When 14-year-old Freddy Adu became the youngest player to sign a professional contract in the Major League Soccer draft in 2004, it was expected to be the beginning of a new era for men’s soccer in the United States.
At the same time, the country’s authorities are building on the success of their European counterparts and trying to revolutionize the way the country develops its most talented young players.
Adu, a prodigy who was supposedly destined to become great, has only played 17 times for his country so far in his career. More recently, he left Swedish third division club Osterlen last month without playing a single game.
On the contrary, the ambition formulated by American football leaders is being achieved: This season, more American players than ever are participating in the Champions League.
Among them, Weston McKenney impressed at Juventus, Sergino Dest excelled with Barcelona at the last 16 despite being eliminated by Paris Saint-Germain, Tyler Adams scored the goal that sent RB Leipzig to the semi-finals last year, and Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund’s Giovanni Reina are both promising talents.
A total of nine players, all under the age of 25, have competed at the elite level in Europe, and their emergence comes at the right time as the United States will join Canada and Mexico in hosting the 2026 World Cup.
According to the former president of the United States Soccer Federation, Carlos Cordeiro, the goal is to put soccer on a new and sustainable path for future generations.
The last time the United States hosted the men’s World Cup, in 1994, an average of 68,626 spectators attended each game. In total, over 3.5 million people watched the tournament, making it the most watched tournament of all time and whetting the appetite for the game in a country that had previously only participated in four of the 14 tournaments.
In exchange for hosting the tournament, Fifa demanded that the organizers host a professional league in the United States, and Major League Soccer was formed in 1996. His legacy? A generation of players from MLS clubs who think they can make the tournament a success this time around.
I get goosebumps just thinking about it, the Leipzig midfielder, who went through the New York Red Bulls academy, told Sport Adams.
We will have experience, played a lot of games and hopefully international experience, and we will be ready to fight.
Chris Richards, on loan from Bayern Munich to Hoffenheim, adds: Winning the World Cup on home soil is something we are looking forward to at the moment.
The hosts were eliminated by Brazil in the round of 16 at the 1994 World Cup.
An exciting new generation of young players has emerged from the United States, and the major European clubs have taken notice.
The search for talent continued in the last transfer window: FC Dallas’ 19-year-old Brian Reynolds has signed with Roma and highly-rated Brenden Aaronson has transferred from the Philadelphia Union to Red Bull Salzburg.
A European scout told Sport that the North American market has always been on clubs’ radar, but that there are now modern, athletic players in the region who can handle high intensity demands and have the right motivation and focus.
Although there was a lot of interest in the ’94 World Cup, Larry Sunderland, director of player development for MLS Cincinnati and coach of the U.S. U16 and U17 teams, believes the turning point in talent development came 14 years ago.
Player development is a matter of patience, he told Sport. We took player development seriously with the launch of the United States Soccer Development Academy in 2007.
We started playing with the best of the best. It defined our path, our pyramid, and preferred free-to-play scenarios over paid ones more than ever. At the highest level it has really encouraged clubs to invest in players.
It has facilitated an orderly flow of talent to MLS clubs by allowing the top talents to train and play together for 10 months of the year, providing better training and a more professional environment. Particular attention has been paid to clubs for the development of young players.
They have invested heavily in developing players, infrastructure and staff to MLS standards, Sunderland said.
This includes the training of coaches by the French Football Federation, whose own elite academy structure was set up ten years before the first World Cup victory in 1998 in Clairefontaine.
A top development expert in the US was sent to the French federation’s training school – we learned the French methodology, Sunderland added. With these things and the idea of patience, you can see it’s all paying off now.
U.S. men’s team coach Gregg Berhalter agrees. He told radio station SiriusXM that last year’s programme was all about youth football in the country.
At the national age group level, this has led to an increase in the number of players. According to Sunderland, US Soccer has expanded its scouting network to complement this, and has trained scouts to identify specific players who fit the bill.
MLS clubs are investing and US Soccer is spending more time and resources identifying talent, Sunderland said.
American sports tend to produce physical athletes first – I think we’ve only just begun to know what a football player looks like, how he moves, and that’s different from a soccer player or an American basketball player. We’re getting better at this.
|Weston McKenney (Juventus)||Giovanni Reina (Borussia Dortmund)|
|Sergino Dest and Conrad de la Fuente (Barcelona)||Christian Pulisic (Chelsea)|
|Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig)||Chris Richards (Bayern Munich)|
|Zach Steffen (Manchester City)||Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge)|
The level of the MLS is getting better, but the feeling remains that American players need to be in Europe to reach their potential.
Adams, who turned 22 last month, is one of the most experienced players on the junior team. He cites midfielder McKenney’s daily training sessions with Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus and Desta and Conrad de la Fuente’s with Lionel Messi at Barcelona.
It’s just the confidence, the belief in our abilities – the clubs accept us and develop us, Adams said. We learn new ideas, new philosophies and we just get better.
