The US Youth Soccer system is - kindly put - a train wreck. ODP, MPS, elite teams, "super-clubs," school sides, club teams, regional teams, town teams, Nike Development academies, and showcase programs are holding the States' top prospects and league back from challenging the world's best.
Citing Simon Kuper's Soccernomics, the United States shares the right with China, to boast the world's largest player pool, which sits at approximately 24,000,000 people, as of 2009.
While the myriad of programs may be appropriate to survive the interest that people have in the beautiful game, these 'soccer machines' must be subdued, as accommodating millions comes at the expense of talent.
True footballers struggle to scrap through to the heights of the USSF and not a soul knows who will be the next Donovan, Dempsey, or Howard. Create as many 'high level' clubs as you like, but they will not separate "the good from the great," as Martin Tyler would say.
The demands of these teams are hard to meet for parents and players. Most club programs cost over $1000 per year and with the world struggling to crawl back to form from the Great Recession, the fees and the commitment club programs require is far too much to ask of many families.
This leaves inner-city kids out, which is devastating to the future of American soccer. In Portugal, Ukraine, and Brazil players are brought up playing football on the streets. Cristiano Ronaldo played from morning until night in Funchal, as did Andriy Shevchenko in Kiev, and Garrincha and Pele of Brazil's urban scene.
The US system is very dynamic. However, the English Premier League and The Football League has a far more successful program. Its nation's FA scrapped a path similar to that of the USSF today in which players were drawn from parent-coached teams, upon the inception of the Premier League 20 years ago.
Enter the "Academy" program, in which player development is left in the hands of professional and semi-professional clubs. At elementary school ages, most commonly at the U-9 level, players are adopted by teams ranging from Liverpool to Sheffield United.
Today's top English footballers are a result of this epiphany, as Steven Gerrard was a talent produced at Kirkby, alongside Jamie Carragher, while Everton developed Wayne Rooney, and lower league clubs produced future EPL stars, such as Jonjo Shelvey and Chris Smalling.
Antigua and Barbuda have followed suit, basing their future on the international stage through Antigua Barracudas. The island of 85,000 people is not a goldmine of Maradonas, though the USL team has encouraged a cohesive unit that performed admirably against the Stars and Stripes in a recent World Cup qualifier.
The CONCACAF minnows are said to have taken the "Team America" approach, which consists of condensing the national team into a club side. The USSF had a go at this decades ago, but the team failed to hit a winning stride both domestically and abroad. Starting in 1983 and ending before the year was out, the men in red, white and blue hoops finished their first and final NASL campaign with a 250% winning percentage (10-20).
A "national club" may have solved an island's problem, as they have never gone further in World Cup play (the Barracuda-based side defeated favorites Haiti to earn the right to face the likes of the US). However, for a world power, such an approach is far too dense.
Since the demise of Robert Lifton's team, the system in America has become broader than that of the spectrum of light.
It is next to impossible to separate the men from the boys in youth football, as there is no distinguishing ODP or MPS clubs from elite teams who travel or compete at a local level. Several MPS teams in Massachusetts have players who struggle to find a starting position in their high school's squad, thus contradicting the organization's mission statement, in which MPS claim to, "strive to produce players who can compete at the highest level of soccer throughout the world."
But if a player is in such a system and cannot play for their school, how are they supposed to compete for places at USL and MLS sides several years down the road?
These varying programs are relatively new - to be fair - and the materialistic approach towards the "cupcake generation" of the United States (so called, because at the end of every event, sporting or not, all are rewarded with a prize, no matter how well or how poorly they performed), has caused a haughtiness and hubris that can only lead to failure.
From observing the behavior of aspiring sportsmen, it is disappointing to hear of a youngster who chose one club over another, not because of the coaching, but due to the adidas kit they will receive at their first practice.
At trials for FC Greater Boston Bolts, players are shown and sized up for Nike equipment before they are even selected for their specified team.
There is too much going on in the US, thus instead of using tons of different routes, the system must be streamlined.
Overseas, Clairefontaine in France, and the English and German academy systems have put concentration on developing the stars of tomorrow ahead of State Cups.
Academies have seen Southampton produce Theo Walcott and Alexander Oxlade-Chamberlain, while Ajax of Amsterdam brought up Dennis Bergkamp, and Nacional of Uruguay created Liverpool's Luis Suarez and Sebastian Coates.
All the programs above differ from those in the US through one simple, yet crucial detail: internationally, tomorrow's Ballon d'Or winners are manufactured via established football teams.
While some organizations have ties to clubs in and out of the country, these relationships are far from stable. For example, Massachusetts' Inter SC, recently switched to the red and black stripes of their San Siro rivals.
Some claim that American arrogance causes the nation to want to do things differently from everybody else, hence the relegation-free MLS and USL, not to mention the seeded playoff setup, in which a team with a winning percentage as low as 500% can be crowned champion.
This may work for other American-dominated sports, but to become the best in the world's game, the US must aspire to the plans of the planet's powers. Even though the parental system produced the likes of David Beckham, England has been far more fluent post-1992. The English School's Football Association has been left in place, allowing youngsters to represent their locality, as opposed to dropping the sport completely. Furthermore, clubs are limited to recruiting players within a 60 minute drive, until the elder age levels are eclipsed. High school and college soccer in the modern game's homeland has a history of producing strong players, as it did long ago with Blackpool's Stanley Matthews, and recently with Welsh star Ryan Giggs. The key to the ESFA's prowess is its limits, as it does not hold the same amount of power as its American counterparts.
When Usain Bolt sprints, his arms are not flailing, because that creates a nightmare for a man trying to move 100 meters in under 10 seconds. If Bolt did not streamline his approach to make himself aerodynamic, he would get across the finish line with a slower time and nothing to show for his efforts. Look at youth football in the same way. Too many directions, means too much drag.
The Academy system is simple and it produces.
MLS and USL organizations must be the main source of player development for the United States to succeed. Talent is spread everywhere, disallowing the nation’s top footballers from collaborating on a daily basis.
If the US wants to develop the world's best, it will put politics aside, and let player growth occur at professional academies, while those left out battle for a select few spots. This not only consolidates the focal point of American talent, but also keeps players motivated, straying them from an entitlement-based atmosphere, because somebody will always be breathing down their neck to abdicate them from their pedestal.
A feature to spur clubs in this regard was suggested by Dallas Texans president, Paul Stewart. The man who runs the club, which produced Clint Dempsey said, "We would like to see the USSF provide financial support to the clubs that develop the top players, with a bonus system for players who make the national teams and who become professionals."
Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, told FOX in a pre-match interview for the network, over the winter, that America's system is too complex. The managerial mogul was spot-on in saying that, as the States lack a sustainable plan to develop footballers who can compete consistently at the highest standards of the beautiful game.