Soccer in the U.S. has undergone a series of difficult, halting lurches toward improved player development specifically in the last four decades. With more at stake each year, U.S. soccer continues to define and then redefine what an American development model looks like going forward. For decades, nobody really knew.
Now, with the 2014 World Cup knocking on the doorstep, it’s more clear than ever how far the U.S. has come in developing players for the next level. And perhaps how far it has yet to go.
“When I started, it was the best system we had in place for the time in our history,” says Steve Sampson, who coached the U.S. national team from 1995 through the 1998 World Cup. “But it was incredibly flawed. And many characterized it as being dysfunctional.”
Sampson’s hire in 1995 jumpstarted a more philosophical era for U.S. Soccer. Soon after he replaced Bora Milutinovic, the former Santa Clara head coach met with USSF secretary general Hank Steinbrecher, USSF president Alan Rothenberg and then-USSF vice president Sunil Gulati, and the brain trust hatched a plan Sampson called ‘The Vertical Integration of U.S. Soccer.” Under its auspices, the federation would gradually begin taking more control of the player development cycle that had until then been firmly controlled by U.S. Youth Soccer’s Olympic Development Program.
How to go about doing that, however, was clear as mud.
From its founding in 1977 arguably until the foundation of the Development Academy in 2007, the Olympic Development Program (ODP) served as the main club arterial from foundational youth leagues up through the U.S. Men’s National Team. U.S. Youth Soccer’s breadth of national coverage and entrenched state-by-state development model was the only game in town capable of erecting a bridge from anonymous youth leagues in rural America to full senior team caps. As the extension of the World Cup drought in the 80’s can attest, it was an imperfect system.
The trouble for U.S. Soccer was that this model was fragmented. By the time Sampson arrived in 1995, each state had its own director of coaching, and each of the four regions had its own regional director, who in turn hired his own staff. U.S. Soccer not only had no say in this hiring process, but its staffs often had minimal input into the players called into the camps. By the time the players were funneled into national camps where U.S. Soccer could guarantee a scouting presence, Sampson says there were “hundreds if not thousands” of times in the 80‘s and 90‘s when U.S. Soccer staffs came across talented players who’d eluded their narrow spotlight at younger, more developmentally crucial ages.
And the trouble was there was no easily discernible fix. The problem was bigger than any one man, or even one organization. Even by 1995, with two successful World Cup qualification cycles in its back pocket, U.S. Soccer scouting was almost entirely reliant on the vitality of an ODP program it didn’t run and word of mouth spread by a network of college coaches who weren’t on the U.S. Soccer payroll.
“We would literally ask them, ‘Who are you recruiting? Who are you looking at? Who around the country is special enough to play for our national team?’” Sampson says. “And literally those college coaches would make recommendations to the national team staff, and we would bring in players based on those recommendations, sometimes sight unseen.”
That was partially because the system had become so calcified, and Marcelo Balboa was one of the most glaring examples of its blurry focus.
Balboa was raised in a family with a father-coach who was a former professional player in Argentina, and with father leading from the sidelines and son establishing himself as one of the best players in a deep region, that Fram-Culver club team gradually became one of the best in Southern California. Balboa repeatedly tried out for ODP rosters, but he didn’t make a team until he was 18.
History relates the rest. Balboa went on to become one of the best defenders in U.S. history, and his 128 national team caps in 12 years still ranks fourth on the U.S. all-time list. Could he have been even better had he been identified and developed in a unified national team structure earlier in his teens? The narrow tunnel from the bottom to the top at that point in U.S. soccer history didn’t allow for an answer.
The U.S. national team was on its own island, and it was relying largely on someone else’s ferry to bring its players ashore.
“When I made (an ODP camp), I remember we played regionals in Colorado Springs, and it was just an experience and a half,” Balboa says. “There weren’t a lot of opportunities for us beside ODP back then. I think it does still have a place in modern soccer, but now there’s so many outlets to be looked at that it makes it a lot easier to be recruited.”
While Balboa was coming up in California, a player just five months his senior was making similar waves in a soccer hotbed of a different flavor on the opposite coast. John Harkes was raised by Scottish immigrants in Kearny, N.J., the same town of 34,000 where Tab Ramos and Tony Meola had their beginnings. Ramos himself was discovered almost accidentally at a U20 camp he only found through one of his coaches on the state level.
Harkes’ father Jim played 17 years for local club Scots-Americans and coached for another 18. In that sense, Balboa and Harkes, who got his start with local youth club Thistle FC, were able to circumvent the identification system by being brought along in families with abiding roots in the game from their time in other more soccer literate countries. At a time when the system wasn’t necessarily well-oiled enough to create a continuous chain from the pre-high school youth setup to the senior team, those bonds were crucial.
“There weren’t the established academies and those platforms for us,” Harkes says. “There was a lot of experimentation and saying, ‘Hey, how can we funnel and get these kids into an environment where all these players are playing together.’ So we were all part of that brand new stuff.”
Harkes, though, was able to use the ODP system early in his career to his advantage. He can remember traveling to Penn State as a youth player to compete in an ODP camp at 14, and thanks in part to his exposure both there and in the highly visible Kearny soccer scene, Harkes was folded into the national team setup nearly the second his career at the University of Virginia under then-coach Bruce Arena ended in the spring of 1987.
