The sun poured out its vehemence on Tulsa like a reckless hose and I wandered under it, between sidelines and around team huddles and through encampments of jittery parents. I’d drive my camping chair into the ground just back from the chalk, pull out my notebook and wait. And then I’d move on, to another field, like a minstrel or a merchant. It was solitary in its way, but shared experiences are their own kind of community.
The US Youth Soccer National Championships is not the biggest club event on the calendar, but it isn’t so far off. U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy playoffs has siphoned the prestige role into its own tank, framing the discussion like Jupiter framed the orbits of its planetary neighbors in those primordial days. The biggest planet with the most gravity always determines the trajectories of the bodies around it.
USYS, once the only national team recruitment tool in town with its formerly ubiquitous ODP program, is now one voice among many issuing forth from the forest. Its development systems are still in place. It still runs a league, called the National League, that spills into state cups, four regional tournaments and a national postseason every summer. There is still value in those, whatever it may be now.
More importantly for identification purposes, the league offers a parallel track to the next level. Not everyone who’s worthy will make a Development Academy roster. There are myriad reasons for that. Some players have the resources or desire to travel hours to practice at the nearest DA facility. Some don’t. Miguel Ibarra didn’t. Neither did Cristian Roldan. Both emerged from SoCal’s Coast Soccer League, which carries a wide USYS affiliation, to find their own unlikely pathways to pro soccer. Some want to moonlight with their high school squads, something the DA doesn’t allow. Some develop later, precluding them from the prying gaze of U.S. Soccer’s small cadre of scouts. And some simply value their teammates, their coaching staff, their community club. There’s rarely a clean break between one league and another. The colors blend.
I was in Tulsa to watch – and talent scout, for our own editorial purposes – those USYS nationals. The event was big, sprawling its vast legs onto somewhere in the vicinity of 16 fields at any given time, each team culled from its own region, vertical slices cutting the nation into fourths. As each series of games went off, I fell into a pattern of review, reflection and notation. Every game had at least two or three players worth scouting, worth dropping into some mental dossier for later. At the U13 and U14 levels – an age at which, unlike the U16s and U18s, the DA does not have a monopoly – there were often more, if you projected out some, as you must.
Aside from my own duties there, I couldn’t help but notice a singular truth. The scouting presence there was so sparse at times that I was the lone talent evaluator perched as I was bench-side. On more occasions than I can count, a quick sweep down the sideline and all you saw were players, coaches and parents.
One moment has continually pried its way out of my memory. The U18 group at events like these is often a wash, mostly due to the proximity to the next level. Players switch off because they’ve been committed for a year-plus already, or the club feels it’s done its most important developmental work already. Those U18 matches are typically less scouted by colleges primarily because the animal’s been picked over. The carrion left, they reason, isn’t worth eating.
I can’t remember when I first saw Maicon Abreu in Tulsa, whether it was FC Golden State’s first U18 boys match or second or third. But the star that hung over this kid’s head was so iridescent from so many angles that I inevitably found my way back, first for their semifinal and then again for the final. Abreu scored the winner in both of those matches, including the goal that gave his side the national title. Abreu danced like Astaire on the right flank, heel-clicking past fullbacks, pinching inside with unbelievable calm and showing that rare knack for always hovering around dangerous positions. I have seen USL matches and Abreu can play in that league yesterday.
Scouts know the welling, rollercoaster feeling of seeing a gem in his natural habitat for the first time. I was certainly not the first to identify Christian Pulisic, but I can remember watching him in 2013 and thinking that my wagon was already hitched. Were I scouting for a Big Club, I’d have pulled him into our orbit that day. Seeing Abreu was not dissimilar. After Abreu stepped over and through a ball he’d vined around a defender to cut into open space, I smiled thinly, leaned forward in my chair and looked down the sideline, hoping someone was there to share the moment. There was no one.
Abreu, a U18, was not committed to a college, had never played in the YNT system, was not playing in the Development Academy and left Tulsa with no more national notoriety than when he arrived. The thought of Abreu falling through cracks that have no bottom – not to mention the handful of other players in his shoes at the tournament – triggered something sad in me that I didn’t recognize as injustice until my plane left Oklahoma.
There is a scouting crisis in this country. How we approach it and what we do with that information will ultimately determine how wide those cracks are, and how many players fit into their yawning depths.
U.S. Soccer’s scouting system is reactionary in the way emergency care is reactionary. The difference between preventative health care and reactive health care is an ocean. Catching something early is often the only way to avoid the metastasizing effects of neglect. Wait too long and you have already lost. Our current scouting apparatus is reactionary, not preventative. That has to change.
A sizable chunk of the issue is not of U.S. Soccer’s own making, not of anyone’s own making other than continental drift. The U.S. is simply too damn big to stretch your arms around it. Look at it this way. Since 2002, Germany has established 52 national schools and 366 regional training centers, where 1,300 coaches are employed on a full-time basis. To say nothing of the staggering monetary investment involved here, Germany can fit into the United States 28 times. This is the Ritz Carlton of development systems, and it is condensed into micro-regions.