The young Americans now have such a presence on the continent that when defender Richards made his international debut in November, 23 members of the team played for European clubs – and the same number were called up for this week’s matches against Jamaica and Northern Ireland.
After the first day it started to click, we realized that if we kept playing together and did what we did at our clubs, we could come back and get him in the national team in a few years, Richards said.
That makes us pioneers. It shows the kids at home that they can do it too, if they just try their best. We don’t have to limit ourselves to playing in the U.S., college football or MLS, we can do more than that.
The Bundesliga is a particular breeding ground for American talent, including Adams, Richards and Reina, but also Dortmund striker Josh Sargent of Werder Bremen and 20-year-old Matthew Hoppe of Schalke, who has blossomed this season.
Richards’ move to Bayern Munich was the result of a deal with FC Dallas that saw all six players from the club train with the European champions in January, while Adams came to Leipzig from his Red Bull colleagues in New York.
Last year, FC Cincinnati partnered with Hoffenheim to share the brand’s knowledge, talent, business and social responsibility.
But it’s not just German clubs that have established themselves in North America. Atletico Madrid, Canada’s new Atletico Ottawa, Manchester City and New York City are part of the City Football Group, while Rangers has a strategic partnership with US second division club Orange County.
According to this link, the Scottish giants will sign Francis Jacobs when he is 16. That year, he became the midfielder to replace Ada as the youngest professional in U.S. soccer history when he signed with the USL championship club at the age of 14 years, 4 months and 29 days.
Sergino Dest, a fullback from, left Ajax Barcelona last year.
In some leagues, the American influence is more evident in the boardrooms and Moneyball-like recruiting systems. The Italian Serie A has seen a recent surge in investment: Milan, Fiorentina, Roma, Parma and La Spezia have all been bought by American owners.
According to a scout working in Italian soccer, American owners want to develop clubs and stadiums in cities where they can sell their products abroad, while observing the scouting and recruiting methods of North American sports.
But why are American clubs willing to let their best players go to Europe?
The last time a World Cup was held in the United States, there was no MLS. As a result, attracting and developing talent is a relatively new phenomenon for most franchises, and until recently, clubs were losing their best young players for nothing.
We’re learning now that we can contract young players and encourage them to go to Europe, but we’re taking money out of our asses, Sunderland said.
It’s the opposite of not signing a player, waiting until we think he’s really ready, and in the meantime having a European club come in and buy him.
According to Sunderland, it took a change in mentality, especially among the players’ parents, to move away from the traditional American sports model of high school, college and then professional football.
Most are now more open to having their sons sign professional contracts at a younger age while continuing their education.
But getting players to go to Europe isn’t just about compensating clubs for their talent. MLS franchises have increasing financial leeway, as evidenced by the arrival of Brazilian striker Brenner from Cincinnati FC of Sao Paulo for almost £10 million in February.
We are better at learning football, Sunderland added. We move players around the world with great success and that can only benefit the national team and the MLS.
Chris Richards was part of the US team that reached the quarterfinals of the 2019 Under 20 World Cup.
One of the challenges that the game faces is competing against the traditional sports of the country to win the hearts of the youth. MLS clubs, for example, are pushing to add players to their academies at a young age.
Adams, who is also a talented basketball player, was 11 years old when he joined the New York Red Bulls Academy, but he believes that the popularity of the sport has grown over the past decade and that the success of current American players will only encourage more children to play.
That’s more the case than ever because of the growth of the MLS and the strength of the league, which can sell players to some of the best clubs in the world right now, he says.
Kids won’t just say: Yeah, I turn on the TV and watch basketball or American football. A lot of people now want to watch the Champions League and our clubs’ games at the weekend, and I think that’s very important.
International teammate Richards grew up in Alabama and his father played basketball overseas, but although he excelled in several sports, he was the only one of his peers who aspired to a football career.
He earned a spot in the U.S. Olympic development program, and his passion for soccer was sparked by a visit to Boca Juniors’ La Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires.
I was always the underdog because I played football – I was probably one of two kids in my class growing up in Alabama, he said.
The experience of football life in Argentina is something we don’t have at home. You hear about Boca Juniors, its tradition and culture, but when you get the chance to experience it for yourself, you can’t compare it to anything else.
The matches are regularly televised across the United States, the MLS is adding new players, and the spectator count is good, so interest is high.
You see how young people talk: I can play basketball, football or baseball, but I can also play football and be professional, Sunderland said.
However, there was a hitch in American football: The youth development program, which was the foundation of success, had to be discontinued due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, the MLS has set up its own league to give academies a platform to develop players, and Sunderland believes the talent pipeline will continue.
There are so many things we need to improve, so many structural things in the United States that we haven’t addressed yet, he added.
This is a big moment for us. But what’s really exciting is that we’re only on the surface.
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