What is our solution to the development of US pro soccer players?
Nothing startling, but some common sense. We have included comments that address the Querioz report where appropriate.
First and foremost, the owners of the MLS have to recognize the need for their involvement, and become committed to "pros should develop pros". Until the commitment is there nothing else matters.
This is where the Querioz report falls down. It seems like he doesn't think it will really happen, and some of his solutions try to cover this lack of pro commitment leading to inconsistent statements.
Second, in order to provide a domestic playing environment for developing players, the MLS will have to involve the USISL to a greater extent then current. To survive, the USISL clubs require financial assistance, or higher transfer fees, or flow of some portion of sponsor money to them. Or the MLS will have to fund their own equivalent development clubs. In our humble opinion it's much cheaper to convert what's there.
Furthermore, the owners will have to come up with a solution that includes the transition of developing players from the current USSF staff of volunteers to the pro ranks. Although it's implied, again, a weakness in Querioz's report.
And the MLS will have to either fund this effort themselves, or find a way to do so.
Trying to develop pros in the early stages of a players career ranks on the bottom of the risk/reward chart. With money tight it is suggested that pros leave any young players, <16 to the federation.
The USSF itself should recognize that developing pros is the business of pros and stick to improving the amateur and youth game. This is not a necessity for the pro development project to succeed, but it would ease the transition and provide synergy to the pros efforts. Follow the Querioz report up to about age 14. The 14-16 year olds might affiliate with a pro club in name for sharing the motivating factor of pro interest in their development, but is probably left to the future after the fast pay off players have been setup.
With these objectives in mind, let's look at some additional interim objectives and possible solutions. Note that our track of development is not as age related as most others suggest, but hinges around schooling.
The quickest payoff for setting up a pro development system in the US would be to concentrate on players in the 16-19 year old bracket.
Project 40 indicates MLS already recognizes the opportunity to get players after graduation from High School, and before a college commitment. Now they should pickup those players in their junior or senior HS years for preliminary evaluation, recruitment, and training. So there are two tracks here, HS grads, and pre-HS grads.
Up front we assume that the players in either track receive the necessary skill and tactical training to develop. What concerns us is the balance of the program
It will be up to the individual owner operators what they do with HS grads. Maybe they will contract development of players to a club in Argentina (admitted prejudice to Latin solutions versus Europe) Maybe they will keep them as true reserve teams with their regular players. Maybe they will park their players at a USISL affiliate. Each of the above is a different approach, and has different levels of expense.
We recommend that the individual owner/operators structure different Levels of support like colleges. A "full ride" may be the equivalent of the current Project 40 payments. Then a three-four step scale depending on how much the club wants to risk on an individual player. But for domestic solutions, MLS will have to seek out competitions that minimize travel to bus rides.
We will look at various levels of training support first for recent HS grads, and back into evaluation and recruitment, because a major aspect of an apprenticeship environment is dealing with subsistence and getting along in life. Implied is the MLS club works with it's USISL affiliate for the below items if players are indeed farmed out.
Subsistence includes housing. Local players should be no problem. For those requiring a warm bed get volunteers that can provide a room and partial board, with or without a low stipend. Or look for a nearby school with low enrollment and available housing and a cafeteria. Strike a deal. Get the player some part time courses maybe related to the lessons of life above.
And transportation. At least locate the player close enough to the club's training facility so he can get there by jogging, bike, bus, or clunker without a half tank of gas.
The players will have to know the rules. Provide more training than required. Include referee indoctrination for those that wish it. Then if they wash out as a player they can stay with the game. Querioz doesn't even mention this aspect of improving soccer in the US.
And a job, full or part time. College students work, why not players? You don't practice eight hours a day. The guy has to live. And the club, particularly a USISL club developing players as an independent effort, may not be have enough money for a "full scholarship". Plus partial salaries with an accompanying job, enable a club to spread their development money over more players.