Another difference was the relative authority of high school soccer. Now, coaches hardly scout high school games, if at all. With U.S. Youth Soccer, US Club Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Federation all running their own year-round club leagues, high school soccer has slowly lessened in importance for elite boys development in all but a few select examples. But that wasn’t always the case. For many of these players raised in darker developmental times, high school soccer was their most consistent avenue for minutes.
“Bruce Arena can tell you, and Dave Sarachan recruited me, they saw a lot of my Kearny High School games,” Harkes says. “Certainly my Thistle days played a part as well, but there was a huge emphasis on high school back in the day.”
U.S. Soccer’s task in identifying talent was particularly difficult because the type of player the national team was looking for wasn’t necessarily the priority for the independent staffs running each of the 55 state association ODPs. Some of those issues persist today in a lesser scale thanks to the broad geographic expanse that often hides talent from the nine full-time scouts and around 80 per diem scouts employed by the federation. But the gems were even harder to unearth in the days before the Development Academy, US Club Soccer’s id2 program and NPL as well as U.S. Youth Soccer’s National League.
“There wasn’t a good connection between the Under-20s and the Under-17s leading to the national team,” Balboa says. “There wasn’t much integrating or watching guys play. I don’t think there was much of a link back then.”
Cobi Jones is living proof. Jones grew up just 62 miles away from Balboa in Westlake, where he began the process of backing into an iconic U.S. Soccer career.
It was a bizarre time to be an aspiring soccer player in the U.S. With all its glitz and gimmickry, the faltering NASL - which hadn’t had a TV deal since 1981 - folded three months before Jones’ 15th birthday in 1985. The U.S. didn’t reestablish another full-time professional outdoor league until MLS’ arrival in 1996, and in the interim the only professional domestic option for Jones‘ generation was the Major Indoor Soccer League, which had limited use for players specifically after national team careers. Many blamed the infamous failed qualification campaign for Mexico 1986 on the primacy of the indoor game.
"Different game, totally different game," says Perry Van Der Beck, a member of the national team from 1979-85. "There were some players who played indoor and had some very lucrative careers that were going back and forth. But to play internationally when you're playing a full season of indoor soccer, you just need more time to prepare. It's just the way things were. You just had to deal with it."
When the MISL folded in 1992, the year Jones got his first national team cap and two years shy of the moment soccer broke American barriers at the 1994 World Cup, the game’s professional prospects in the U.S. had never looked bleaker.
With the national focus off soccer, Jones, like so many others of his era, initially had little interest in a professional soccer career that seemed more distant and unattainable than ever. Jones never made a youth national team, never made an ODP roster and walked on to the UCLA men’s team as a non-scholarship player his freshman year. And it wasn’t that he didn’t have the talent. He never tried out.
“I didn’t know much about it,” Jones says. “I was the typical American kid growing up at that time who played soccer for the fun of it. Really didn’t see a whole lot of it on TV, if at all. In my world, there was no one to look to.”
Unlike some of his national team peers, the identification system itself wan’t the impediment. For Jones and thousands like him at that time, maturation at the youth level was stunted by an oft-overlooked component; simple lack of competitive interest. Even the most robust developmental pathway from youth to the highest club levels is useless without the desire of the player greasing the tracks. And until the 1994 World Cup and then MLS gave the U.S. back the game on a multi-platformed level, general interest scraped the floor.
So in a lot of ways, Jones’ generation spent much of its time simply competing to compete.
“It was just that competitive nature of individuals to want to win,” Jones says. “It might not have been, OK, I’m going to a tournament to be seen by national team coaches, but it was about going to a tournament just to compete against other teams and be the best team out there. We look at national teams and everything they’re doing with scouts, I believe and am a testament to the fact that there are a variety of routes to get to where you want to be.”
Things have changed. Since 2007, the Development Academy has been providing showcases and outlets for top players, and the U.S. national team is headed into its seventh consecutive World Cup next week. The game is steadily growing in influence, television clout and domestic viability in America. And while it’s nowhere near its goal, adjusted for historical perspective things have never been this good in the history of the game on these shores.
So where does U.S. soccer go from here?
There’s a consensus that the Klinsmann era brought more accountability down to U.S. Soccer’s own regional staff overseeing Development Academy training sessions and providing written reports of the most promising players. The amount of weekly training sessions among club teams everywhere is gradually catching up to more successful overseas academies, and programs like the Philadelphia Union’s YSC Academy and Shattuck St. Mary’s provide intensive residency atmospheres.
And while the ODP system has not been totally outgrown, those academy systems are rapidly overshadowing its formerly unchecked sphere of influence. Even so, 14 of the 16 players on the current 23-man World Cup roster who grew up playing soccer in the United States are products of an ODP camp, all but one of whom came of age in the era before the academy. DeAndre Yedlin, who joins Aron Johannsson as the first two Development Academy alums on a U.S. Soccer World Cup roster, was an ODP player before joining the Seattle Sounders academy in 2010.
For Sampson and players like those who broke through in the 80’s and 90’s, the process of America planting its own flag in the fertile developmental soil has never been in a more prominent place. And that’s not something you forget.
“The other day I watched a game, I saw (U20 coach) Tab Ramos, I saw the Under-23 and Under-20 coach, I saw the Under-18 national team coach sitting on the bench,” Balboa says. “Tell me there’s a connection now. And that’s what we’ve been missing.”