Instead of having to keep track of the alphabet soup of league names and sift through the overlapping league structures, wouldn’t it be easier if some central body (say, the U.S.S.F.) stepped in to regulate national leagues? This step would make it easier for fans, but also national scouts, to keep track of the best young talent in the country.
There is definitely the simple economic argument against this line of action, which says that if this centralized approach was viable then it would have already happened. I don’t buy that. I think it is in fact feasible but the will has not been present from those in charge
In a previous post about high school and college in the United States, I mentioned something that I think is relevant in this discussion. High school soccer persisted (and in most respects is still persisting) until a viable alternative was created and cultivated. The U.S.S.F. hopes the Development Academy League grows to fulfill that role. In the same respect, college soccer will be the path of choice for the majority of aspiring soccer players, even those from MLS club academies, until a national u-20 (or u-21, or u-22) league is established and has enough resources to adequately develop players the way the DA currently does.
In much the same way that Academies were originally designed to accommodate and complement high school soccer by working on a different schedule, current leagues like PDL and NPSL are only active in the summer months. The infrastructure that the USL umbrella currently has at its disposal cannot be ignored when considering how to bridge the gap from youth development to professional development. In addition to the u-12 through u-20 leagues, they also operate an extensive patchwork of mostly u-23 (mostly amateur) teams in the Premier Development League. On top of the PDL is the USL-Pro, which consists of 11 professional clubs, 10 in the United States. USL also operates a the women’s W-League and the Major Indoor Soccer League. The organization has specialized office staff for each endeavor and has provided a great deal of stability to soccer in America, despite poor retention rates in its leagues some years.
If a national-regional u-21 league was mapped out, it would be make a great deal of sense to utilize the existing structures. Taking advantage of Super Y-League clubs and Super-20 clubs, or in many cases the same clubs running teams in multiple age divisions, is a smarter way of tapping into potential player pools but also of utilizing the contacts and administrative infrastructure which is already established and primed for competition.
There are also countless u-20 and u-23 summer leagues for college aged players to stay fit or have fun, hopefully both. Among this group are local leagues affiliated to United States Club Soccer. In 2011 the USCS u-20 division had five regional leagues of five teams each; New York/New England, New York/New Jersey, New Jersey/Pennsylvania, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest. For the summer 2012 season, USCS also introduced a u-23 league system. USCS also presides over 13 adult amateur conferences, each with between one and five member leagues, which consist of anywhere from five to sixteen teams.
The existence of these leagues is not a problem and I’m not suggesting that all clubs in the country should be absorbed by a national entity. However, once the distinction is made between recreation leagues designed to help a player keep his legs or simply have fun and those leagues with the intention to develop their players, the U.S.S.F. should get serious about its intervention. There should be a path available to any player in the country who has the raw talent and the personal drive to pursue the sport as a career.
Any positive intervention by the U.S.S.F. will also have a noticeable almost immediate impact on the youth national teams. A brief example is the u-23 goalkeepers during the Olympic Qualifying tournament. Both Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson had been on MLS rosters for some time. Hamid was the number one but Johnson was not considered by behind by most pundits. When Hamid was injured Chicago Fire’s Johnson stepped up behind the posts. However, as anyone who has seen Johnson play knows, the goalkeeper can produce spectacular saves one moment and making horrifying mistakes the next. Now imagine for a second that there had been a unified national u-21 or u-22 league in place for the last five years.
Ryan Meara posted 31 shutouts as the goalkeeper for Fordham University. He was named as an all-conference player 3 times. During the summers of his college career Meara played for Long Island Rough Riders in 2009 and with Jersey Express in 2010 and 2011 (both in the PDL). In 2010 Meara earned 8 shutouts in 12 games for Jersey Express and was named PDL Goalkeeper of the Year out of all 67 teams in the league. Despite holding a 0.65 single season goal against average in 2011, a 0.87 goal against average in his college career, and posting a shutout in 42% of his games for Fordham University, Meara was never called into a youth national team camp.
There are people working for the U.S.S.F. whose job is to scout and identify talented players from age 14 up through 23. I understand that Fordham University and the Atlantic 10 Conference are not known for their level of competition, but the fact that a player as great as Meara was never on the national team’s radar indicates a problem in the system. His collegiate and PDL career numbers show that Meara was not a mediocre player and he impressed just about everyone at the 2012 MLS Combine.
Imagine if Ryan Meara, who was the leading candidate for MLS Rookie of the Year before his season ending hip injury, was at the very least in national team training camps pushing Hamid and Johnson to strive for more consistency. Even if Ryan Meara may have let in other shots that Johnson had stopped, no one argues that Meara would have made the same mistake as Johnson’s howler on an easy shot that eliminated the US against El Salvador.
A reformatted, restructured national college aged league would bring players like Ryan Meara into the national spotlight sooner and allow other players the opportunity to train in more professional settings. Players with the talent and potential of Ryan Meara should not fall through the cracks of the national team scouting programs. In a recent interview with Rob Stone, U.S. Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann spoke about the need to provide college aged players who aren’t ready to move onto the professional ranks a platform to grow as a player in a 10-month league. A league of this type would not be built overnight, but the groundwork is there to grow a national college-aged league in the next few years.