It was only two short years ago that the United States Men’s Under-20 team failed to qualify for the U-20 World Cup, losing to Guatemala in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament.
At the time, the loss painted a grim picture of talent development in the United States. How would the U.S. ever compete on an international level when their younger players can’t even qualify for their own World Cup? If you thought the U.S. was lagging, you would have been right.
What a difference two years makes.
In two short years, youth development has taken a new shape. It’s becoming less and less common for the U.S. to throw kids out on the field against what are essentially professionals from other countries. Some credit goes to Jurgen Klinsmann, who demanded an overhaul of the entire U.S. soccer developmental system. The rest goes to the burgeoning youth soccer programs in the U.S., including that of the MLS Academy system.
In 2008 MLS changed it’s rules to allow teams the first crack at signing players developed in their academy system. The fruits of that rule change are just now starting to be felt. Every MLS team is allowed to sign two homegrown players a season who will not count against the cap. The benefit of this rule has led teams to look towards the academy system with greater frequency for talent acquisition. They’re investing more, bringing in more players, and subjecting those players to a professional environment earlier in their development – much like the rest of the world.
In 2011, the U.S. team that took the field featured only one player developed in the MLS Academy system; Moises Hernandez from FC Dallas. It also had many other players who were in academies across the globe, but the ability to develop domestically when possible adds a stronger dimension to the coming crop of U.S. players.
The 2013 team had a more professional look and it should come as no surprise that many of the players who starred were Academy or homegrown products including players such as Luis Gil, Jose Villareal, Shane O’Neill, and Will Trapp. The squad also featured two players who are products of Santos Laguna’s youth system in Mexico, Benji Joya and Daniel Cuevas; the product of Mexico’s raiding of the Southwest for viable talent.
It all came together to produce a team that fought El Tri hard in the final and had more than a few breaks go against them that could have made a difference in the end result. It was an extremely encouraging display by the U.S. two years shy of their historic flop in Guatemala.
All eyes will now be on what the team does in Turkey this June and beyond.
Two years is all it took to change the look of this team, with the MLS Academies adding to the charge. The very enticing question is what will 2015 bring?