Dealing with life. Isn't that part of college? Shouldn't the player go there? An over hyped objective for many young men. We've previously illustrated stats that about a third of HS grads don't go, or are not interested. Instead they go to work. Maybe as laborers, technicians, waiters, or some other honest hard working job. Nothing wrong with blue collar type of work, if that's what they are capable of. Pro soccer's origin lies in the blue collar area. So why shouldn't US players attempt to play professional soccer if they chose to do so? They can always go back to such jobs, maybe leveraging themselves into higher positions on the basis of their pro success.
MLS, quit worrying about the pundits. Point the critics wringing their hands over college education down the road of minor league baseball, movie starlets, and others in the entertainment business. If college is an option there is always Project 40.
But we can learn from what college offers besides a formal education.
Set up something that aids the young player in the development of life and social skills. For topics, look to the service academies. The officer candidates don't come in capable of dealing with life. They are raw recruits in the 17-19 year old bracket, albeit probably smarter than the average HS grad. They get multiple lectures in hygiene (the only course required by Congress), personal finances, dental care, insurance, and the rest of the subjects whose knowledge improves one's ability to deal with day to day life.
After a soccer career. Look to the players union in England, who have setup courses for a players post playing days. If you don't do it, you will get a players union that will be a thorn in your side. Set it up in advance.
What's the cost here. Minimal if it's done right. Sort out the topics, outline the curriculum for the course, develop handouts and get a list of local experts that can give the lectures, and occasional counsel. Clubs can probably even get some volunteers to do it. If not, there is not a lot of money involved. We are not talking 1000's of hours of courses. We are talking about developing an atmosphere that says you'll get more than pro soccer here. We take care of you.
Any MLS or USISL club can do this. They might have to hire a body to organize it, and do a road show (maintains the guise of single entity). They might be able to staff it from volunteers if the central MLS office did all of the preliminary "How to" manual and went around to individual clubs giving setup advice. But the point is the clubs and the league have established an atmosphere that is professional, organized, and to a young man and his parents or guardian, serious.
Which makes recruiting much easier for the younger track. They can see if they come aboard, there is a next step waiting for them.
Juniors and seniors in HS have generally completed most of their maturation process. It's easier to see who might be pro material than at 12, a major crap shoot. More importantly this age is getting a glimmer of what they want to do in life besides what their parents want them to do.
We advocate more recruitment from the blue collar population, but college is still a consideration for a HS junior. So give him a look. Design a program that takes him into a pro training environment, exposes him to the business, and maintains college eligibility at the end of a one or two year trial period.
Budget carefully. It should be possible to contribute to a college trust fund for each player without disturbing their amateur status (as has been the case with young tennis players). "X" dollars ($1,000 per year per player makes a good target) towards a college trust would be a good start. In that manner, a player who left the program after two years would have $2,000 (plus compounded interest) towards college AND still be eligible for a college scholarship on top of that. If that same player signed a pro contract for the reserve team, he would have that $2.000 plus his perks as a pro player (a pretty ideal part-time job with which to put oneself through college).
How can an MLS club, serving a major metro area, bring kids under it's belt?
Where possible, use existing MLS resources in each city. This includes practice fields, fax numbers, portable goals, phone numbers, training devices, secretaries, and so forth. Particularly for a start up program where there are possibly only two-four teams.
Then for players not located in the immediate vicinity, bring them to a single public HS to attend vs something like the Bolleteri Academy (unfortunately this is VERY expensive). So MLS or USISL club, drop your program down to where anyone can participate. You want the minorities and disadvantaged as well as the middle class. The poor ones have historically proven as more motivated to succeed. Don't believe us? Ask your wife about Barbara Walters interviews with Arnold Schwartzneger.
The local housing program previously described may also have to be adopted for kids that are outside short commutes or lack transportation. So get your kids into a local public High School close to your training facility. Check out the local rules. Sure the kids may lose their eligibility to compete in HS athletics. But that's the first sacrifice the kid will make, along with many others, in his pro career. No need for hysteria in front of media inquisition. Lot's of kids don't participate in HS athletics because they have to work.
Ideally, students involved in this program would be waived from having to participate in physical education. This would free up one period a day, ideally the last period that is normally reserved for student-athletes. This would make transportation even easier, and open up some time for tutoring.
