In the U.S., Momentary Stumbles, Inevitable Progress

La Liga logoCarlos Pérez is the chief executive in the United States of Spain’s La Liga. He is based in New York.

Major League Soccer has put down roots. And while the failure of the United States men’s national team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup is a definite disappointment, the signs of progress are unmistakeable and inevitable.

For years, the strategy in the United States has been to build a powerful and attractive league. MLS clubs did not have a grassroots structure and did not work to mine and develop talent in their local areas. That has changed. Allied with the U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy program, the aim is the development of young players to foster a level of superior technical and tactical skills, with less of an emphasis on competition at the early stages. MLS clubs pay for the training and development of their players. That scheme is common outside the U.S., but has only just begun here.

It is a costly endeavor, to be sure, but the clubs in the top-level league in the U.S. realize the importance of adopting European grassroots structures. Academy players are not part of other teams or leagues. They are for 10 months a year training and competing in excellent facilities and with professional coaches. Their progress is measured in international tournaments such as the Dallas Cup. There the academy teams of the MLS clubs compete and challenge academy teams from Mexico, Germany or Spain. The experience is indispensable.

Programs like the joint venture of U.S. Club Soccer and La Liga are designed to enhance the knowledge and approach of American coaches.

Despite soaring growth in the U.S., soccer still struggles to attract enough elite young athletes against the entrenched sports of American football, basketball and baseball. The National Football League is the most popular sport in the U.S. with college football, a sport that mirrors soccer around the world in terms of fan commitment across generations, is close behind.

Although their popularity and economic impact are indisputable, fewer and fewer parents nationwide are eager to see their children play American football because of the potential risk of concussion and brain damage. Increasingly, soccer is seen as an alternative, though, like all sports, it also has risks of injury. That said, the recent reporting and research into the dangers of American football have, between 2010 and 2015, resulted in a 10 percent decline in children’s participation in American football. To be sure, that sport is not going to go away, but concerned parents are already looking for alternatives and soccer is sure to benefit.

Even more players pouring into soccer will be beneficial across the board — increasing numbers of players, coaches and clubs. It is a multi-faceted approach that combines expertise, love of the game and a realization that young players deserve a safe environment. Already, youth programs are being urged to limit heading the ball until players mature, while also stressing that when concussions occur in soccer they are more likely to result from head-to-head contact or head-to-ground contact as opposed to heading the ball. The level of concussion incurred from soccer around the world pales next to its incidence in a single country — the U.S. among American football players of all ages.

Right now, with all the thousands of youngsters playing soccer, the U.S. still has yet to produce elites players, like the Spanish star and New York City FC striker David Villa.

From the days of the original, iconic Cosmos of the old North American Soccer League, who planted soccer’s seeds with superstars like Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, the strategy to increase interest in the sport has been to import great players, often to the detriment of developing domestic talent.

That has changed in recent years, but not completely. Players like David Villa and David Beckham, among others, come to the U.S. along with their vast experience, but extraordinary players like David Villa come not to a retirement league, but as an example of what it means to be a true professional. His approach to training, his willingness to serve as a mentor and upstanding example to his teammates — all of these are valuable intangibles that should not be underestimated.

The game’s success in the U.S. is not happening in a vacuum. It is, hopefully, only a matter of time before the U.S. produces its own David Villas. It is going to happen. Take my word for it. 

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