By Charles Boehm - INDIANAPOLIS, IN (Jan 25, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Lately, American soccer focuses on exporting its most promising players to more demanding professional environments. What if importing talent is the way of the future?
In 1998, Major League Soccer tweaked the format of its third All-Star Game to feature a “USA vs. World” contest between the league’s top domestic and foreign performers, instead of the “East vs. West” construct which ruled for most of the event’s early history.
Paced by US National Teamers Brian McBride, Cobi Jones and Alexi Lalas, the USA side won 6-1 at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl. In the aftermath of a difficult World Cup ‘098, perhaps, on some level, this was a statement game. The format wouldn’t stick. Soon, the All-Star Game became another ritualized extension of North American soccer’s constant self-evaluation against the outside world, evolving into an annual “challenge” against a blue-chip foreign club. To promote it, MLS appeals to the same types of loyalties we normally associate with international soccer, complicated in years when the visiting team features a US National Team player.
Looking down the roster of that ‘98 World squad, it wouldn’t be controversial to suggest that its modern equivalent would fare considerably better in such a contest nowadays (journeymen Jan Eriksson and Geoff Aunger made the starting XI, for example). MLS’s level of overseas talent got better over the years, and not only via highly visible mechanisms like Designated Players.
Foreign players take many avenues to MLS, including mid-level veterans (think of names like Dave van den Bergh, Joel Lindpere) and opportunity-chasing NCAA imports (Dane Richards and Patrick Nyarko, for example). As I saw last week during the 2013 MLS Combine and SuperDraft process that played out in South Florida and central Indiana, it’s even happening in our own youth development structures.
As the US game’s profile grows globally, it becomes more of a destination for up-and-comers. That’s changing - perhaps subtly, perhaps transformatively, but sooner than later - our entire system, from youth clubs to national teams.
This year’s seven-man Generation adidas class featured three foreign players and another two who would easily qualify for international eligibility through their fathers’ Latin American homelands. Every round of the draft process, both “Super” and supplemental, provided teams with international options.
One GA selection left West Africa at age 15 to seek his footballing fortune in the United States. Another, a supplemental draft pick, escaped an orphan’s life on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria and survived a human trafficking scam in Italy to reach New York’s JFK Airport - in possession of no English skills and another man’s passport.
Several other members of this year's crop left small developing nations to our south in search of education or a bigger stage for their raw talents, or simply respite from conflict, violence, or intolerance. As you might expect, they tend to bring attributes that the US and Canadian youth systems don't produce in great numbers. Even, perhaps especially, college soccer is not immune to this. Many of this year's prominent NCAA blue-chippers are immigrants or the sons of immigrants.
I know what you’re thinking. Everyone knows the draft is shrinking in importance, not growing. College ball’s flaws are widely known, with youth academies are rapidly rising to nudge them aside and streamline the talent pipeline.
Still, that assumes that the draft process itself will remain static when it's clearly already begun to evolve. For several years, young prospects from abroad take part in the combine process alongside college kids, as a centralized league takes advantage of its existing player evaluation structures to help illuminate the acquisition process. Even a few disjointed scrimmages on a Ft. Lauderdale cricket field offer preferable metrics to scouting by word of mouth or Youtube clips.
As keen-eyed journalist Graham Parker put it to me at the combine, MLS no longer lives in "splendid isolation." Increasing integration with the wider world leads to an increasing inward tide of player movement, and at ever-younger ages. This would not only balance the inevitable departures of more polished pros from the League, but also deepen National Team pools.
France's waves of immigration helped their national team win a World Cup in 1998. The diversity that is Britain's legacy of empire contributed to the rise of the English Premier League. With that in mind, North America's continued growth into a land of soccer opportunity stands to reap major rewards of its own.
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