Coordinate with local USSF clubs on identification of candidates up to the High School junior level. At that grade they should be entering the pro development program. Due to age variations, pro clubs may be dealing with anyone from 15-17. Work out some sort of cooperation with the club or league. Helping with younger kids, for example. Maybe having the club take a player back after a year if it is apparent that he won't make it, prefers college, or will be such a late bloomer it's better to park him back with the amateurs for a while. Whatever, some amateur coaches will be incensed and the pro club will have to live with some minority dissension.
Hold tryouts. There are always kids that go unnoticed by amateur coaches. Good professional scouts that can identify players early in their careers are hard to come by. Bring them in from Europe and Latin America. We would place this aspect of the development program higher than bringing in foreign coaches which should also be considered..
Development through competition for the younger track.
a. Age. Players should be able to play against and train with a mix of older players. This is what's missing from our current amateur ranks, and we are very surprised that Querioz missed this point. Also having the opportunity to work out against MLS starters once in awhile is not only motivating, but instructive. Another reason for keeping this track at the main club facilities.
b. Overseas travel is expensive, but sometimes necessary. MLS and USISL clubs should seek out ethnic leagues for inter-league games as an alternative. This not only helps domestic players see different styles, but aids in scouting the ethnic leagues themselves for good players. Could be very effective in major cities and along the Mexican border.
Hello pros or good by on HS graduation. Upon graduation from HS the player should be ready to enter the next pro track as previously described. For those that wash, take them down easy. College coaches will know that all players won't make it. Negotiate with some to hold open some slots. Take your best referee candidates into another pro development system. Etc.
Our feeling is that basic funding for player development should come from the owners pockets. We are sure Horowitz and some of the other owners do not run their companies without R&D expense. However, in view of dollars required for stadium expenses the owners may have a point. So in reverse order, here are some suggestions as to at least get programs off the ground.
a. Volunteers and part timers. Have the fans get into an announced player development program by calling for volunteers. They can help in the administration, provide housing, jobs, and all of the other services required as previously described. Clubs will be surprised as to who they could get with perks, part time wages, and particularly medical benefits.
b. Local sponsors. Let the player find his own sponsor. They do it in other sports. Just provide some assistance. Get sponsors on board with game perks. In would be helpful to the clubs if the national MLS office designed a program for how such sponsors could be solicited and how the kids might approach them. A local (small) sponsor likes the player's chances and provides some money for him to hit the tour. There could be some payback provisions out of future transfer fees or bonuses. But formalize it. Provide an afternoon instruction brief in how to do it. Round up a few sponsors. Even if there are no offers, they at least might provide a part time job.
c. National sponsors should be drawn into the program. Either putting their money directly into the pros via the USSF, or developing programs that work with fans.
Get additional funds from existing national sponsors via fans. Mastercard? We just received a card from a competitor with a soccer ball on it. No benefits other than a free ice chest (how about an Uncle Sam's T ?) and a picture of a soccer ball on the plastic to make us "feel good". As a sponsor why doesn't Mastercard issue a card to fans where "X" bucks go to the young player development program, instead of a GM discount or Macintosh computer? Do it through local banks and they can even identify which MLS or USISL club the money should go to. Same thing for other products. Cars? The month of July (pick one) A rebate of "X" bucks goes to player development for the club in your city. We don't really know what promotion with what sponsor will pay off or what won't. But you won't get anything until something is tried. The sponsors provide funds AND make money rather than pure publicity. Would make a great source of funds for a jump start described below.
IGM and USSF Foundation Funds.
Use funds from here or the USSF Foundation to jump start the program the first year. Half a mil for each club the first year, dropping to $250,000 the second, and $100,000 the last. Or do matching funds for three years. After all, the pros plough something like 4% of every international match they play back into the USSF coffers.
Owners. You can't negotiate with Dr. Bob until you make the commitment to get into development. Do it now.
And finally get fans to help, and make development pay off in increased attendance. Here's one idea to do it. There are probably others and variations.
The idea revolves around season ticket holders signing up for "Development Support" passes. Envision season ticket holders electing to support younger developing players by paying an extra $25. For this they would receive a special color coded season ticket that would entitle them to "free admission to the first half of double headers" to be played prior to the clubs regular season game.
