I spent the last semester studying abroad in Puebla, Mexico. In these past few months I’ve had the opportunity to see three hometown teams in action. First and foremost is Puebla FC, the Primera Division team that employs resurgent DaMarcus Beasley. Second is fellow professional team BUAP Lobos, who made a respectable run in the Liga de Ascenso playoffs. And then there is Lobos Prepa, an amateur team stocked almost entirely with youth players.
Lobos Prepa, play in the third tier which is called la Segunda Division and is split into two sections, each of which is then split into two geographic zones. Lobos play in zone one of the developmental half of the pyramid. These teams are only interested in growing players and don’t compete for promotion into the Liga de Ascenso. Lobos Prepa made this choice because the BUAP Lobos are currently and have been for most of its existence a second division team in the Liga de Ascenso. It makes little sense for the same organization to operate two clubs in the same division from the same city who in fact share facilities and the stadium at Ciudad Universitaria.
The sole purpose of the Lobos Prepa team is to develop young talent who can then go on to play for BUAP Lobos or other professional clubs.
The Mexican Primera Division has 18 teams and the Liga de Ascenso currently has 15 because one club was dissolved after the 2011 Apertura campaign. Compare this to the 19 teams currently in Major League Soccer (MLS) and the 18 clubs combined in the North American Soccer League (NASL) and United Soccer Leagues Professional Division (USL-Pro). With the exception of promotion and relegation, the top levels of the soccer pyramids in Mexico and the United States are fairly similar. Most of the top markets in terms of demographics (the 18-35 year old males) and television viewership are represented by professional soccer clubs. What I find more interesting is the comparisons of lower division and youth soccer between the neighboring countries.
Within the Segunda Division, there are 30 clubs in two geographic zones in the “Liga Premier de Ascenso” and there are 15 and 13 clubs respectively in the two zones of the “Liga de Nuevos Talentos”. Add to this the 216 clubs split into 15 groups that make up the “Tercera Division”. 16 of these teams are direct affiliates of professional clubs in the Primera or Liga de Ascenso and are thus ineligible for promotion to the Segunda Division.
Compare this to the 72 clubs in the United Soccer League’s Premier Development League (PDL) and 49 clubs in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). NPSL and PDL share the de facto fourth division in the United States behind the professional leagues, USL-Pro and NASL. Many of these clubs serve only to develop college aged players during the summer, NCAA’s offseason. However, some clubs participate in the U.S. Open Cup and several organizations in both leagues have begun or plan to begin paying their players. This would create a divide between those clubs who solely want to help their players develop and those clubs with ambitions for full professional advancement. A distinction along these lines already exists in Mexico’s Segunda Division between the Liga de Nuevos Talentos and the Liga Premier de Ascenso.
There are only 121 clubs in the American fourth division between the PDL and NPSL. In Mexico, there are currently 274 clubs in the national amateur leagues. This could quite possibly be one of the reasons why Mexico produces so many more talented players than the United States does. The 16 teams in the Tercera Division that are affiliated with professional clubs fill their rosters with youth players from those parents clubs and prospective players from s. A further 7 teams in the Liga Premier and 7 teams in the Liga de Nuevos Talentos in the Segunda Division do the same.
The discussion of the function and utility of reserve teams has come to the forefront during the 2011-2012 English Premier League season. Former Chelsea manager André Villas-Boas and Everton manager David Moyes have both criticized the inefficiency of the reserve system to help young players grow. The current system in place in the English league system is for big clubs (in the Premier League or the top of the English Championship) to loan out their young developing talent to lower division teams for anywhere from a month to an entire season. While this does provide young players, whose ages generally range from 16 to 22, the opportunity to play against full professionals and alongside experienced league veterans, these on-loan players don’t always find themselves in a manager’s plans especially if there is a change of coaching staff at the club.
The alternative is for a club to register a squad in the Premier Reserve League prior to the start of the season. Most of us applauded the resurrection of the MLS Reserve League for the 2011 season, but this should be seen as another step in a larger process and not the finished product in and of itself. Not every club in the English Premier League operates a team in the reserve league, however, and Tottenham stands as a notable exception from the Reserve League. Participation in the 16-team Premier Reserve League serves two primary functions, first to keep reserve players fit when they do not get regular football with the first team, and second to allow players returning from injury a path to regaining full fitness. Neither of these is necessarily conducive for an 19 year old player trying to fulfill his potential.
In England, there is also a national u-18 league, the Premier Academy League, in which youth squads from 40 clubs across the professional leagues in England play in 4 groups. A u-16 league also exists within the same structure, but it is not as competitive and the league doesn’t keep a table. This is very similar to U.S.S.F Development Academy League that is finding success in this country.
In Mexico, all 18 Primera Division clubs have teams competing in the national u-20 league and u-17 league, while 22 professional clubs from the Primera and Liga de Ascenso have teams in the national u-15 league alongside all-star teams from both the Segunda and Tercera Divisions. This structure was created for the 2009-2010 season, during which Tigres won the u-20 league. Since then, Club America has won the Apertura 2010, Clausura 2011, and Apertura 2011 at the u-20 level.
The recent success of the Mexican u-17, u-20, and u-23 team can in part be attributed to the implementation of this national youth league system. In the summer of 2011, the u-17 team lifted the World Cup in front of a home crowd and the u-20 squad finished third at the World Cup in Colombia, while in 2012 the u-23 side went undefeated to win the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. In the u-17 World Cup and especially in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, Mexican sides have shown a professionalism that has set them apart from their competition.
U.S. Men’s National Team supporters may not like to hear it, but American player development could learn a thing or two from Mexico. Introducing professionalism at the u17 level, as the Development Academy has done, and improving u20 and u23 training regimens at the club level (and doing away with stupid roster restrictions or at least changing them to allow for more youth players on a senior squad) can only mature our young players in the United States. In Mexico there is a rule that pushes along the promotion of youth players to the senior team. Not only do the roster rules in MLS fail to promote young players in this way, but they may actually punish teams that attempt to bring younger players into their squads.
The Regla 20/11, which went into effect in Mexico in 2005, dictated that at least 765 minutes (eight and a half 90 minute matches) from the 17 matchdays should go to players 20 years 11 months or younger. Teams that did not meet this requirement would be deducted 3 points in the standings at the end of the season. Three teams have been punished for not meeting this requirement over the rule’s lifetime, namely: Jaguares of Chiapas in the Apertura 2005, Club San Luis, and Queretaro FC in the 2006 Apertura. Some examples of successful products of the 20/11 rule are Patricio Araujo and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez with CD Guadalajara, Luis Angel Landin with CF Pachuca, Andres Guardado with Club Atlas, Ernesto Serrato in CF Monterrey and Rogelio Chavez of Cruz Azul. This rule sped the development of two stars for the Mexican National Team, Guardado and Chicharito. If the U.S. could produce another Clint Dempsey or another Brian McBride or Michael Bradley by introducing a rule similar to Mexico’s, then why not?
While the rule is not without detractors, its implementation has produced talent for the national team pool sooner than they would have otherwise. This is an extension of a home-grown talent rule that is employed by leagues around the world. Though there may be an incentive for teams in MLS to sign academy products to homegrown player contracts, in that these players don’t count against a team’s salary cap, there is no push to get young players on the field. MLS teams are driven by an immediate need to produce in the current season. This translates into coaches putting proven players and veterans on the field whenever possible. A recent Washington Post article delves into a few of the problems of developing young talent in the current U.S. league system. There are several extenuating circumstances complicating the picture but there are also several steps a stronger U.S.S.F. could easily implement to quickly help young players and increase the competitiveness of U.S. youth national teams.