Improving the US National Team: Homecooking and Patience
US National Team Coach and Technical Director Jurgen Klinsmann has taken on the role of punching bag since July. It has been the rockiest stretch of his tenure so far, following a fourth-place finish in the 2015 CONACAF Gold Cup, a crucial loss to Honduras by the U-23s in Olympic soccer qualifying, and then last Saturday’s defeat to Mexico for a berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup. One of Klinsmann’s former players, Landon Donovan, suggested that this degree of failure would cost a coach his job in another country.
Although Donovan correctly described the itchy-trigger-finger mentality that permeates many soccer federations, it’s an attitude that is truly unfounded. What coach anywhere can have a significant impact on results on the field? Does Donovan think that a different coach can transform Jozy Altidore into the international-class striker that US fans have been waiting for? Honestly, it’s the players who win and lose games. But is there a formula out there that can lead to success?
The answer is yes, but those seeds are only now being sown for US Soccer. And that crop will not be harvested until long after Klinsmann has coached his last game for the US.
The formula for success starts at the youth level and it starts early. Over the last 20 years, the number of American teenage boys who have been evaluated by foreign scouts and who wind up playing professionally at a high level has been on the rise. But players like Donovan, Claudio Reyna, and Damarcus Beasley (to name just a few) only represent the handful of players who have played consistently well on the big stage. All of these players have contributed substantially to the US National Team. In order for the National Team to have sustained success, a pipeline is necessary to continue to develop new, young talent to replace players once they are no longer able to contribute.
This is where the US appears to be struggling, however. After seeing his international career abruptly ended just weeks before the 2014 World Cup finals, Donovan retired from the sport entirely at the conclusion of the 2014 MLS season. Where is Donovan’s replacement in the talent pipeline? After watching the US spend long stretches on the back foot against Mexico last Saturday, it’s clear that no one in the player pool possesses that kind of spark and creativity. When a coach trots out three holding midfielders (Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman) is his starting lineup, the proactive approach promised by Klinsmann when he was hired is more concept than reality.
The template for creating this pipeline of talent was written by AFC Ajax. The Amsterdam club has been one of the best clubs ever at cultivating homegrown talent. Despite the economic consequences of the Bosman Ruling that transformed Ajax from a European powerhouse into a developer/seller of talent, the club continues to consistently contend for the Eredivisie title, which they have won 33 times, in addition to 18 Dutch Cups. They have also won the Champions League (or European Cup) four times.
This sustained level of achievement starts with youth development and the commitment to give young players the challenge and responsibility of first-team football. The current Ajax roster contains 12 players that came up through their youth system. Of those 12, only one is older than 25. Nine of those players are in regular competition for a place in the Ajax starting lineup every week. And these are not players who are being thrown into action just for the sake of providing them with high-level experience. Since 2000, Ajax have won the championship six times and have finished outside the top three in the league just twice. Needless to say, Ajax’s young players are key contributors to the club’s success.
Domestically, there is no equivalent to the Ajax system. But give MLS credit, as they are pushing their clubs to get with the program. There was a time not so long ago that youth academies at MLS clubs were an abstract concept. Now that the league has mandated that their clubs run these academies, the time to get young players into a professional environment will be shortened.
One MLS club that appears to be ahead of the curve is FC Dallas. Their first-team roster lists seven Homegrown Players, none of whom are older than 23. Three of their players, Victor Ulloa, Kellyn Acosta, and Moises Hernandez are regular starters, while a fourth, 20-year-old goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez has been coach Oscar Pareja’s first choice for the last eight matches.
Pareja’s faith and confidence in his young players has paid dividends. Dallas have been near the top of the Western Conference all season long.
When other MLS clubs become this productive with their academies, no one will wonder where the next Landon Donovan will be found.