If you grew up in America in the 80s and 90s, chances are much of your adolescent experience was similar to the rest of us Generation Y-ers. We lived in the neon colors of Nickelodeon, Gushers were manna from heaven (still are), the boundary of your neighborhood was the edge of the universe and adulthood seemed light-years away.
And like millions of our youth compatriots, we played soccer.
Soccer occupied a strange place in the ethos of 1990s American culture. It was the sport just about every kid played, yet played with resounding insouciance. The minivan pulled up in front of the field, we ran, we kicked the ball absentmindedly, we tripped over our own shoelaces, ate some orange slices, downed a CapriSun, high-fived the other team and piled back in the car in time for TGIF.
It was just what kids did before moving on to more physical, more “American” sports. It wasn’t on TV. We had no Michael Jordan equivalent to inspire us. Soccer was the waiting room, the boarding gate, the preamble to real sport.
However, that idea has been changing. The US has truly become a soccer nation in many respects. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Americans bought more tickets than any other country besides the host nation. Major League Soccer — the nation’s professional league — has grown at a steady rate, nearly doubling the number of franchises since its 1996 inaugural season with over half of those clubs playing in soccer-specific stadiums. In the past two decades, soccer on television has gone from virtually nonexistent to airing on ESPN, FoxSoccer and Gol TV. Just this past sunday, Fox aired Manchester United versus Arsenal on it’s main network, a first.
I could throw more numbers and statistics your way to convince you of the sport’s growth, or I could just show you this video of Americans freaking out to Landon Donovan’s last-gasp, game winning goal against Algeria at the previous World Cup:
Yet for all our resources, money, quality of life and all our growing enthusiasm for “the beautiful game,” the United States still finds itself wholly behind the likes of Europe and South America in cranking out world class footballers. For decades, we have relied on the same staid processes to develop players as other sports played here.
Kids join youth leagues or their parents shell out money for them to play on a club team. Game play is emphasized while technique and theory are neglected, leaving players fast and agile, but lacking the football savvy so richly possessed by our international counterparts. If a player is good enough, he moves on to college and supposedly hones his skills further against fiercer competition. Meanwhile, elite players in Europe have been training with the same clubs their idols play for, honing their skills and playing with and against the best youth products in their country. By the time someof them are 18, they aren’t shipping off to University, they’re suiting up for the first team.
However, the United States is also changing its tune to youth development. The United States Soccer Federation has created the Development Academy, a 78 club national youth league that emphasizes more training and less, but more competitive games. All MLS teams are involved. The idea is to bring up home-grown players who will eventually move up to play for the professional squad.
This website plans to explore this developing world of academy soccer through the lens of the New England Revolution’s Under-16 team.