U.S. Soccer and MLS, the former of which runs the DA in which the latter invests, have never had the DFB or the DFL’s resources, but even then their reach seems absurdly small compared to the panic-inducing vastness of the country. In an interview with Soccer America last year, the DA’s director of scouting Tony Lepore noted that U.S. Soccer employs nine full-time Technical Advisers, who act as the federation’s full-time scouts. Its entire scouting network, including part-time contributors, numbered about 100. And these primarily concentrate on DA matches – somewhere in the vicinity of 15-25 matches per academy club per season.
Nine full-time scouts and 100 in the entire network for a nation two and a half times the size of the entire European Union. A crisis indeed.
U.S. Soccer is not to be paraded through the braying public and shamed by the bell and the walk. It’s mostly a victim of resources, allocation and geography. If you can only pay so many people and only send them so many places, the end result, in many ways, is written for you. Blame the decades of soccer radio silence in this country propagated by the original NASL’s utter lack of developmental attention in the 70’s. U.S. Soccer is using the funds it has via the resources it has largely created.
For their part, MLS clubs largely don’t have the resources to scour their regions on their own. In practice, they tend to focus their scouting efforts more on international signings, players with the ability to make immediate impacts in such a parity-driven league. There isn’t as much time to develop when every team is breathing down every other team’s neck and your purse strings are as taut as a snare drum. Their academies are largely products of their club’s stature. Clubs hold events, players flock. SKC isn’t diving into Iowa, even if it does unearth players who make first team impacts on occasion.
Even if MLS does spend $30 million on dev every year, that’s $1.5 million per club. Bundesliga clubs spend about $80 million per year. Per club. Just to put that number into global perspective.
We are asking a scant amount of butter to stretch over a mountainous piece of toast. I also attended the USYS Region IV tournament in Boise, Idaho, which, as you can imagine, was even more lightly attended by scouts and college coaches than the national event in Tulsa. If a player there without the resources or opportunity to be seen in front of a wider audience was lost, well then, what do we do?
We need more soccer scouts, preferably full-time scouts, in this country. How do we get there? What’s the solution? Quick-fixes don’t exist without piles of cash refreshing the system, but this is one very good place to start.
Regional teams are badly needed in US. Each DA division should have a select squad that trains and competes regularly pic.twitter.com/CgAINHgSQz
— John Curtis (@JCurtisSoccer) July 31, 2015
Curtis, for what it’s worth, came through Manchester United’s system with Phil Neville in the mid-90’s and now works in U.S. soccer development.
There are other avenues for player identification, but there need to be orders of magnitude more. US Club Soccer’s id2 program does good work in that regard, and its id2 select team has so far been a quality barometer for some of the nation’s best U14 players since its foundation five years ago. The U17 World Cup is studded with former id2 players. In 2014, Tony Meola accompanied the id2 squad on its tour of Italy to scout for U.S. Soccer. Which is all good. But it isn’t enough. A drop in the proverbial bucket.
Those regional teams are a more permanent version of what U.S. Soccer already does, which is establish pop-up one-day training centers throughout the year to bring in players from any league. This is one of the few national avenues we have to identify non-DA players en masse in a more professionalized environment. As is, those moments are few and far between. Pushing out regular regional teams, even if they’re only confined to the DA at first, is at least the start of something more regionally and locally focused.
There is ultimately no substitute for boots on the ground. You’ll get a large proportion of players by simply lighting the beacons on the DA’s mountaintops and hoping the best players heed their glow. But not all will, and that’s more the case in this country than any other. We have so much competing sporting noise in the U.S. from more nationally popular sports that simply setting up the tent isn’t enough. And everyone knows that. But there isn’t a ready alternative yet. The resources have largely determined that.
You might not have yet heard about Koray Easterling, but that’ll change soon. Easterling is a senior at Biloxi High School in that small Mississippi port city drooping into the Gulf of Mexico. His mother is German, and his father was in the service, which granted him dual citizenship. He came of age in Biloxi playing high school and local club ball for FC United, which carries an affiliation with USYS. U.S. Soccer didn’t unearth the left back (who needs left backs, anyway?) until technical adviser Juan Carlos Michia attended one of Easterling’s games in the summer of 2014 on behalf of FC United coach Tony Schibeci.
U.S. Soccer liked Easterling. He was invited to train with the academy in Atlanta, and this summer he earned a training stint with Manchester City. The English giant liked the brickhouse defender with wheels enough to take him on a tour of Spain with City’s U18 team, where by all accounts he performed admirably. If he doesn’t catch on with City, he’ll likely have his pick of DI schools when he gets back.
But the system was too late. Easterling was 16 by the time he was widely identified. By then much of his game had calcified. It’s no one’s fault because it’s everyone’s fault.
How many Easterlings are out there, playing anonymously in Biloxi and Des Moines and St. Paul and Flagstaff and Billings? It’s not a question we can answer right now, because we don’t have the infrastructure or the scouts to say.