but was ineffective. He was largely forgotten with some muted criticism of his limited playing time. Lionel Messi, of Argentina, also played sparingly but was brought invariably as a partner to Carlos Tevez when Hernan Crespo and Javiier Saviola had run out of gas. He scored one goal and contributed to another. In the game against Germany that was decided on penalty kicks, the coach Jose Pekerman had to endure a storm of criticism for leaving Messi on the bench.
Eddie Johnson is back with his MLS club, Kansas City Rapids, with very little chance that any outside club in Europe is going to go after him to sign him on after his World Cup performance and his current form does not seem very encouraging either. His club is not doing well. In a few years, if nothing happens, Eddie Johnson might be a forgotten man and fade away from the world of soccer. Lionel Messi on the other hand is already signed up with Barca and plays with superstars Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Deco, and Gianluca Zambrotta. This is what is being foretold about his future:
“Messi is the future of Argentine football” – Diego Maradona
“I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi” – Diego Maradona
“He’s playing at the level of Diego in 1979 and a bit more” – Julio Grondona
“I have never seen a player with such quality at his age, not even Pele’ or Maradona were that good at his age” – Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
“The best way to stop Messi is when you play with 11 men and then you can double mark him, one player to stay on him and the other to help out. If it is 11 against 10 then you have almost no chance of stopping him.” – José Mourinho
Has the MLS closed the gap between the overachieving youth squads and the underachieving US Mens team?
Since the advent of the MLS in 1996, the youth squad have finished in the round of 16, in 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2005. In 2003, they made the Quarterfinals. In the sametime period, the US mens squad has become a fairly fixed feature in the World Cup, qualifying in 1998, 2002, and 2006. They have made the second round in 1998 and the QFs in 2002 before failing miserably in the 2006 WC. Overall, there seems to be a suggestion that the success at the youth squads seems to be rubbing off on the MNT too.
However, the MLS lacks the competitiveness and the quality that international players bring to the leagues elsewhere. There is one big reason for this and that is that the MLS is a single entity organization (a paradox in a country that prizes lassez faire capitalism). Internationally, the Swiss club FC Basel posesses as much clout as the entire MLS.
This World Cup saw the MLS contribute four international players to their country squads. Cornell Glen and Avery John (Trinidad and Tobago), Douglas Sequiera of Costa Rica, and Claudio Sanchez of Mexico. FC Basel provided Scott Chipperfield and Mile Sterjovski to the Socceroos, Koji Nakata of Japan, and Ivan Ergic of Serbia.
1) The MLS imposes a strict salary cap ($ 2 milllion ) that limits the amount of money that can be paid to bring a quality international stars. The league (rather than individual teams) contracts directly with the players, in an effort to control spending and labor costs, share revenue, promote parity and maximize exposure.
2) MLS senior rosters are limited to four international players and the total strength cannot exceed 18.
3) MLS is considered attractive to international players at their twilight of their careers, or slowed by significant injuries, journeymen, dysfunctional players, or as way stations to better European clubs.
In the past the MLS has managed to attract players like Branco, Roberto Donadoni, Walter Zenga, Lothar Matthaus, Luis Fernandez, Carlos Valderrama, Anders Limpar, Thomas Ravelli, Hristo Stoichkov, Mauricio Solis, and Youri Djorkaeff all in their waning years. The MLS has seen some international talent like Stern John and Jean Phillipe Peguero, come to the US in their early years but after their success, they are spirited away to European clubs . The MLS has also seen journeymen players like Mamadou Diallo and Diego Serna who impressed in their careers in the MLS but never made it their home.
Till these issues are taken care of the MLS will prove inadequate in translating the success at the youth level to the MNT.

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5 comments on “The great divide: US Mens soccer vs its youth teams
  1. Great analysis. I totally agree with the notion that the single entity is what’s slowing down the popularity and improvement of the MLS. So odd that a country built on capitalism and democracy would endure a league which was more communist than anything. The US National Team will not win anything until the MLS is made better or until all the national team players go overseas.

  2. Ahhh, back to something I can comment on.
    Eddie Johnson or not, the situation of Americans in European leagues is developing. There is no doubt in my mind that Donovan’s departure from the Bundesliga confirmed many European prejudices of American footballers. (More confusing to me is why noone has grabbed Dempsey!) But the fact is that American players will continue to be rare in the Euro leagues.
    I get the feeling that my English comrades on this blog would object, but I find the “linking” of American sport franchise owners with the EPL a huge step forward. Why not have Chicago be a “farm” team for Man U or the Rev have an arrangement with Arsenal? Houston with Barca? Let’s get cracking boys.
    Thus I think the criticism of business of the MLS, at this stage, is a bit unfair. Hunt and Anschutz do not want a repeat of the NASL. (And remember that Hunt worked the AFL into the NFL with great success.) From a BUSINESS perspective, what they are doing is very smart. They are attempting to achieve parity in the league to avoid the “Cosmos” syndrome and build a league to last.
    The salary cap is a recognition that spending big $$$ on players will bankrupt the teams and the league. Until the increase in fans and TV revenues (which is coming) justify raising the cap, I think it is a fine idea. We cannot afford another league failure.
    The downside is that the MLS is not the EPL or the Bundesliga or even the SFV. I suspect that the salary cap will be raised soon and the MLS will use the “Beckham” rule to allow a superstar outside of the cap. I also think if the USMNT can pursuade Klinsi to coach, the states will become a more attractive place to play for the “old timers” of the European leagues.
    I tell myself, “take a deep breath and be patient.” The US does not have to be number 1 in soccer today.

  3. I should have noted that I know that the EPL and other European leagues have “farm” systems already, but my point was that the linkage with help the MLS…

  4. Tilam
    Careful. I think you stepped into a hornets nest with that proposed EPL ‘farm system.’ English fans don’t seem to hold back when it comes to their soccer.

  5. SR, I suspected as much. I can feel the collective animus building as we write.
    “Farm team” is a loaded term, but I think some level of increased contact between the Euro leagues and the MLS would greatly benefit soccer in the States.
    Of course, I am REALLY not sure what is the benefit to the European clubs…

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