The group selected by Jurgen Klinsmann to take part in World Cup Qualifiers this September is one filled with people at every possible spot on a career arc. Guys like Christian Pulisic, Jordan Morris, and Bobby Wood are all taking off at the club level, getting opportunities and seizing them when they come. Kyle Beckerman and Chris Wondolowski are understandably on the downside of their career. And then there are guys like Jozy Altidore, the captain-in-waiting to Michael Bradley, who will most likely hit the century mark for international appearances within the next year, and is third all-time on the goals list for the U.S.A.; the guys who have seen tremendous highs and lows in their careers. Many are tired of Altidore and his inconsistency, and pine to see Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris crack into the dominance Altidore has in Klinsmann’s starting XIs when he’s healthy. Morris and Wood are both younger and less experienced, but many think their upsides are much higher compared to Altidore, who has reached the peak of his development arc.
Except for one problem: Jozy Altidore is 26 years old. And in U.S. terms, that puts him squarely into the last big growth spurt of development.
The phenomenon of late-blooming soccer players isn’t exclusive to the U.S. by any means (Diego Forlan comes to mind as a player who didn’t hit peak production until he was nearly 30), but the complex (read: slapdash) development model of the U.S. certainly exacerbates it. Top clubs in the United States are only just now forming academies that don’t cost kids a small salary to participate each year. Residency programs and U.S. scouting reward expensive travel and club teams, typically at the expense of low-income and/or minority players. College soccer delays professional development well past the age that many players in Europe get their first taste of first team soccer in leagues far more advanced on every level than MLS.
Many American soccer players that have taken multiple different paths to the national team have demonstrated late-bloomer tendencies, seemingly regardless of the different U.S development paths they took. Landon Donovan (who entered professional soccer as a teenager, like Jozy), had an awful 2006 World Cup which resulted in him losing the captaincy of the USMNT, and left many wondering how the green 20-year-old they saw streaking down the field just four years before had managed to regress as he moved into the “prime” of his career. Another four years later, at 28, Landon played the hero in South Africa, and could have (read: should have) played a major role for the U.S. in 2014 at the age of 32 as well.
Other players, such as Clint Dempsey, played for two to four years in the NCAA ranks, delaying professional contracts into their 20s. Dempsey, for all his accolades and the spot he enjoys on the all-time scoring list, 2nd, didn’t move to England until he was already 24, and it wasn’t till he was closer to 30 than 20 that he became a major contributor for both club and country. Brian McBride didn’t secure a week-in, week-out starting spot for Fulham until he was 27. Marcelo Balboa did not have a contract in any sort of stable professional league until he signed with Leon in Mexico at 27. Great player after great player the United States has produced did not really hit their stride of production until their late twenties.
This is a problem compared to the rest of the world’s development schedules. Manuel Neuer, 30, has been one of the best goalkeepers in the world for just about the majority of his professional career. Leo Messi has scored 314 goals for Barcelona, another 55 for Argentina, and he’s not even 30 yet. In England, Germany, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, and France, players are coming into their own at a younger age than American players typically do.
This is apparent just in U.S. Soccer’s own rhetoric. In an article about Terrence Boyd, Josh Gatt, and Joe Gyau’s respective returns from injury, all three players are described as young—25 and younger. By the time he turned 25, Chicharito had 28 international goals and 43 caps to his name. Boyd, Gatt, and Gyau have 15 appearances combined, with 0 goals. Yes, all three have had long injury lay-offs derailing their respective international prospects, but all three are also still considered young by U.S. development standards, because according to U.S. development standards, career peaks are not expected until the late 20s. Late bloomers are not the exception in United States soccer. Up until now, they’ve pretty much been the model.
Christian Pulisic and many players in his age group appear to be trying to bridge the gap between the United States and the best countries in the world. While Pulisic gets first team minutes for Dortmund, his cousin, Will, plays for Dortmund’s U-19s, his youth teammates Haji Wright and Weston McKennie both play in Schalke’s youth system, Mukwella Akale and Luca de la Torre are trying their utmost to crack the first team at Villareal and Fulham, respectively, and even a bit further up the development cycle Lynden Gooch has managed to make himself a Premier League starter after being left off the U-20 World Cup team a year ago. Are there signs that development might be accelerating in the states? Yes, but it appears that that acceleration has as much to do with players getting out of the States and its myriad of development systems as quickly as possible in favor of European youth academies. That’s in stark contrast to the current USMNT roster: 18 of its 26 players either played NCAA soccer or started their professional careers at MLS clubs.
So on one hand, don’t worry too much about Jozy, at least not in development terms. He’s right on schedule (injuries notwithstanding). In fact, given his current numbers, he has a shot at being the highest scoring American player ever.
On the other hand, do take a second to worry about how the U.S. identifies and develops its players. The country is massive and soccer is not the institution here that it is in Europe, which complicates things like youth development. But if the U.S. wants sustained success on the soccer field, it has to start wondering how it’s best players only seem to be reaching the height of their powers when they’re hitting 30, as opposed to 25 or 26. Because if the goal is to become an elite soccer nation, what we’ve been doing just hasn’t worked well enough.