Probably 8 or 10 games, mostly doubleheaders, but 1 or 2 of which might be played singly when the "varsity" team is out of town. Walk ups would be charged $5 so the season ticket holder in effect gets in for $2.50.
10,000 season ticket holders would be $250,000, enough to support approximately 20 players. Match the funds with local sponsors and half a million is a reasonable target enabling the club to also support two or three 16-17 year old teams and do a bit of travel.
10,000 season tickets is high as is 100% participation. So there is also a ladder option.
$25 ticket as above
$50 ticket as above, plus some "gift" (provided by sponsor), meet players
$100 ticket as above, plus some more or better "gifts", meet players plus "X" to be defined. Maybe voting on who should be promoted to the regular squad for visiting "friendlies" or the younger track tryouts.
Admittedly the initial take might be only $50-60 K on the low end, but it's better than a sharp stick in the eye. It also gets fans involved with who's in the farm system and how they are doing, ala baseball and reams of local publicity.
Another way of getting more fans to sign up might be for MLS to announce this program for the various clubs, and for each $50K the clubs receive from fans, they get a discovery player allocation for the pool of players they are training up to five. It would give the clubs more control, something most fans have been clamoring for. We are sure they are more creative thoughts out there so put on the thinking caps.
USISL. Owners you can copy all of the above for your own player development.
Also, look at some history. Examine the wars between Major League Baseball and the Minors, until the negotiated 1930's standard contract (believe it held together until fairly recently) on player trades, etc. Look at FIFA contracts. Can you sell players overseas, get better deals from the MLS, find local sponsors, etc.
D-4 and D-3 leagues. Pass a resolution that in 1999 the average age of your clubs must be 22. In 2000, 21, and in 2001, 20. Sure they will be minor cheating. But what will happen? You will be forced to go get younger players, get into the development business, and maybe make a buck by providing the development environment MLS clubs need for their graduating HS seniors. Due to the average you still need the younger players, but having a few old ones around provides both better training and competition environment. Thus you do it better than Querioz's <19 league.
And finally, give Uncle Marcos six months to get some deals on the table or find someone who can.
Some Brief remarks on the Querioz report.
We think there is some great stuff in here. He calls it like it should be on the US performance in WC '98. His youth stuff "Recreation Fundamentals (7-12)" seems right on. We still fight tooth and nail with coaches who want to play competitive eleven a side at age eight.
But his pro section falls down. Most of his pro comments are in the National <19 Youth League. Reading it seems like he doesn't believe the owners will ever do anything. So a lot of the report is taken up with raising the level of performance of the national federation programs.
It's true that a higher level of play by all, will give the US better players competing to enter the pro ranks. But this is very long term. We are afraid that this broad objective will be overshadowed by USSF members pointing at the large number of coaches, training centers, etc mentioned. We are afraid this will drain sponsor dollars that should go into the MLS.
Do not forget what that Coach Querioz also wrote:
" Utilizing a smaller number of participants through special training programs
and special competitive environments. This is the systematic, "quality" approach."
USSF members should realize Coach Querioz's background. He comes from an area, as do most Coaches like him, where the pros run the federation, not the amateurs. It is the pros that develop professional players that win World Cups, not the amateurs. We used basically amateurs for the last umpteen decades because we had no pros (relatively speaking). Now we do. Turn over pro development to them.
We are all for amateur play. We think that's what makes this a great soccer country. We think Nike should put the majority of it's money into amateurs. They will buy most of Nike's gear. But if we want to win the World Cup then we better jump start pro development with a much larger infusion then P40. Six million the first year, three million the second, and one and half the third would be an advance of roughly $10 million from the Foundation or IGM. After that it's some Nike dollars and matching funds from the owners.
Owners. To survive, you need US players more than the USSF. They can poop along like Denmark sending selected players overseas. But you need to get started. You're four years late now. Make the commitment. Jump it with the shoestring approach, keep trying to raise other funds as we suggested. Sweat some dollars out of Dr. Bob, Nike, and others if you can. Don't get hung up in the Querioz details. Hell JUST DO IT!
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