It’s no secret that the U.S. has relied heavily on foreign players en route to Rio 2014. These players—who maintain dual citizenship via parental heritage or birth location—qualify to represent the U.S. even though many of them call another nation home.
While some praise foreign players as ambassadors of higher caliber soccer, others—most notably former coach Bruce Arena— criticized current coach Jurgen Kleinsman for including too many at the expense of homegrown products. Their presence has created a bit of controversy, but the real question for those of us hoping to see U.S. soccer reach a world-class level is: Why are homegrown players struggling to keep up?
The numbers are staggering. Since international play began in 2013, 12 of the 47 players who appeared in games for the Stars and Stripes spent at least a good portion of their formative years abroad. Seven of them are products of the "German Pipeline"—the nickname awarded to our German players, many of which are born to U.S. military members based there.
If you crunch population data from the U.S. State Department, you’ll find only a little over 1% of U.S. citizens were born abroad from 2000-2009. And yet, despite this, foreign players make up about 25% of our men’s national team.
This imbalance points to one clear problem: The U.S. fails to develop young talent as well as other nations. Consider how superior German youth development must be for the relatively minuscule population of German-based expatriates to produce 15% of our national team members. And it’s not as if children aren’t playing the game stateside. Today, 20% of adolescent boys play organized soccer.
Our struggles—a lack of experienced youth coaches, an emphasis on winning games rather than developing skills, not enough small-sided practice sessions, and pay-to-play youth leagues—are well documented. But have they been addressed?
One place to look is the Major League Soccer youth academies. For decades European professional clubs have maintained youth systems, but stateside most MLS junior squads only caught on about 5 to 6 years ago. Emulating the European model, academies recruit and groom the best young talent with dreams that a precious few will become stars for their senior side. Priming this talent requires a shift in philosophy, but coaches here seem to be on the right track.
MLS Executive J. Todd Durbin told sbnation.com, "We’ve done a great job in a short time. The next phase is to ensure that we really are getting the most amount out of this investment. We want to make good on this commitment to be among best developers of soccer talent in the world. That’s our goal, to be among the best."
Only time will tell.
In the meantime, the MLS hopes that Seattle Sounders rookie and homegrown academy product DeAndre Yedlin proves to be a sign of things to come. His inclusion on the 2013 All-Star team may well be a watershed moment. After playing with the young star, fellow All-Star and legendary Frenchmen, Thierry Henry, was asked what he though of him. Henry said in reference to Yedlin’s attempted header on goal: "Wow...One thing I can tell you. He can jump!"
Indeed, the future remains to be written for the next generation of U.S. homegrown talent. As a growing sport, soccer here is experiencing some growing pains, but expect more homegrown players to make the side in coming years. As for now, talking heads and bloggers dismayed by the prominence of foreign players should consider reinvesting their energy as volunteers for local youth teams.