As soccer nations, the US and Canada are still very young. With that comes a lack of structure at the professional levels of the game, when compared to the more “mature” soccer nations of Europe.
There are fewer professional playing opportunities for the young North American players and a lack of clear pathways to play professionally. Major League Soccer (MLS) does provide some options for young players; however, with only 19 teams for all of the US and Canada, opportunities are limited.
MLS academies typically train 3-4 times/week with one game (which duplicates European academies) but this type of program is typically limited to players within a 1-1.5 hour drive time of the team’s training facilities. There is a similar drive-time restriction at various age-groups for young players in England attending professional club academies, but the difference is that there are 92 professional clubs in England, meaning that the majority of young players are within a relatively easy driving time. Canada launched it’s new professional league last year, however, there are no academy programs planned by these professional teams so there is no clear pathway, like Europe, from a youth academy program right through to the first team.
Since 2000, I have taken one 14-year-old player (Adam Bouchard) to Sevilla FC in Spain for a trial and two other players subsequently attended a four week program at Wolves. One of these players subsequently went on to attend the Swansea City academy. More recently, Theo Corbeanu signed for Wolves academy (U18’s), Stefan Mitrovic plays for Radnicki Nis in Serbia and David Bain has just returned from the Fleetwood International academy in England. All three players were identified in our International Player ID camp program.
After taking several groups of players over to train at academy programs in Europe I would conclude that young North American players have good technical ability and up to ages U12 can more than hold their own. A gap appears from U12-U14, though, on the male side of the game, as the young European players at these ages tend to understand the game better.
They take more responsibility during the game for their own performances and those around them. They demand the ball, have a vision for what they want to do, and are more capable of executing moves at a high tempo on a consistent basis. I would say, though, that North American female elite players of any age can, on average, hold their own against Europeans. However, this situation is now changing as the leading soccer nations in Europe are now investing significantly in the female game. We had two players travel over to Spain last year to train and another four players of our are looking to travel over to Europe, once the current coronavirus situation is resolved.
By the time North American players get to the U14 age the young European male players are quicker, stronger and much more physical in their play. On the “development” side of things, they also have sports scientists monitoring their development. In addition they have a clear pathway to a career in professional football and are hungry to succeed. We are still lacking most of these things in North American soccer.
In my opinion, there are a couple of key ingredients young North American players must have if they are to successfully pursue playing options in Europe:
- Accessibility to an EEC passport, through parents or perhaps grandparents, as this makes it easier for European clubs to sign them within European Union regulations
- Commitment to focusing on improving their technical skills up to U12 levels
- After U12, be in an environment that mirrors the European model for development — player development over winning
- Pursue opportunities to train at one of the professional club academies in Europe or receive instruction from academy staff of professional clubs in Canada. We host 4 International Player ID events each year and (prior to the recent coronavirus situation) had planned on Fleetwood Town, Glasgow Rangers and Benfica visiting this year.
- Competitive games focussed on improving soccer education versus winning games. Within these games, players should learn what it takes to play multiple positions
- Develop confidence in their ability and mental strength to challenge themselves in training and impose themselves in games
- Opportunities to travel and play in Europe for an extended time i.e. greater than 1 month. These opportunities may also combine education with training as part of an overall development model.
Everyone want’s to play professional football (soccer) ….only a select few will put the work in to achieve this goal
If our young players are good enough and follow this process I believe that they can create opportunities for themselves to play overseas. It is a very competitive environment in Europe. It is also more difficult for North American players to get signed as they do have to be significantly better than local players. But it is possible and with hard work and dedication, it can be achieved.
Just remember: “Hard work beats talent…especially when talent does not work hard”