Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A lasting legacy of America's soccer summer

I spent the early part of Saturday afternoon with a few friends commemorating the unofficial beginning of the end of summer.

A lasting legacy of America's soccer summer

Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer in action at the MLS Homegrown Game earlier this month in Portland. (Jaime Valdez/USA Today Sports)
Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer in action at the MLS Homegrown Game earlier this month in Portland. (Jaime Valdez/USA Today Sports)

I spent the early part of Saturday afternoon with a few friends commemorating the unofficial beginning of the end of summer.

Though the English Premier League isn't the first European league of consequence to kick off its season, its opening weekend heralds the true start of the time of year when the Old Continent's clubs dominate the soccer landscape.

The World Cup has faded into our memories. So has the swath of weeks when the planet's top players graced American stages. Now those stars have returned home, allowing us only glimpses from afar.

But that sun-drenched stretch of time from mid-June through mid-August felt different this year, and not just because of the World Cup. The names who captured our collective imagination weren't the veterans who came here to sell shirts and go for a jog. They were young, rising stars - and more than ever, they were American.

More coverage
 
More soccer coverage from The Goalkeeper
 
Buy Philadelphia Union gear
 
2015 Philadelphia Union schedule
 
Major League Soccer national TV schedule
 
UEFA Champions League TV schedule
 
English Premier League TV schedule
 
U.S. games at Women's World Cup in prime time

Barely three months ago, Jurgen Klinsmann sent shockwaves across the landscape by dumping Landon Donovan, Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst from the U.S. national team. Instead of taking those thirty-somethings to Brazil, Klinsmann called upon 21-year-olds John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin and 19-year-old Julian Green.

Before the World Cup, those moves seemed like one of the biggest gambles in American soccer history. Yet whether by fortune or clairvoyance, all three selections paid a return that would make the croupiers at Caesar's Palace blush.

Major League Soccer has enjoyed an injection of youthful dynamism too. In the first half-and-change of the season, some of the league's most talked-about names were on the border of legal drinking age.

New England Revolution wing wizard Diego Fagundez and Vancouver Whitecaps speeder Kekuta Manneh are 19. Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil is 20. This season's cult hero, Chivas USA striker Erick "Cubo" Torres, is 21. Yedlin joined him on July 9, and barely a month later commanded a $4 million transfer fee from English power Tottenham Hotspur.

Spurs' rival, Arsenal, brought its own variation on the theme when they visited New York. For all the star power that Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey brought to Red Bull Arena, the brightest spotlight shone on 17-year-old German-American Gedion Zelalem.

A few days after that game, I headed west for my annual journey along the Pacific Coast. This year, travels took me to four worthy spectacles.

I started in the Bay Area, where the San Jose Earthquakes and over 48,000 fans christened Levi's Stadium with a win over the Seattle Sounders. Then it was off to Portland for the inaugural MLS Homegrown Game, and the annual All-Star Game. Both spectacles showcased showcased Soccer City, USA at its finest. I ended the trip in Vancouver, watching the high-flying Whitecaps shut down reigning champion Sporting Kansas City.

The week-and-a-half trip was great fun (and I'll admit that I mixed a bit of vacation time in with the time in press boxes). You've all likely seen the stories I wrote along the way, whether here on the blog or in the Inquirer and Daily News.

I saved my best story for last, though. I wanted to write at length about the importance of the Homegrown Game, and I wanted to take the time to put all my thoughts about it together.

Not so long ago, the game wouldn't have been imaginable, and not just because the construction of MLS academies is only a recent phenomenon. The league's genuine emphasis on homegrown talent is recent too. Just as importantly, those players are being developed to win games in MLS, not just to be sold for profit as assets.

That is yet another sign of American soccer's increasingly robust health. And to me, it is just as important as the gltitering stadiums that have risen across MLS in recent years, and the league's forthcoming big-money TV deal.

MLS fans got to see the fruits of their league's labor in the Homegrown Game. Among the notable players on the Homegrown team's roster  were Columbus' Will Trapp (age 21), Chicago's Harrison Shipp (22) and Real Salt Lake's Carlos Salcedo (20).

It would have been nice if there had been two Homegrown teams on the field instead of one. Credit to the Portland Timbers for enlisting their U-23 team (which has quite a bit of its own talent) to help get the event off the ground. But in future years the game deserves an East vs. West format, ideally with one or two players from every MLS club.

That goal is shared by Alfonso Mondelo, MLS' director of player programs. The former New York/New Jersey MetroStars and Tampa Bay Mutiny manager coached the Homegrown team and was a key player in getting the game set up.

"If we can get to that point, it would make a lot of sense," Mondelo said. "As our clubs begin to develop more of these players, and they begin to get more playing time, it would be fantastic if we could do East-West."

Achieving that goal may require another year or two of developing talent, but more importantly, it will require a more prominent place on the All-Star Week schedule. This year's game was shoehorned into a Monday night between two league games on Sunday and a Montréal Impact CONCACAF Champions League game on Tuesday.

All three contests forced withdrawals of players from the Homegrown roster. And I know of at least one other club that simply opted its players out.

"Some clubs were more receptive to letting their players play than others," Mondelo admitted. "I'm just trying to give them an opportunity to showcase their talents."

Hopefully it won't take too much cajoling to calm the skeptics.

"As more and more of these players begin to develop, there will be more opportunities for players to come in and play in these types of games," Mondelo said. "Will we get one from every team? I think it's impossible - when we get to 21 and 24 teams, it might not be practical, and we also want to showcase the best talent."

(For the record, interim Union manager Jim Curtin is very much on board. He gets the game's importance, not least because of his time in charge of the club's academy.)

Judging from opinions I heard after the game, it seems that MLS headquarters has the will. So do the players who took part in the exhibition. One of them was Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer, who got a rare and much-deserved chance to step into the national spotlight by playing in the game.

"I was really happy to get the opportunity to come out here and play," Pfeffer said. "It's really cool to bring together a whole bunch of great homegrown players. We had a great time."

It didn't hurt that Pfeffer got to play with old friends from the U.S. youth national team system, such as San Jose's Tommy Thompson and Los Angeles' Bradford Jamieson IV. They could be together again - along with Gil, Trapp and others - when the next Olympics qualifying cycle begins.

Trapp has high expectations for a group that he says is "different than the traditional American soccer players."

"Growing up, a lot of guys were physical, big, fast athletic," he said. "These guys are smaller, technical, good with the ball, smart soccer players, which I think is a credit to how these academies have been developing kids. Hopefully it keeps growing over the next five to 10 years, so we have this wave and a next wave of players who will take our places."

It says a lot about the growth of American soccer - and the growth of American soccer players - that Trapp has that kind of perspective at his age.

This summer has shown that the future of the world's game in this country is brighter than it has ever been. As that future becomes the present, here's hoping that spectacles like the Homegrown Game continue to shine a spotlight on players who blend the eras together.

About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
Latest Videos:
Also on Philly.com:
Stay Connected