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The Purgatory of the American Prospect

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Banned from international club play, Americans will continue to struggle to reach their true potential

USA U17 v England U17: Nike International Friendlies Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

The American men’s soccer youth movement has demonstrated recent promise.

The under-17 National Team recently finished second in the 2017 CONCACAF U-17 Championship. Despite the eventual final loss, the squad dominated play through their first five matches, but were unlucky to concede a late goal and fall in penalties to Mexico, a team they had previously beaten in the competition. The Baby Yanks will head to India this upcoming October for the U-17 World Cup.

The under-20 National Team has proven more consistent. The boys reached the 2015 U-20 World Cup quarter-finals, where they lost in penalties to Serbia, the eventual champions. In 2017, however, the U.S. has only lost one match – a February 18th 1-0 CONCACAF Group Stage defeat to Panama. Following a string of strong performances, the Yankees recently won the the 2017 U-20 championship on March 5th by defeating Honduras on penalties, their first ever time winning that tournament.

The highest levels of U.S. Men’s soccer therefore appear to be on the rise. While these national performances reflect a certain level of federation strength, the issue lies in the forced club purgatory of our individual stars. Andrew Carleton and Josh Sargent, two stars of that U-17 team, are examples of this struggle.

FIFA Regulations are particularly strict in reference to the professional careers of minors. These regulations essentially ban international club play by minors. There are, however, certain exceptions which Americans can take advantage of.

According to the U.S. Soccer Federation’s website, there are three official exceptions to the rule:

1. The player’s parents move to the country in which the new club is located for reasons not linked in soccer.

2. The transfer takes place within the territory of the European Union.

3. The player lives outside the country, but no further than 50km from a national border. In addition, the club with which the player wishes to be registered in the neighboring association is also within 50km of that border.”

If you think that sounds confusing – you’re right, it does. The essential bottom line is that under-18 American nationals with no international ties are limited to a club career in the United States until they reach official adulthood.

A few Americans have managed to skirt this regulation in pursuit of access to European club infrastructures. Wonderkid and embodiment of American soccer hope Christian Pulisic is the prime example of such a pursuit.

Borussia Dortmund first fell in love with Pulisic when he was 15.

As Sport Illustrated’s Grant Wahl put its, the Hersey, PA native “possessed a combination of speed, vision and soccer IQ that Zorc (Dortmund Sporting Director) had never seen in an American his age before.”

Pulisic signed with Dortmund in February 2015. He was 16 years old. By January 2016, he was a regular on the first team; albeit on the bench. As we all know, Pulisic’s career has since taken off, as the young American has appeared 36 times for Dortmund, scoring 7 goals in the process. Not bad for an American who just recently turned 18.

Christian Pulisic has a Croatian passport. His grandfather Mate was born in Croatia, the most recent country to join the European Union. Due to his grandfather’s ties, Pulisic was able to secure a Croatian passport in January 2015, thereby allowing him to play for Dortmund 20 months sooner than he could without it.

As previously stated, one of the exceptions to the ban on minor internationals is “the transfer takes place within the territory of the European Union.”

Pulisic, as an E.U. citizen, was therefore allowed to play within the Union’s border before his 18th birthday. Despite identifying as an American, in FIFA’s eyes, the youngster was a European and was therefore granted access to Europe’s world-class youth programs.

Pulisic’s success – and access to Dortmund’s renowned youth program – is not available to most Americans. Andrew Carleton and Josh Sargent are different stories. Carleton’s only professional option before turning 18 was Atlanta United FC. While Sargent currently plays for a local club team called St. Louis Scott Gallagher and is rumored to be under the Homegrown Player jurisdiction of Sporting Kansas City. Sargent has spent training spells with PSV Eindhoven and FC Schalke, but his future development will largely rely on the American infrastructure until he turns 18.

Unlike Pulisic, the majority of up and coming Americans are therefore forced to hone their skills within our borders. While as a nation we are proud – and rightfully so – of countless things, our male soccer development is not one of them.

Haji Wright was one of Pulisic’s U-17 teammates. A LA Galaxy Academy player from 2012-2015, Wright has been on Europe’s radar for some time. After winning the Gold Boot in the 2013 Nike Friendlies, Wright was invited to train with German club Schalke. As an underage American, however, Wright’s flirtation with Europe was limited to just that — flirtation. His United States passport prevented him from playing in Europe until adulthood, despite the fact that he had attracted European attention by the age of 15.

As a result, Wright was forced to sign with the New York Cosmos. While Wright expressed his excitement at the deal, he didn’t actually end up doing much for the club. In his one year with the Cosmos, he only made three appearance for the first team.

Wright’s Cosmos contract expired on December 13. He signed with Schalke in April. Despite the foreign interest, Wright was forced to rely on a faulty American federation and club system to foster his development. There is no question that Wright would be a better contemporary prospect if he had been with Schalke since 2013, rather than with the Galaxy and Cosmos.

For the last 20 years, U.S. Soccer’s reforms have been playing catch-up with Europe. The U.S. has mirrored France’s national training center (see: Bradenton residency program), Spain’s 4-3-3 success (see: 2011 youth curriculum shift), and even Germany’s private auditing firm following their World Cup win (see: U.S. hire of Double-Pass to audit MLS and youth academies). Although we appear to be moving in the right direction, we are quite literally behind the times. Clearly, our best prospects would be better served by developing in Europe’s up-to-date systems, rather than our poor copycats.

Other development issues include:

(1) The pay-to-play obstacle

“players who are under 15 and want to compete at a high level need to impress in a tryout and then their parents need to shell out between $1,000 to $1,500 per year”

— Elliott Turner, The Guardian

(2) Propensity of competition

“we're behind because those guys [Colombia, and the world] have more miles in their careers”

Oscar Pareja, FC Dallas manager, former FCD academy director

(3) Inability to develop soccer intelligence

“what’s missing is soccer intelligence, an understanding of how to play the game”

— Owen Coyle, former Burnley & Houston Dynamo manager.

(4) The incapacity to deal with adversity

“I think we’re afraid [in the U.S.] to push kids or put them in difficult situations…people are more concerned about protecting them than preparing them to overcome obstacles”

— Giovanni Savarese, New York Cosmos head coach

Honestly, I could go on. Although the American soccer federation – and our domestic leagues – are improving, our best youngsters are still better off in Europe. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of our talent cannot escape these confines.

Everybody isn’t as lucky as Christian Pulisic.

In the mean time, since our youngsters are stuck stateside, we have to spend the money – and the effort – to invest in their success. Only when these individuals are gifted with a similar level of development as, say, Dortmund, will our national teams be able to truly compete for their respective World Cups.